A good story about a hero requires a solid villain. This is a simple truth, easily observed in countless heroic adventures that have fallen flat on the screen or in a novel because the villain was lacking (Red Sonja is commonly mocked in our house as one example of this). Oddly, the heroes can often get away with being boilerplate-dragonslayers, but if the villain isn’t top notch, then even deep, complex, compelling heroes might not be enough to save the plot.
Why is this?
Perhaps it is because the evil in the world around us IS real, and terrifying, and that is what we expect to find an answer to in a story containing heroes. If we can look out our windows and see that the evil in the story doesn’t come anywhere close to the evil we see outside, then we know that no matter what the heroes do to defeat their evil, it won’t be a fix for ours.
Putting whether or not that is the answer aside, the particular question a writer really needs an answer to is what makes a villain satisfactory. What ephemeral something produces a villain that we meet and say, “Yeah, he’s evil. I believe him.” so that we buy into everything else the story has to say?
I believe I found some answers in the character of the Kingpin from Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix. If you haven’t already seen this show then do so immediately. Netflix is free for a month the first time you sign up, and you’ll only have to burn through thirteen episodes to reach a satisfactory denouement. The whole series is well written, fairly low on the fantasy side, and should appeal even to people who don’t care much about superheroes.
Go now. Watch it. Learn something about good and evil.
Now, if you have seen the show, or don’t care about a few spoilers, then follow me and I’ll discuss what I learned about villainy from the Kingpin.
The Kingpin, one Wilson Fisk, is written and acted as a surprisingly deep character, getting a large amount of screen time all to himself, a romance plot that is critical to his character development and, hey, character development. As you get to know him you will see that he is surprisingly vulnerable, perhaps fragile, a trait that invites the viewer to actually want to help him. Borrowing from TV Tropes I might say he borders on being a wooby at points in how much he cries out to be loved. Yet, at the same time, he demonstrates time and time again that he is extremely dangerous and not only has no compunctions against taking out his enemy with his bare hands but is entirely capable of doing it.
Over the course of the series we find out that he is extremely intelligent, speaking several languages that westerners consider hard to learn (Chinese is NOT considered an easy language), and is quite adept at devising complex maneuvers and plots, and executing them. He is also very self-conscious around women, has a deep and believable friendship with his right-hand man (The Dragon. Look it up on TVTropes), and a desire to protect his loved ones that leads him to do some very horrible things. He also, most importantly, has a vision for the city, a beautiful vision, one involving plentiful jobs, good housing for people, streets free from crime, and so on. He believes in this vision, and he gets other people to believe in it too.
Throughout the course of trying to bring his vision about he kills, no, murders, a LOT of people (like, many busloads), blows up sections of the city, drives poor folk out of their homes, betrays colleagues, turns the police into an institute for enforcing injustice (no snarky comments), and does any number of other monstrous things, proving by the end that he not just does the monstrous but that he is a monster (in fact, he even decides this about himself at the end). Yet, at every point his drives are things that we understand, and even approve of when they’re in check.
This is his success as a villain. Wilson Fisk does terrible, horrible evil for all the same reasons we would.
And this, of course, is why he is important to us. Because he represents the evil in us. Wilson Fisk is the desire in every man, and woman, to make a perfect world for ourselves or our loved ones by any means available, regardless of the cost to others. He doesn’t do horrible things because he wants to, but because he believes it necessary to accomplish his vision of a perfect world. By selling Fisk’s kind of evil effectively, the writers are able to make us question our own willingness to make a perfect world by any means necessary, and challenge it with the decisions of the hero (Daredevil/Matt Murdock). As Fisk and Murdock battle it out, we get to take part in their inner battles, finding out why Fisk goes all the way evil, and how Murdock avoids stepping over the same line in battling him (or how he gets back when he does cross the line), as well as in their outer battles, where we find out something about how Fisk’s kind of evil is defeated.
But none of that can happen unless the series’ creators SELL Wilson Fisk as a villain.
So how do they do it?
I see three things (because three is convenient).
First, they make him a person. They do this with the backstory, revealed carefully, a piece at a time, and not in some info dump, and by making that backstory integral to his drives and actions throughout the series. There are things that he does and things that he wears at the very beginning that are only explained later, and that even change when he goes through significant character development. Additionally, they provide him with believable friends, family, and love interest, all of whom have an actual say in what he does, like real family and friends. In his case, this is probably the most important thing they do, as it gives his evil that personal angle that allows the hero/villain dialogue to speak to our own personal evil desires and not just the evil of those murdering jerks over in organization “x”.
Second, the creators make him tempting (tempting, not sexy). By tempting, I mean that they make it so that his evil has a pull to it. One way they do this is by showing just how awful Hell’s Kitchen really is, always run down, filled with junkies and crime and slums and danger. Seeing this, Fisk’s vision of a remade Hell’s Kitchen then becomes attractive. Every once in a while we catch ourselves thinking (well, I caught myself thinking), “if he could pull it off, maybe it would be worth it…” Another way they do this is by making him seem fair at times, such as when his best friend dies and he beats one of his own men for not going with the friend, but then stops at the urging of another character and has the beaten man cared for, accepting that the man was just following orders. Normal people would consider even the beating out of order, but the typical villain has a habit of blowing the head off anyone who annoys him. That Wilson doesn’t do this makes him exceptional, and far more servable (is that a word?)
Elsewhere he is weak, almost vulnerable, and this draws us to like him and want to understand him. Perhaps most importantly, he is passionate and eloquent, and for most of the series always seems to genuinely believe that what he is doing will be for the best in the end, inviting us to join him or assuring us that if we just get out of his way we’ll be safe. This is important, because a villain without a coherent vision and personal presentation that pulls at us, or at least pulls at the people around him, is a villain that makes us wonder how he got his following in the first place (unless we’re talking the psychotic solo villain. Wilson is not this.)
Third, the creators make him frightening. They do this the most obvious way, which, strangely, many story writers often fail at, by making him brutally effective at doing evil. He is good at scheming, manipulating, leading, organizing and delegating. He pulls the trigger without hesitation when he needs to, and generally doesn’t when he doesn’t need to, in theory saving himself unneeded trouble.
Further, he has control of large portions of all the organizations that make ordinary, civilized people (such as those viewing the program) feel safe. Frankly, that is one of the most terrifying things about him, as it’s not too clear how you fight someone who owns the legal structure and can corrupt it to his own ends at will.
Additionally, and as I already mentioned, they also make him physically imposing, and on multiple occasions he demonstrates that he is both willing and capable of killing people personally. This makes the idea of being in the same room with him disconcerting, as we know that he wouldn’t need help to get rid of us if we crossed him.
Since he is frightening, we can easily equate him with the evils we find frightening in our own lives and become emotionally involved in the hero’s battles to defeat him.
All this combines to make a villain that is terrifying yet attractive, and most of all believable. And because of this, the story works, and speaks powerfully to our hearts about how to face evil. Do this with your own villains, and hopefully you will accomplish the same (or at least get your readers to pay attention to what your hero has to say).