Some time ago, in fiction having villains become villains because they’re truly awful people or for simple, self-gratifying goals (power for power’s sake, easy cash, immediate satisfaction…) was perfectly fine and many villains from that time are still extremely popular today.

But today they’re immediately marked as a sign of poor writing skills, bad/annoying characters, and they’re expected to always have good qualities, complexities, well-thought out goals…

And while I myself greatly prefer the later category too, I still think getting somewhat rid of the former is a loss of flavor, diversity, and possible teachings (as some IRL people really ARE that awful and without excuse), but I don’t see any way to make them more palatable for the present public.

Is there a way to make such characters feel credible and valid? Can a character be uncomplicated and deeply awful without twirling his mustache?

– Tom

Hi Tom,

Great question. To answer this, I’ve separated out several different types of villains, so I don’t conflate one villain trait with another.

  1. Villains with simple, self-gratifying goals such as cash and power
  2. Villains who are 100% evil with no other dimensions to their personality
  3. Villains who have no strengths or candy

Audiences have no problem with #1. They often want nuance and complexity, but that doesn’t require villains to have elaborate or non-selfish goals. They can be polite and donate to charity but still want to control others or horde everything for themselves.

It’s easy to mix this up with being a one-dimensional mustache-twirler, because so many popular stories use a noble motivation to give their villains some redeeming quality or make them more complex. The overuse of this tactic has actually led to certain types of villains that are themselves becoming cliche, such as the leader of an oppressed group becoming ruthless in the pursuit of equality and justice. This evil-oppressed-group pattern is a form of gray-washing, because it takes an issue that is actually black and white and treats it like it’s gray.

How about #2 then? Do audiences hate these evil mustache-twirlers? Much of the time, but not always. The biggest problem with these characters is that they’re uninteresting – but that can be fixed. You just have to give the character a bunch of novelty. The terminator antagonists from the terminator movies, the Joker, and Darth Vader all have features designed to increase their novelty. It also helps to make these villains mysterious. This makes them scarier and doesn’t give the audience any time to see how boring they are. Sauron is a great example.

Finally we get to #3. These are villains who the author tries to make detestable in every single manner. That means not only are they evil, but they’re not good at anything, and just to add some lookism to the mix, they’re ugly too. If you look back at the villains people treasure today, I doubt you’ll find many of these. That’s because not only are they caricatures, but they don’t work very well for stories. Their incompetence means they struggle to be threatening, so they aren’t effective antagonists. Instead, they’re just annoying. They also suggest the author seriously hates whoever they’re supposed to represent, which in some cases reveals author bigotry.

The third villain is something you just don’t want in your story, and much of the time it sends unsavory messages too. There may be a few rare exceptions where you might use it for groups you really have to avoid glorifying, like Nazis. Even then, you should skip the lookism, and do you actually need to include Nazis in the story?

Altogether, I don’t think we’ve lost anything. I think we just have higher standards for villain portrayal.

Happy writing!

Keep the answer engine fueled by becoming a patron today. Want to ask something? Submit your question here.