Conan raced up the tower steps but stopped at the closed door. A small placard hung over the knob. Conan’s eyes traced over the crude lettering: "Out to lunch, be back in one hour. Thoth-Amon." Conan grunted, sat down on the step, placed this blade across his knees, and waited.
With no disrespect to Ben Bova, I completely disagree with his assertion that no villain is needed in a story. Even if you dissolve the differences into a sludge of moral-equivalence, the villain – or at least an antagonist – is a necessity in story-telling. Bova admits as much, and uses the term antagonist. I take it a little further: a villain is not only needed, but desired.
Without the villain, the protagonist will achieve his goal in the most tedious of ways and completely drain the story of excitement. What if Sauron had been on vacation that month? If Frodo had simply marched across Middle Earth for a few weeks, chucked the ring in the volcano, and went home, nobody would remember Tolkein but his grandchildren. And I think most authors want the reader to identify with the protagonist, not those in opposition.
Aside from discussion of good and evil, what makes a good villain? How does a villain achieve a legendary status in the minds of readers? What makes a good villain stand out?
Is it the motivation? Well, some villains crave power, such as the aforementioned Sauron. Rule the world, rule the universe, or, in extreme cases, the multiverse. Using thirst for power can go horribly wrong for an author because it risks making the villain one-dimensional and/or a cliche. I think it is easier to get away with that kind of elemental direction with a non-mortal presence, such as a god or an alien. What’s all that power do for a mortal, anyway? Some villains crave money. Those kind of creeps usually occupy the second tier of fantasy villain ranks. These are the weasels that sell out the hero. For some reason, they often meet their comeuppance in a more gruesome way than the main villain, which makes little sense to me. Some bad guys want … ahem, women.
As tempting as it is, I can’t say that’s what makes it for me. It’s more than the villain’s goals.
Is it the redemption factor, maybe? A skinny kid on track to be a hero to his people but goes another route. He is directly and indirectly responsible for many deaths but in the end he makes the right decision and saves the day. That’s Darth Vader in a nutshell but would fit any number of other villains. Rasitlin Majere. Elric of Melnibone (even though he was a protagonist, he was a bad dude). The Phantom of the Opera.
Nope. Charisma helps a reader identify with the villain but that alone doesn’t make them memorable.
Kooky appearance? Nah. Strange powers? Meh. Sharp one-liners? Well …, no, not that.
So, what then?
To me, for a villain to be effective, the author has to find a way to unnerve the reader. (Yes, I know I could have just said that instead of all the above. Shut up, I’m writing here.) The villain does not have to be the hand-rubbing, cackling guy twirling the end of his mustache, as Bova contemptuously dismisses villains. I agree with Bova that far; those villains are silly. But evil does exist in this world and people do bad things. Something about the villain has to make the reader uncomfortable. Honestly, was anyone completely comfortable watching Hannibal Lector talk to Clarice Starling through the glass?
Here are some others that made me cringe, in a good memorable way:
– The Kurgan, The Highlander. Not just a jerk but something about his demeanor and intense gaze made me dislike and even fear him.
– Baron Meliadus, Moorcock’s Runestaff series.. He and his compatriots in Gran Bretan ravaged Europe, raping, killing, and burning. A single passage buried in the text revealed why. Not for power, not for money …. but because they were bored. That chilled me.
– Randall Flagg, Stephen King’s The Stand. So nonchalant, with a dry sense of humor. But as his plans frayed, so did his psychotic temper, which resulted in a lot of blood. His conversation about the moon was disturbing.
– The Joker, Heath Ledger’s version. ‘Nuff said.
This is what I strive for in my writing. I want my reader to really dislike my villain. Shades of gray are all right; the antagonist does not have to be a complete bastard, without any redeeming qualities.
But there is never any question who the bad guy(s) are. Nor should there be.