Creating a Good Villain

As contradictory as the term is, a good villain is a hard thing to craft. Oh sure, crafting a scooby-doo monster in a mask is easy or making a villain as evil as possible is not a difficult task, but to craft a character that we remember? To make a villain that makes us both revile him, and yet still sympathize with him is probably one of those most difficult things to write into a story. Let me give you an example of one of the world’s most famous villains:

A man to aspire to!

Yes, Darth Vader. Even if you’ve never seen the Star Wars movies you’ve more than likely both heard of him and seen his image in popular culture. The only other villain to create such a lasting impression on human culture is the Devil himself, and it took until Dante’s Inferno to really flesh out that character. So why is it a villain from a nerd-loved science fiction movie has made such an impact? Because he is a classic villain, uncomplicated and understandable, who is menacing without being over-the-top nor so evil he becomes a caricature. Some of this is due to the superb voice acting of James Earl Jones, and of course the actor who wore the suit, but honestly the core of it lies in the writing.

See Darth Vader is a very simple villain, but like Napoleon once said, “In war, the simplest maneuvers are the best”   and that certainly holds true for Vader. They could have given Vader a deep complexity, gave him a brooding madness that made his motives as impenetrable as granite. If they had done so, however, I can almost guarantee that he wouldn’t be nearly so well known because all but a few (namely those with twisted minds themselves, like myself!) would have been able to sympathize with him. And the simple truth is this: if the audience doesn’t sympathize with a character, they have no vested interest in him. Vader manages to avoid this problem with a very simple and elegant solution, he remains human. Sure, in the movie he’s a badass killer cyborg but his character remains strongly human.

He has a clear motivation, complete control of the galaxy, and that motivation is the driving force behind all of his actions. The Death Star is critical to the subjugation of the universe, so he pursues Princess Leia and the Rebels to retrieve the plans. The Rebellion is an intolerable threat to the peace and stability of his Empire, and so he crushes the Rebel base on Hoth with brutal efficiency. All of this follows a very simple logical plan, nothing too extravagant, no labyrinthine plans of galactic domination, it’s all very simple and out in the open. Yet for all of his evil tendencies, like force-choking all of his subordinates for minor infractions, he still retains a very human quality:

Internal conflict. It’s simple human nature that we fight within ourselves, constantly battling with the separate sides of our personalities. Or at least I hope to god that it’s true, because if it’s not I need serious help! But back to Vader, his attempts to find Luke Skywalker is at first a somewhat perplexing objective given to him by the enigmatic emperor. I mean sure he blew up the Death Star, but really he’s just one guy how does that further the goals of the empire? Well because Luke turns out to be his son, and like any alienated father he wants to reconnect with him. Even though Vader is given several opportunities to outright kill Luke, he hesitates, and as Luke himself states “I feel the conflict within you”. Vader is constantly battling his darker side, attempting to break the hold the emperor has over him and in the end Vader succeeds. He redeems himself, and even if it was for just a brief moment before his death,Vader was free. A positive catharsis will always touch people more emotionally than the simple destruction of an enemy.

It’s all very simple, but don’t think all my praise means that Star Wars is the epitome of good writing, however it does serve as an important lesson in how audiences react to characters. Now let’s contrast Vader, and another villain from a popular movie trilogy.

Who remembers the name of the main villain from The Lord of the Rings?

I’m pretty sure that those who’ve only seen the movie once probably have a hard time remembering, especially if you’ve never read the books. Maybe people might know that Sauron was the giant eyeball thing in the movie, but as for his name, his motives or his character as a whole? Probably not.

For those who did know his name here’s another question: What was his motivation?

If you answered to regain the One Ring, then your partially right, because the ring was merely a means to an end. Thought it’s never well specified in the movies, or the books for that matter, the Ring would allow Sauron to assume physical form again and then presumably conquer Middle-Earth. But why would he want to? What would he want it for?

No, simply saying he wants power isn’t enough of a motivation. His army, the savage Orcs, seemed to kill and burn everything in their path. If at the end of the war he emerged victorious, what would be left? All the people of Middle-earth would either be dead or in hiding. The Orcs themselves don’t seem to possess any culture or even any common hobbies beyond murder so they’re not exactly the best candidate for creating a new civilization. But okay, let’s run with it, Sauron wins. Now what?

Well, uh....I never really thought about it.

Yeah, exactly. Orcs are running around the country, everything is under his control. Yay? What was he going to do next? I suppose he could start building more giant towers but I don’t really see the point. And what were the Orcs going to do after the war was over, with no enemies to fight?

So...what now, guys?

Yeah, it would basically be Sauron wandering alone across a blasted hellscape devoid of life. How boring would that be? Would you want to rule over that? Yeah, that’s what I thought. See conquering the world is always a means to an end, never the end itself. Alexander the Great wanted to conquer the world, and bring renown, riches and power to Macedonia. Sauron has killed everyone, so there’s no renown…I suppose he could loot the cities but then what? He has nothing to spend it on, the Orcs don’t get paid or even have a bartering system…and power over what? Like I said before Middle-Earth is now just a smoking ruin. Napoleon wanted to make a new French Empire and made sure his name echoed through history. Without civilization, there is no history for Sauron to echo through, and being immortal kind of makes it redundant. Vader and the Emperor wanted to rule a galactic empire, ruling over countless billions of lives. Now, theoretically they could have used the Death Star to destroy every planet in the universe, but that wouldn’t achieve their goal would it? They would just be stuck in a universe-sized asteroid field, just like Sauron is now stuck in a world devoid of life. Except Sauron doesn’t even have another person to talk to.

I'm so lonely...

So you know what? In the end Sauron should be thanking the Fellowship of the ring, because at least they stopped him from becoming bored to death, right? They allowed Sauron to die doing what he loved, conquering! He died in a massive blaze of glory and his name would be remembered throughout the history of middle-earth. So really, his plan failing is probably the best thing that could have happened!

And just to head off the inevitable, yes I know that Tolkein went more in depth into Sauron’s character in the Silmarillion, but you know what? That doesn’t count. You can’t write out a nearly one thousand page long epic, and then come back and say “Wait, wait, wait! I forgot, here, read this, it’s the villains motivations!”. No, either fit it into the original manuscript or forget it! You know Tolkein you could have cut out at least some of the huge page long descriptions of trees and cities and at least tried to shoehorn in some character exposition for the poor villain. Maybe that’s why Sauron wanted to conquer the world, he was just a misunderstood youth whose father, Tolkein, wouldn’t pay him any attention. Then in a downward spiral of drug use and alcoholism he hatched an absurd plan for world domination.

Why are my hands so BIG!?


  1. I liked Sauron. I liked the way he wasn’t really in the books but just a mentioned character. Gave him more mystery and some how made him more menacing. He’s used kinda the same way some World War 2 films use Hitler, never seen you just know he’s the Big Bad.

    1. That’s an interesting point. It’s been a while since I read the books, and the post was mostly based on the movies. Plus I never expected anyone other than my friends/family to actually end up reading this blog :P, maybe I’ll update my thoughts on this later.

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  4. Wow, I’m late to this party, just came across this article and thought it was really good! I see you wrote it a long time ago and perhaps opinions and thoughts change, but I would argue you have some perspective missing…

    Yes, Darth Vader is a more relatable villain than Sauron, and therefore a seemingly “better” antagonist for the story, but I would argue that LOTR has a better villain than SW because Sauron is *not* really the antagonist. I mean, he is in name and everything, but the real villain of the story is The Ring, which is a proxy for temptation and the corrupting influence of power, which is a reflection of the character themselves.

    Yes, the ring is created by, and belongs to, Sauron and blah blah blah… but there’s a reason Sauron barely features in the story at all (quite a few reasons I suppose), but it’s because the characters battle against themselves and their desire to take power for themselves. Each handle it differently, some fall, some step aside, some grapple and fumble, some refuse to even engage and know they would be corrupted.

    To me, that’s one of the major reasons that LOTR endures. The characters battle themselves. Our hero is a small and seemingly simple person, but actually is the only one who can bring victory because he doesn’t desire power over other living beings. And, heck, even Frodo succumbs to the ring’s corruption in the end, Gollum has to forcibly take the ring and slip into the fire.

    It’s not something I can think of that is often portrayed well in epic stories like these, usually the villains are more of a “person” like Vader. All I can think is those scenes where characters go into a dream and are offered all their temptations, but then they snap out and say NO! They’re so strong, yay! If only real human beings could battle their addictions, vices, behaviours like that.

    Vader is the bad dude, no matter what he offers Luke isn’t going to buy it, we know that. Doesn’t make him a poor villain, like you point out he’s great. Human temptation and the corrupting influence of power are much harder to fight and much more complex, we can see characters falling for that. Not necessarily when a big dude in black armour with a scary voice and a magic sword offers it to them, but when our heros battle themselves? Yeah, we can see them failing. How many tragic heroes failed the quest due to love?

    Personally, I find that much more deep, intriguing and with a lot more potential than a traditional villain like Vader. Depends on the story being told I suppose, both function well for what they do in their respective stories. I just think you’re missing a part of the bigger picture, and through that I would argue that the villain from LOTR is better.

    1. First of all thanks for writing in, I love when people find my writing years later and still want to engage with it. And it’s funny you should mention that thoughts change, because my thoughts on this subject have changed significantly and I agree with many of the things you said here. I’ve been meaning to revisit some of the articles and do follow ups on how my views have changed as I’ve gotten older and experienced more storytelling.

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