Every villain is the hero of his own story.
Every hero is the villain of someone’s story.
Think about it. What is needed to tell a good story? A goal, some motivation, and a conflict.
Frodo wants to get to Mordor to destroy the Ring of Power. His motivation is to save Middle Earth from devastation under Sauron’s rule. The conflict is that the ring is warping his mind as time goes by and making him more its servant.
But what if it was the other way around? Could the story be told from the other side? Sauron made that ring. It’s his, by all rights. Why shouldn’t he have it? He was the one powerful enough to make it. He wants his ring back. He worked hard to make it, used up some some of his best power to create it, and so he deserves it. At the very least, it was his gold that went into it. It’s not his fault the weaklings of the other races couldn’t make rings as strong as his. No one else will help him get it back, so he has his servant Saruman create a race of orcs to help him retrieve it. But conflict arises! A band of nine feeble imbeciles thinks they can get the ring to Mount Doom and “cast it back into the fiery chasm from whence it came.” Those people don’t understand…
And what about the Wicked Witch of the West? Dorothy was a menace to order and the Oz way of life. She was in Oz….well, she was barely even in Oz when she started trouble. She killedsomeone. She stole slippers that she was completely ignorant of, let herself be used by that smirky witch in the ghastly pick gown…It was a total conspiracy of interlopers. That Wizard had no business being in Oz to begin with, never mind ruling it. Who could blame a girl for trying to take back her sister’s shoes and returning the land of Oz to its rightful order? The Wicked Witch gave gainful employment to flying monkeys, she kept people in line, and she didn’t even have a chance to explain why she wanted the shoes before she was melted in such a vile way (And Gregory Maguire wrote the story of the Wicked Witch of the West in his novel, Wicked).
Khan in Star Trek, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in Star Wars, Loki in Avengers, Voldemort in Harry Potter. All of these characters are villains. Some of them resonate with us more than others, though.
I used the example of Sauron above, because he is a villain most of us are familiar with. But how many of us can say, “Wow, Sauron was such an awesome bad guy!” Not many, I’ll wager. The thing is (and I’m going to focus here on the Lord of the Rings, not the the rest of the history of Middle Earth, because that’s what most readers are familiar with), we don’t actually get to see much of Sauron. Heck, we don’t see Sauron at all. There is just this concept of an eye that overlooks Middle Earth, not even as a fully realized construct, like Peter Jackson depicts him, but just this…entity. Everyone in the book seemed afraid of him, but really, did he embody fear to you? I know I wasn’t really afraid of him. I just liked the heroes, so I wanted them to win.
Now let’s think about a villain like Darth Vader, Voldemort, or Khan. We learn enough about these characters to know some of their back stories. They are not good people by any stretch. But the thing is, to themselves and their followers, they are heroes. They are fighting for something. We can see how Anakin Skywalker was in a situation where he loved someone, and she was his life. When he was worried about her survival, right at the time he was most vulnerable, he was comforted by someone who claimed they had an answer for him, and felt like he was betrayed or at least grossly misunderstood by those who were supposed to be his allies. The events that followed (especially the younglings) seemed horrid to those of us with a moral compass, but most of us felt something for Anakin. Pity, loathing, sympathy, sadness, hate. The same with Voldemort or Khan. They all had their reasons for doing what they did. The very things that made them horrid people also in some way made them sympathetic in a way. I don’t agree with the things that Voldemort did, but in a way, I can see how he was created, how he is a result of the things that happened to him. He made terrible choices, but what if he had a better situation when he was growing up? What if Dumbledore had found him sooner? When you were a teen, don’t you remember feeling betrayed, picked on, being singled out, bullied?
Now, I’m not saying, “gosh these guys are misunderstood!” Far from it. What I am suggesting, however, is that we look at these villains that bring such powerful feelings to us. The best villains are usually those who are developed in a way that make them three dimensional, that make them seem like real people (or ogres, or aliens…). People are not usually just purely evil, with no motivations for their actions. They usually have a reason for what they do. If you are writing a story, try to give your villain something to care about. Show them fighting for it. You don’t have to make them good people, but show the reader why they are bad, not just that they are bad. That is how you create an antagonist who resonates with readers long after they are finished with the book.
Who are some of your favorite villains and anti-heroes?
Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy stories where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her fiction has appeared in Circle Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, and in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis. She's the co-editor of the anthology MECH: Age of Steel and editor of Hath No Fury, and she is a blogger and general b*tch monkey at The Once and Future Podcast.