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:
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?
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?
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.
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.