As I start writing my senior thesis — a science fiction story involving space travel, sentient supercomputers, and communists — I’ve been forced to ask myself a question: what makes a good villain? We love villains in our stories. We are obsessed with them. The Joker, Darth Vader, Loki, Voldemort, Freddie Krueger, and Pennywise all have been or still are cultural obsessions. But what makes them compelling? What makes us, as viewers, love the villains just as much as the heroes?
For me, it comes down to the complexities of their motivations. Just like any other character, a villain has to have the proper motivations in order for their deeds, no matter how horrible, to make sense. There are plenty of viable motivations out there: greed, vengeance, lust for power, anarchism, benevolence. Some are good, most are bad — and not bad in the good way.
My favorite villainous motivation is benevolence: when a villain commits their various atrocities in the name of bettering the human race or some other organization. The example I put forward is Richmond Valentine from “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” (Beware, there are spoilers ahead).
Valentine decides to kill off humanity, with the exception of a select few, to stop the rampant destruction of the planet by climate change. Obviously, this example is a bit over-the-top, but the idea remains the same. This grotesque act of destruction is for the benefit of humanity, and while Valentine jokes about being the villain of the film in a look-at-me-I’m-so-meta kind of way, he does not seem to actually consider himself a villain.
Anarchism can be a powerful motivator, but it is a hard one to write and portray. The best example of this is Batman’s archnemesis, the Joker. The point that many versions of the Joker have made is this: anyone is capable of committing the same atrocities that he does, it just takes one bad day to push them over the edge. Joker’s random acts of violence and terror are not for money, not for power, not for any other reason except that he can. He has to do these things, because he is the antithesis to Batman’s form of justice.
Vengeance may be the most common of the villainous motivators, but that certainly does not make it the best one. Because of its frequency, it has become overused and quite boring. The standard now usually has something to do with family: “You turned my family against me and now I’m going to destroy the world and all you hold dear.” Yeah, yeah, sit down, Darth Vader. We get it. You were way cooler before the prequels.
Motivation is the most important thing when writing — that goes doubly so when writing villains. A well thought-out, defined motivation makes for a compelling villain. A lazy or overused motivation makes for a boring villain — this seems to be the problem that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been running into lately. Their villains have been boring because they do not display a good enough motivation to do the generic bad things they do. If the MCU wants more positive critical reception, they need to sit down and have a long think about the motivations of their various antagonists. That really goes for anyone looking to write a story: a good motivation produces better bad guys.