What Makes a Good Villain?

Every now and then, as I am rewriting Archangel, I get inspired to write specific blogs. Frankly, I absolutely love the villain that I created to face off against Uriel in my book. He is complex, deep, relatable, everything that a good character is. But it kind of hit me the other day: a villain is not just another character. A good antagonist receives just as much care and attention as the protagonist. They are a balance to each other, the yin and the yang, and often it will be their opposite attributes that will make or break a story.

So what makes a good villain? I love oxymorons.

Let’s be clear going forward: this is a very subjective topic. Even with my own ideas, a good antagonist varies depending on how the story unfolds. Take the Harry Potter series, for example. The villain is Voldemort, though we don’t actually see him, the real him, until the fourth installment. But he is so evil, has done so much to harm others, that his infamy drives his character even when he isn’t around. I have taken a different approach.

To me, a villain needs three things to be a solid addition to a story. First, they need to be balanced with your protagonist. Second, the conflict they create needs to be believable and contribute to the plot. Third, and most importantly in my opinion, the reader needs to be able to empathize with them.

If your protagonist and antagonist are not balanced, then it will not make for interesting conflict. It is as simple as that. Either one will continue to steamroll the other, or conflict would not even be worth the time of the stronger one. Much like a person either ignores or crushes an ant, unbalanced conflict is not worth writing or reading about. If the antagonist and protagonist cannot keep each other on their toes, cannot push each other to their limits, then they are not a good match.

And if the antagonist’s actions aren’t both believable and meaningful, it doesn’t matter how balanced they are compared to your hero. If your villain just sort of shows up, gets in a fight, and then disappears, they are not a true villain. They are an enemy and that is very different. A street thug is not a villain. Villains and antagonists are not the same as enemies. Rather than just be a conflict piece, they are the river rushing against your protagonist, doing whatever they can to halt their progress, advance their own agenda, and drive things towards a goal that we do not want. Just as your protagonist goes on a journey, so too should your antagonist in their own way.

Finally, and most vital, a good villain should garner empathy from the readers. This is a relatively new shift in perspective for both readers and writers. Traditional villains might just be cold killing machines, completely detached from social bonds and entirely evil. But that doesn’t fly anymore. Time has proven that villains who we can understand, who have motives that make us think “huh, maybe I would do the same thing” are the most impactful. We feel for the antagonist who lost a child, even if his actions horrify us. We mourn the soldier whose mind is still on the battlefield, even if she does terrible things. The real villain is the one we can see ourselves being.

Does that mean there is no place for the big monsters? For the world-eaters and the extinction-bringers? Absolutely not. Those types of antagonists have their own appropriate settings, stories that are crafted to include them. They are the war machines, the necromancers and the dragons. They are the gods and the titans. But are they a villain, or just another plot piece?

Be sure to leave a comment below to let me know what you think makes a good villain. Are they like I described, or are you more partial to the monsters? And get ready, in the next month or two you will be introduced to the villain of Archangel when I release Chapter Three!

Until next time.