I think the villain is more important to the story than the hero. What? Really. The hero must conform to some standards, but the villain can be anything at all. As a writer I have much more latitude with the villain. Furthermore, the better the villain, so to speak, the more the hero can excel and the better the story.
Watching the ‘Outlander’ series on television, I was struck by the character of Black Jack Randall. As the story progresses, this character gets more and more evil. Each time he returns, he becomes more of a monster. I’m certain this was intentional on the part of Diana Gabaldon.
She’s not the first writer to demand much of the villains. Charles Dickens created fascinating despicable ones. Consider David Copperfield. In that book his first villain was Murdstone the father-in-law. But that wasn’t enough for Dickens. He created Uriah Heap to threaten his hero’s love interest in the most diabolical manner. Finally, there’s Steerforth, who seems at first to be the quintessential hero, but lacks the moral fiber. Dickens needed so many villains because his heroes were unappealing.
Other writers have created multiple villains to match a single hero. From comic books to crime stories the hero survives to return in the next installment, but the villain must be defeated.
However, a good villain is a complicated creation because he/she must serve multiple purposes within the story. First, the villain’s actions usually create the causative incident that starts the story. Where would Sleeping Beauty be if the witch hadn’t attended the christening? Snow White would never have met the dwarfs if her step-mother had acted like Mary Poppins.
Furthermore, the villain must come into conflict with the hero. So the villain must have strong needs and desires that drive him forward. That could be a lust for money, a lust for a woman, or a desire for revenge. Often writers make their villain insane. Hannibal Lector comes to mind.
Finally, the villain acts as a foil to the hero. The villains’ looks, actions, feelings, exist to create a contrast. The sour makes the sweet taste even stronger.
However, there’s a trap in all of this. No man is a villain in his own mind. We are all the good guys. To make the best villain, you must create a character that starts the ball rolling, keeps interfering, had strong visible emotions, and is different to the hero, without creating an inhuman monster.
Well, if you want to create an inhuman monster, think of Stephen King’s novel ‘It’. He creates a mysterious monster that appears as a clown. However, the bullies, led by Henry Bowers, are the more oppressive villains. If you do create an inhuman monster, then don’t make it a person. Do you remember the shark in ‘Jaws’ by Peter Benchley?
If you want to create a great story, start with a great villain.
To see some of my short stories go to www.edwardmcdermott.net