Theory of Villains: 4 Traits

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Last week, I had a fun discussion with some friends on Facebook about what makes a good villain. After reading the feedback I went away with some new and specific ideas.

I now have a Theory of Villains ver. 1.0.

The context: I’m playing Jigger Craigin in Carousel with the Las Cruces Symphony. He is a villain, and I’m hoping he has the traits of being a good villain, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what that meant.

First, it’s important to answer this question: what is a villain?

This seems intuitive, but it took me some time. Here’s the best I can approximate: a villain is a character who is motivated to make an overriding choice to destroy or otherwise harm another major character or characters and acts on that choice.

It’s that simple and that specific. As a list:

  1. Character
  2. Motivation
  3. Choice to do harm for duration of plot (super objective)
  4. Action

Must there be a villain?

No. We can all list beloved fictional works that have no villain but instead have characters making choices that lead to the harm of another character. Life is full of people who hurt others without intentional malice but just out of some weakness or accident. So theater, opera, film and literature are full of those characters.

But we all – probably – know someone who truly does harm other people intentionally. So theater, opera, film and literature are full of those people as well.

The Character

A villain has to be a character. It can’t be an idea (society, disease, existence, etc.). If the goal is social criticism then there must be some personification of that.

For example, in The Fountainhead it’s clear that Ayn Rand has a beef with society at large. But she focuses the worst traits into the character of Ellsworth Toohey. Whether you agree with Rand’s worldview or not, Toohey is effective as a villain because he can show us directly what traits Rand finds so repulsive. 

Another instance is Abigail in The Crucible. While the play is obvious social commentary, Abigail exploits the society’s flaws for her malicious ends.

The Motivation

The villain will feel justified in his/her own mind to act the way he/she does, and sometimes that motivation can be awful enough that the audience sympathizes to a point. There’s plenty of tragedy in the lives of villains.

In the original Facebook discussion, some people answering my question emphasized the need to sympathize with the villain. This can even go so far as to turn the villain himself into a tragic character. While this isn’t always necessary, it does make some heroes their own villain and expands the definition of a villain.

But often, the motivation won’t inspire sympathy in the audience. Sometimes it’s childish envy or overblown self pity. Sometimes the villain is a psychopath, and their motivation is incomprehensible. For example, Heath Ledger’s Joker may have some tragic past, but he uses it to confuse his victims like a cuttlefish doing its pre-strike glow, rather than providing some actual backstory.

Nevertheless, the villain is always justified to himself.

The Choice to Harm

Their reaction to their motivation goes too far. They become obsessed, and they make a choice to hurt someone deliberately.

Agency

A villain has agency, that is, the ability to choose. The primary example might be Iago from Othello. Why? He chooses to hurt Othello and as many of Othello’s closest loved ones as possible.

Another example is Khan from Star Trek II. His overruling purpose is to hurt or kill Kirk and everyone on the Enterprise. Khan is willing to sacrifice his entire – albeit small – society and family in the name of revenge. It’s a choice. His line “And I wish to go on … hurting you” – before Kirk’s infamous “Khaaaaaan!” – is the telltale sign that he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Monsters Aren’t Villains

A villain is different from a monster. For examples, I don’t believe that the Terminator or King Kong are villains.

Monsters don’t make choices, they do what’s in their nature or they act out of incomplete and confused information. The Terminators were instructed by the intelligent Skynet to act, and – being computers – they acted. King Kong is so large that – especially in an unnatural environment – he can’t help but destroy things.

A more challenging case exists for Frankenstein’s monster. The monster could be called a villain since it does gain some measure of self-awareness and chooses to hurt Frankenstein in various ways. These choices are clearly motivated but are obsessive and overblown.

And yet, the monster can be perceived as an overgrown child, and we have a hard time ascribing the same level of responsibility to a child as to an adult. Absent his enormous body, he wouldn’t be able to harm in the same way, and it can be argued that it was created to harm: what else could a hideous 8 foot tall man with the maturity of a child who was rejected at birth do but hurt people intentionally or otherwise?

It’s a more grey area, but I still come down on the side of Frankenstein’s monster not being a villain.

Action

The villain acts and propels the plot by forcing reactions.

The Best Action?

Ask yourself these questions:

Why is Darth Vader so frightening? How does Hagen defeat Siegfried? How does Scarpia convince Tosca? What does the Ring (in LOTR and the Ring Cycle) inspire its owners to do? How does J. R. Ewing get people to do what he wants? How does Iago convince Othello to murder his wife?  Why does Khan put worms into people’s ears? How does Lady Macbeth convince her husband to kill? Which of Voldemort’s powers does Harry fear the most in the final three books?

Mind control. You could also call it manipulation, but I like mind control because it cuts to the core of what the villain is doing. In supernatural villains, this might involve some form of magic that forces a character to act a certain way. Non-superpowered humans are con artists who play on human failings to steer someone down a dangerous path. Sometimes it’s a mixture of both.

The goal is to make other people do the villain’s work for them. At the very least the protagonist must feel like they cannot fully trust themselves or those around them. At the worst, the protagonist makes a choice that advances the villain’s goal.

Back to Iago: he’s a con artist of the highest order. He uses no violence on his own behalf but instead persuades his victims to attack one another. He is not only sincere but is amongst the most trusted of Othello’s inner circle. “Honest Iago” and all that.

Here he is contemplating his con:

The best villains are often extremely charming, which assists the con. J.R. Ewing in Dallas is charming even as he delivers insults or ruins someone’s life. Many villains have lots of sex appeal as a part of their technique. Jarreth the Goblin King (David Bowie) in Labyrinth is this kind of villain. His sex appeal works against and confuses the protagonist even while it fascinates the audience. This heightens the danger because the girl is clearly an inappropriate target for a man his age.

Check him out in this video, which my girlfriend claims has seduced many female viewers:

The prevalent use of mind control by villains fascinates me. It’s very human to fear our own minds. We’re not particularly strong animals, and our minds are our greatest asset. A good villain must make our strengths work against us.

To reiterate: charm, sincerity, sex appeal and all that are techniques the villain uses to control the audience’s and the other character’s perceptions of them. They are trying to fool everyone. As Leslie responded on Facebook:

“I’ve known a few real life con artists and their strongest characteristic is sincerity… Con artists don’t “fake” sincerity. They seem to have a little glitch in their thinking pattern that causes them to actually believe their own fiction.”

If you love a villain, then they have fooled you and controlled your opinion of them. Which is fine for the audience. Who doesn’t love a charming villain?

Good Villains Raise the Stakes

Now that we know what a villain is, how can we identify a good villain? Raise the stakes:

  1. Character ——> More interesting given circumstances, more unusual character
  2. Motivation —–> Greater hurt suffered by villain
  3. Choice to harm —–> Bigger choice in higher risk situations, dirty (betrayal, corruption)
  4. Action —–> More effective, more capable character (mind control/manipulation, intellect, social power, wealth, magic, physical strength), reasonable chance of success (Iago is a better villain than Don John in Much Ado About Nothing partially because he’s much more effective)

Let’s Get Dangerous

This is ver 1.0, so any other thoughts are welcome (even if you just want to let me know your favorite villains). But this has already helped me clarify my choices during this rehearsal process, and I hope it will help someone else when they play a villain.

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Comments

  1. says

    Such a neat idea for a post.

    A few of my favorite villains:

    Bill Sikes
    the Sheriff of Nottingham (he’s just doing his job… or is he?)
    Norman Bates (he wouldn’t hurt a fly!)
    Eve Harrington
    Baby Jane
    Captain Hook
    The White Witch of Narnia
    Samuel Whiskers

    And monsters:

    HAL 9000
    Mr. Hyde

    We may be discussing this for years.

  2. Emma says

    I’ve found your comment on Iago not only interesting but really helpful for my English coursework! So thank you!

    But, I’ve also been thinking about Amir in the Kite Runner. Do we class him as a villain?
    Indeed, he leaves his friend to be raped but does that make him a villain or just a coward?

    Emma

    • Ian Sidden says

      Thank you! I’m glad it helped you.

      I haven’t read The Kite Runner, but just so I could give you an answer I went ahead and read a detailed synopsis. It sounds like Assef is the closest thing to a villain since he is the rapist and motivates the act as a way to hurt Amir. Amir sounds like he made a weak choice in response to the rape, but he didn’t want it to happen.