science-fiction, writing, technology
What makes a great fictional antihero? The ones we love to hate, the ones that make us fearful for the fate of the hero, or even make us fascinated by their own story. What makes Hannibal Lecter or Annie Wilkes or Count Dracula so interesting and effective as the forces of evil in their respective stories?
There seem to be two extremes and two main camps in terms of the types of villains that readers like to encounter. I’ll call them the ultimate evil and the lost soul.
The ultimate evil is somehow intrinsically bad, the source of evil in their world. We may not know their history or motivation, they may be timeless. Sauron and Morgoth are good examples from Tolkein’s writings. There is no good in them, no possibility of change.
The lost soul is a villain who could easily have been a hero. They made a bad choice, or were wronged in some way, and so they are driven by a need for retribution or are simply misguided or deceived. But there is still hope for them, there are still glimpses of good and maybe the chance of redemption.
Some move between the extremes of course. As we are introduced to them, Sylar from Heroes and Darth Vadar both seem to be inherently evil and almost invincible. Then we learn more about them, what has turned them into the characters they have become. Of course occasionally in turns out that the villain that seemed full of evil intent was actually the real hero all along…
If you are creating a villain for your story, here are a few thoughts to consider. Not all characteristics are necessary and many great villains will have other traits too, but these are some that stand out for me:
Evenly matched against the hero. We don’t want out hero to win (or lose) too quickly or easily. So there probably needs to be many encounters and struggles. They may have similar strengths, such as the battling intellects of Holmes and Moriarty. Or they may come from a similar background. The villain may even be a reflection of the hero, how the hero may have turned out if they had made different decisions.
Powerful. The more powerful they seem, the more we fear for the hero. Their power could just be over the hero (Wilkes in Misery) or growing (Sylar) or mystical (Dracula), and we don’t know their weaknesses, at least until later in the story.
Understandable motives. It’s good to know what is driving the villain. Is it a greed for more power, or revenge for some earlier hurt? Do they blame someone for their misfortunate, or actually believe they are doing the right thing and everyone else is misguided?
Complex. As with any good character, there should be depth to their personality and their history, something to surprise us occasionally.
Memorable. It could be a strong personality trait, or their appearance, a habit, an expression, a weapon or particular mutation. Something unique that makes the villain as instantly recognisable as sound of the breath of Darth Vadar.
Relentless. Perhaps even more fearful than a powerful enemy is a relentless one. You just know that the Terminator is never going to give up.
Unpredictable. It’s no good if the hero can always predict what his nemesis will do and worse if the reader can predict it too.
One final suggestion. Don’t just concentrate on the evil acts that the villain is carrying out, but also on the other options they are rejecting, the good that they are choosing to abandon. There is always a choice. Like any of your characters, once you get to know them and their motives I’m sure you’ll find them starting to make their own decisions as you write.