As a cisgendered male, born and raised in the UK, James Bond was a huge part of my childhood. Whenever there’s a Bond film on the telly, I’ll maybe watch for a few minutes, inevitably surprised that I remember what’s going on. I’ll never be able to name the film, but I’ll remember that this is the bit where Bond spots the bad guy because the bad guy doesn’t know that only a beast would eat red wine with fish. It’s strange: I don’t even really like Bond. I only watched his films because I was a child, and this was back before the Marvel Cinematic Universe existed. You had to watch something. But despite that, every Bond film lingers in my head as a vague, muzzy kind of recollection, like the faintly-remembered smell of the house I grew up in, or the cake I ate for my eight birthday.
After Roger Moore died, I was hit by the same sort of sadness one always feels when a fondly-remembered actor passes. Hit by that strange pang of not-quite-sadness that comes with every reminder that You Too Shall Pass, I decided to rewatch ‘Moonraker’. Critics deride it as the silliest of Bond films, made only to cash in on the nascent ‘Star Wars’ boom, but you know what?
It’s pretty good.
Yeah, it’s goofy as balls, but the villain’s plot is kind of amazing.
I mean, normally in Bond, there’s some Russian guy and he’s working through about seven different fronts because he’s going to use nukes to kickstart a resurgence of the Soviet Union and
Sorry, drifted off there.
Where was I?
Oh yeah. Bond villain plans. They’re almost always bollocks.
But Drax’s plan is just balls-to-the-wall mental. He’s going to fly a collection of ‘perfect humans’ into space, poison the entire planet to death, then return to the same New Eden every supervillain monologues about eventually.
It’s completely bonkers. But at the same time, you just have to admire the fact it’s not the same old shit.
Not to mention Michael Lonsdale is obviously LOVING the role. He barely once cracks a facial expression, but the way he delivers lines like “Look after Mr. Bond. See that some harm comes to him.” Or better: “Mr. Bond, you defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you.” Or my personal favourite: “James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.”
Seriously, the film might be silly and stupid and feature a ridonkulous space battle between Drax’s master race and the US army’s somehow already prepped for zero-G combat space marines… But Lonsdale gives a definitive performance in How To Play A Bond Villain.
I think Drax might even be a better villain than the much-vaunted Blofeld.
See, after I finished ‘Moonraker’, I decided I might as well finally check out the latest Bond offering. I’d been putting off watching ‘Spectre’ because ugh, James Bond? Who still watches that?
‘Skyfall’ was superb, sure, but that was clearly a one-off accident – you only get to give a character one origin story, and ‘Skyfall’ makes the most of Bond’s. The other Craig films had been the usual tedious clusterfrak of fragile masculinity and tedious male power fantasies and honestly, I just couldn’t be bothered.
But, fresh with the thrill of having partially enjoyed a Bond film, I fired up ‘Spectre’ and oh my Glob why am I watching this overlong mess? Seriously, what is even happening? Who’s this guy? Is anything meaningful going to happen?
Blofeld is Bond’s brother?
Oh, just fuck off.
Sorry if I spoiled the fact that Blofeld is the main antagonist of ‘Spectre’, but honestly – it’s called ‘Spectre’: having some other guy as the Big Bad would be like promising the audience of a ‘Batman’ film The Joker and delivering Calendar Man.
And it’s not like it matters – Blofeld is a completely boring villain. He’s just a psycho who seemingly does stuff for the sake of being bad. His backstory has his father adopt the orphaned Bond. This causes Blofeld, thick with jealousy, to murder him.
I mean: what?
Then Blofeld founds a nebulous Most Evil Organisation Ever which basically goes on to do evil shit for its own sake. It holds meetings where board members get their eyes gouged out and no-one points out how completely insane this is because that’s just how evil they all are.
Now, given the way some drug cartels operate in the real world, this is arguably realistic, but the thing about baddies like this, is that they’re boring to watch.
Why? Because we’ve seen this before, and in literally everything. ‘This organisation does not tolerate failure’ says Blofeld all the way back in the early Sixties, and here we are, half a century later, and nothing’s changed.
I’m not saying you can’t have that ruthlessness as a critical part of Blofeld’s characterisation, but it needs to be done in a slightly better way. If not, it’s just clichéd and generic.
Generic Doomsday Villain Syndrome.
We’ve all seen tedious Generic Doomsday Villains. TV Tropes defines them as ‘A villain without coherent motivation, goals, or personality; he is defined solely by the threat he poses.’
What are Blofeld’s motivations? I mean, after the latest film, it comes off like he founded Spectre just to fuck with Bond, which is preposterously petty, and – given that he dealt with his father by murdering him – completely crazy. And not in the ‘dangerous psychopath’ way, but in the ‘bad writer couldn’t be arsed to come up with a proper character’ way. Blofeld’s personality is defined entirely by the word ‘evil’.
He’s just shit.
And there’s millions like him. Moriarty in the original ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories: less a character, more an excuse for Conan-Doyle to put the Holmes character in the bin. Read the story if you don’t believe me. For all his reputation, in the story that introduced and disposed of the character, he was a completely generic, one-note baddie. Holmes just sort-of says ‘Oh, and Moriarty’s behind everything’ and then goes off to fight him and die. All the interesting stuff about Moriarty comes later on, created by writers who hate the Holmes character less than Doyle did at that point.
The MCU has a particular problem with Generic Doomsday Villains. Malekith from ‘Thor 2’: he wants to blow stuff up because honestly I can’t even remember. Something to do with red stuff? And he’s got a half-burned face because… he just sort of does? AND THEY WASTE CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTONE ON THIS SHIT? Jesus Christ.
Ronan The Accuser in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ spends the whole film running around and bellowing at people before murderising them. Sure, the film’s not really about Ronan so much as watching the Guardians bicker with each other, but still: Ronan is a boring-ass baddie. Just like Malekith, he’s played by an amazing actor, Lee Pace, and if you don’t know who he is, go watch Tarsem Singh’s ‘The Fall’ and then weep at What Could Have Been.
Ultron from ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’: he sort-of hates Tony Stark and wants to drop a meteor on the planet but he also wants a living body and…? What was his motivation again? Just being bonkers?
To those of you going ‘Yeah but…’, or, like Kevin Feige (the MCU’s showrunner) saying: ‘A big criticism of ours is that we focus on the heroes more than the villains, I think that’s probably true… We at Marvel… yeah, we focus on the heroes. We don’t mind that. We like that.’
You know, I can see your point. It’s definitely smart to focus on the heroes, because they’re the ones the story is about. There’s definitely an argument to be made that it’s perfectly fine to simply use the villains as a tool to bring the characters together and give them something to do. No matter how dull Ronan is, as a plot device, he works perfectly in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.
So there is an argument to be made that Generic Doomsday Villains have their uses. Tropes are, after all, tools. However, while that’s all well and good, but I have one word for you.
The Old Aphorism
“A heroine is only as good as her villains.”
We’ve all heard it, we all know it’s true, and Loki is the proof. He’s the one exception to the MCU’s film-based shitty villain problem. Loki is an amazing villain. The question is, why? Why does Loki succeed where Ronan fails?
In my opinion, there’s a number of complimentary factors. Firstly, Loki gets the whole ‘brothers who’ve turned on each other’ trope right. When Blofeld’s family connection to Bond is first revealed, it’s out of the blue. We’ve never heard about Bond having a brother before. Bond’s reaction to Blofeld has simply been recognition, nothing more than that. There have been no flashbacks, no old family footage… Nothing to show the audience that yes, these two grew up together. We’re told they’re brothers, not shown it, and so it comes off like it just doesn’t matter.
Loki on the other hand, spends the first half of ‘Thor’ as Thor’s best friend. He’s sensible, calm, sensitive… and Thor is a complete douche. He ignores Loki’s sound advice, and just goes around dudebroing at everyone. We see how their relationship chafes at Loki, how he’s endlessly overlooked in favour of this musclenumpty with great hair.
Loki’s also got a solid, sensible plan. He doesn’t want to do evil shit just for its own sake. He wants to rule Asgard. He wants to teach Thor what a dickhead he is. These are not unreasonable plans. There’s a good chance that the audience will be entirely on Loki’s side, because the shocking thing is, he’s not wrong. He is cleverer than Thor, he does have the soft skills of diplomacy Thor lacks. He isn’t hot-headed in the way Thor is. And Thor does need teaching a lesson; even Odin thinks so.
Loki doesn’t actually cross over into actual villainy until we see his reaction to the reveal that he’s adopted. His pain is palpable… and worse, completely misplaced. The film shows us how Odin cares for him, sees him as a real son, but Loki attacks him anyway. Loki’s initial turn to evil is heartbreaking.
When it’s later revealed that he’s always planned to do away with Odin and Thor, that he’s been planning this anyway, then it cements him as A Bad Guy, but, crucially, nothing he’s done feels stupid. Emotional, and foolish, but it’s all very understandable. He’s not bad because he likes being bad; he’s bad because he’s made poor choices and let his flaws of pride, jealousy and pettiness overcome him.
Loki’s tragedy is, ironically, that for all his intelligence, he can’t learn. Thor is banished to Earth, learns to let go of his resentment and become responsible, returning home a better man. Loki can’t ever overcome his bitterness, so for all his gifts, he remains trapped.
Loki’s weakness emphasises Thor’s strength. Loki’s inability to change emphasises Thor’s growth. Loki’s pettiness emphasises Thor’s maturity.
Loki villainy is the mirror through which we see Thor’s heroism.
Loki’s later appearances all build on these strengths, leading to a fascinating, complex character. Whenever he shows up, we know he’s not to be messed with; not because we’ve been told so, but because we’ve seen how dangerous he is. Loki has fans in a way that Ultron and Ronan do not. People care about Loki – they’ll come to see a film if he’s in it, even though he’s the baddie! He’s a character whose inevitable Heel-Face turn in the second ‘Infinity War’ film is going to get one of the biggest pops of the night, guaranteed.
Hopefully, this shows that a well-developed, three-dimensional villain is generally preferable to the Generic Doomsday variety.
So – and hopefully you’ll forgive the oxymoron – how do we create a good villain?
Well, let’s look at some other well-designed villains and see what they have in common.
A Cavalcade of Bastards
N.B.: relentless SPOILERS follow for the ‘Hannibal’ TV series, ‘The Dark Knight’ and the ‘Game of Throne’ TV series and ‘Fight Club’ follow.
Hannibal Lecter, ‘Hannibal’ (TV series)
When he first broke out in the ‘Silence of the Lambs’ film, Lecter was intriguing, but ultimately just a straight update of the Dracula myth – a European aristo with superhuman senses, speed and strength, driven by dark needs to feed on Westerners.
However, in Bryan Fuller’s exceptional TV series, Lecter metamorphosed from a charismatic psychopath who killed people because, well, that’s just what he did, into something utterly remarkable.
In the series’ beginning, Lecter hasn’t been caught yet. He retains all the traits of the film version, but with a number of interesting diversions. This Lecter is driven by a God complex; he literally sees himself as a creature that’s so completely beyond humanity that they mostly bore him. As a result, Lecter is intensely lonely. Of course, this self-same God complex won’t allow him to admit this loneliness, because to do so would be to admit he wasn’t a God. Until Lecter is introduced to Will Graham, Lecter probably wasn’t even aware anything was missing from his life.
But, called in to assist the FBI’s best profiler, everything changes. Why? Because Will Graham’s unique condition – the ‘perfect empathy’ which makes him the greatest profiler the FBI has ever known – means Lecter has met the only individual on the planet who can understand him. Lecter’s loneliness, the single splinter of humanity in his entire psyche, ends up driving the majority of the doctor’s behaviour for the series’ entire run.
With Will Graham in his life, Lecter knows he can finally be understood and accepted… but he remains Hannibal Lecter. His God complex is still there. And what that means is that Lecter can’t love anyone but himself. So what he does is set out, over years and years and years, to turn Will Graham into him.
Because once Will is Hannibal, they can be together.
After his first justifiable homicide in the line of duty, a traumatised Graham turns to Lecter – who at this stage is his psychologist – and asks for help. Lecter responds – insidiously – by suggesting that killing felt good, so why is Will worried? From this slow, awful beginning, Lecter first drives Graham to madness, then to brutality, then to acceptance of this brutality.
By the series’ end, Lecter has completely refashioned the profiler’s psyche so thoroughly that Graham can no more imagine life without Lecter than Lecter can without Will. All the killings, the murders, the horrors are – to quote the film version of Lecter – ‘incidental’. The only thing that matters to Lecter, literally the only thing in the world that’s real to him, is his love for Will Graham. And how terrifying that is, to be pursued by an absolute monster who lacks the slightest fetter, limitation or qualm of conscience. Lecter is never stupid, never foolish, never miscalculates… even when he’s eventually captured, it’s because he’s turned himself in. And why?
So Will Graham always knows where he is, because he wants Will to know he loves him.
The Joker, ‘The Dark Knight’
I’m not ordinarily a fan of the Joker, because he’s a bit of a Generic Doomsday Villain. He just does bad things, because, well, he’s the fucking Joker. That’s what the Joker does.
Imagine my surprise at ‘The Dark Knight’, though, where they take this one-note, Generic Doomsday Villain, and do something incredible with him: they give him a meaningful personality.
This version of the Joker retains the totally psychopathic behaviour of the comics’ Clown Prince. Where this version diverges is that he’s got a plan. Always. No matter what’s going on, he’s working towards a greater goal. He never spells it out until the end, because his plan isn’t for anyone else – it’s just for him.
Well, him and Batman, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.
So the thing to bear in mind about this Joker is that he lies. Like, all the time. Consider how many versions of his ‘Do you want to know how I got these scars?’ stories he tells (and more on them later). Therefore, when he says to Dent ‘I don’t have plans’, well: he lying his ass off. Yes he does, and as the film shows, breaking Dent by telling him there was no plan… well, that was one of the plans.
The thing is, not everything he says is a lie. It’s one of traits that makes him so much more dangerous this time round. Despite this, there’s all kinds of implications, hidden through the film, about who he is, where he’s come from, and why he’s doing what he’s doing.
Firstly, he knows how to use a rocket launcher, and competently so. This is not something you can just learn on a gun range. He’s frighteningly skilled with IEDs. As the man himself says, he likes gunpowder and gasoline. Bomb-making and demolitions are not civilian skills. Then there’s the fact that he doesn’t just think tactically, like Batman. He thinks strategically. He’s not planning a battle, he’s co-ordinating a war, and he can command his soldiers with frightening acumen.
Then consider what he’s wearing the first time we see him:
A suicide vest.
Finally, consider the speech he gives to Harvey Dent that breaks him, and turns him into Two-Face. That speech tells you everything.
“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just… do things.”
Well, by the end of the film, we’ve seen what a lie this was. He’s planned to blow up two ships, and when that failed, he’s planned to turn Dent bad. This Joker’s every move is a plan. He’s a strategist, moving on a scale so huge it doesn’t look like a plan unless you can see the shape of the whole thing.
But the key line in his speech is this: “You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan.’ Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan’. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!”
A truckload of soldiers.
This Joker was a soldier. He went to war, was tortured (hence the scars) and saw awful things. His comrades die; people so desperate that a suicide vest seems like a logical choice; people’s lives reduced to nothing for no reason at all. Seeing this, he was unable to turn away from how unfair it all was. How ‘the plan’ isn’t right or just or fair. Disgusted with the indifference of the universe, and consumed by nihilism, the man who would be the Joker comes back to the US as “an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.”
He’s driven by cosmic irony: by the unfairness of the universe. He’s a monster, trained for a war he believed in, only to find the whole thing was a vast, cosmic joke. That, really, everyone was awful – the enemies who killed his men, the commanders who sent his men to die, the civilians who allowed it to happen, everyone who complacently accepted. The only logical response, this Joker seems to have decided, was to come back to use the skill-set he was taught to prove that nothing matters – that the world is a joke, and that American lives matters as little as any others.
And of course, he never says any of this. Not to anyone except Batman, because no-one else is worthy of his time. It’s why he jokes with them. It’s a way of proving his superiority. It’s why he kills them. They’re all equally worthless. It all ties into his ‘Do you know how I got these scars?’ speeches; these lies can be read two ways. On one level, he’s just fucking with people; trying to make them sympathise with a lie that he knows is untrue. Their sympathy for him – and the idea that this sympathy makes them somehow moral – is a joke, because they didn’t have any before, so why should the fact they do now matter? How does sympathy after the fact make a person moral?
However, on a deeper level, those speeches tie into his whole artistic theme – that everyone is equal. Each story about his scars is equally plausible. So he could be anyone… and anyone could be him. In-universe, no-one knows he lying but him, which means he’s lying as art. He’s making the point – which Batman is the only one to catch onto – that deep down, anyone could be The Joker.
That ability to see The Joker’s point – to empathise with him – is why he won’t kill Batman. At first, The Joker looks at Batman and sees a thug who might stop him… but when he realises what Batman really is, The Joker sees only himself. Batman’s seen the lies, just like The Joker has. Batman’s seen that ‘the plan’ is a joke. It’s why Batman ‘completes’ him: Batman’s the only other person in the world who not only ‘gets it’, but who has stood up to do something about it.
The fact that Batman’s opposing The Joker is irrelevant. Notably, at no stage does The Joker try to turn Batman to his side, because as far as he’s concerned, he doesn’t need to. Batman’s already on his side: the side which sees the injustice of the world and acts against it in disgust.
It’s why it’s so important for Batman to allow The Joker to live: by killing him, he proves The Joker is right. ‘The plan’ allows you to kill ‘bad people’, and that’s the first step on the slippery slope to justify killing anyone. Of making life a joke.
Joffrey Lannister, ‘Game of Thrones’
The thing I love about Joffrey is that he’s basically the perfected version of what we wrestling fans call a ‘heel’.
Wrestling, as long-term fans of my blog will know, is distilled epic narrative, boiled down to its simplest, purest elements: that guy’s the hero, that guy’s the villain, they hate each other, let’s watch them fight. The goal of the wrestler is simple: make the crowd care. The hero makes them care by getting them to cheer, the villain gets them to care by making them boo. It really is that simple.
Because of that simplicity, the villain – the heel – doesn’t have a terribly sophisticated battery of techniques to draw upon to get the crowd booing. Classic heel tactics include: cheating; having a collection of goons to do their fighting for them; lying; talking tough before a fight but crumbling when one actually shows up; running away the moment things aren’t going their way; and, most importantly of all, cruelty. A true heel is a coward who – despite their many gifts – picks on the weak, slanders the noble, and doesn’t have the slightest bit of courage in their body.
Christ, what a masterclass in being a heel Joffrey is. He’s literally the perfect heel.
He picks on the Stark girls and when they stand up to him, he has his seven-foot henchman kill their friend. He goes after their dogs – their dogs! – and snivels to his mummy when things threaten to go South. When he becomes King, he talks shit about how he’s the greatest king there ever was. He smirks as he makes men fight to the death, hands out horror and mutilation for kicks, tortures and murders vulnerable women… All because he’s a wretched little sociopath with no greater goal than his own amusement.
Where a Generic Doomsday Villain does awful things because The Plot Demands It Is So, Joffrey does awful things because he’s immature. And unlike the Generic Doomsday Villain, it’s shown time and again that Joffrey’s immaturity, stupidity and capriciousness is actually a horrible weakness that’s going to kill him.
Because he can’t help himself. Joffrey’s horrid nature comes from a completely arrested development: mentally, emotionally and psychologically, he’s a child, with the absent moral compass and limited intellect that implies. The pointless evil shit he does, he does it because he’s dumb as hell… which means unlike a Generic Doomsday Villain, there are severe, personally damaging consequences for his sadism. As we’re shown, if he’s got the opportunity to do something horrible, he just does it, and damn the consequences. His viciousness isn’t a strength, but a terrible failure. He has Ned Stark killed for shits and giggles… which starts a monumental war that nearly unseats him as king, and which directly leads to disaster for his family. He’s the villain the other villains hate, because he’s so preposterously vile he can’t help fucking up everyone’s plans.
Then there’s his cowardice.
Before the Battle of the Blackwater, Joffrey brags about how hard he is, shows off the shiny new sword he’s ridiculously named ‘Heartrender’ and smirks about how he’s finally going to get to do all the killing.
Then when the Battle arrives, he runs like a little bitch and literally ends up hiding under his mother’s skirts. He’s a complete weakling, and it is impossible to not hate him. When his death finally shows up, you can’t help cheering, and that’s pretty much the ultimate accolade for any heel.
Tyler Durden, ‘Fight Club’
The first time I saw ‘Fight Club’, you could’ve signed me up on the spot.
That’s how insidious a villain Tyler Durden is.
“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t,” says Tyler as played by millionaire movie god Brad Pitt.
Tyler Durden is the most incredible example of a seductive villain that’s ever been on screen. Because he’s charming, and funny, and clever, and most of all, he’s right. An alpha male before the idea had gained popular traction, he’s every cynical, nihilistic douchebag who’s ever gone ‘The world is a shitty place and everyone in it is shit’, only he’s pretty enough to make you believe him.
When we meet him, he’s dressed in the coolest outfits, talking slick about The Secrets Behind Everything. A talk with Tyler is like having the veil taken down, enabling to help you see the world As It Really Is.
And his plan is brilliant, isn’t it? Blow up buildings to make everything better. Because acts of terrorism absolutely always work, don’t they?
The brilliance of Tyler Durden is that he appeals to every urge to strike out against the oppression of an uncaring world. The things he says resonate; it feels like he’s speaking truth, because a lot of what he says feels true.
That doesn’t mean it is, though. Tyler Durden, like The Joker, is a very effective liar.
Because what listening to Tyler results in, is a fascist army. He collects dispossessed, angry men. He teaches them to fight. He normalises violence, and praises them for their skill with it.
Then he gives them easy answers: ‘the problems of society can be fixed by violence’.
He teaches them to make bombs.
‘You are not your khakis’ he says, and we nod because he’s right, I’m an individual. I’m not going to dress just to look like everyone else. I don’t need a uniform.
Then Tyler puts his men in Project Mayhem uniforms, and they love him for it, happy to no longer be an individual, but part of something bigger than themselves. They never see the irony.
Having won their love, Tyler then sets about utterly dehumanising these vulnerable men. He takes their names. He takes their identities. He even starts to use language which refers to them as animals – ‘monkeys’ – taking their actual humanity.
“You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”
And they thank him for this horseshit, because they think he’s telling them the truth.
Tyler Durden is everything he professes to hate. He hates advertising because it takes people’s humanity and identity, selling them an idea in exchange… which is exactly what he does, only he gets to sneer about how clever he is while he does it. He’s a hypocrite of the worst order, and an idiot, because all he can see is nihilism. All he can see is that, in the long-term, nothing matters, which means that nothing matters.
But that’s not true. If nothing we do matters… then all that matters is what we decide matter. If there’s no bigger meaning, then the only meaning is the one we choose. Which is, of course, why The Narrator rejects Tyler’s nihilism in the end: because Tyler is wrong. Tyler’s embrace of violent nihilism isn’t the logical answer; it’s simply one possible answer, seen through the toxic lens of Tyler’s anger.
The Narrator rejects Tyler and embraces Marla because he realises he’s not angry any more. He was angry because he was lonely, but in finding Marla, and accepting that it’s okay to love her, he isn’t alone any more. So he isn’t angry. So he doesn’t need Tyler.
In a very real sense, Tyler Durden is the Narrator’s misplaced rage, and the story makes it clear, the solution to that rage isn’t bombs, and it’s certainly not Fight Club. It’s making meaningful connections with other human beings: in the film’s ending, with Marla Singer, and in the book’s, with the people The Narrator befriended in the support groups he was attending at the story’s start.
So, what have we learned from these horrible pricks? What rules does a writer need to follow to create a good villain?
They must have an understandable, relatable backstory.
The villain can’t just come from nowhere, and they can’t just be monstrous. If they are, you might as well replace them with a storm, or some kind of animal. If there’s no element of recognisable humanity there, you’re not really creating a villain, you’re creating an antagonist, which is something subtly different. Whilst ‘force of nature’ antagonists can be terrifying (as in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, or the films ‘Jaws’, ‘The Fifth Element’, or ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), they’re not really engaging.
A element of intrinsic humanity is what allows the villain to act as a foil to the main characters, and allows the villain’s vile qualities to emphasise the protagonists’ higher natures. What is key is that even if that human background is not discussed, it should still be there. The writer/creator/designer should know it, use it to drive the villainous character, and hopefully make it at least inferable to the audience.
So Hannibal Lecter may be a clinical psychopath whose mind doesn’t remotely function like a human’s, but he’s still capable of loneliness, and desperate to be understood. The Joker’s a monster, but he’s also a former soldier driven to despair and madness by war. Joffrey’s just a horrible child given too much power, too soon. Tyler Durden is pure male angst given license to run wild.
They must have a plan – or motivations – which make logical sense.
There’s an old idiom which says that every villain is the hero of their own story. And I think there’s a lot of truth to that. No-one wants to think they’re bad. The very first response most people will have to accusations of sexism, racism or prejudice is ‘ No I’m not!’ – even when they are. Look at the way modern racism hides behind irony, pretending to be ‘just a joke’, as if there’s a difference between ironic hate and actual hate anywhere except in the accused person’s mind.
As a result, villainous plans and motivations must be ones that the audience can empathise with: Hannibal’s need for love; the Joker’s need to be proven right; Joffrey’s childish desires to do whatever he wants; and so on. A truly great villain might even have a plan which the audience is persuaded is actually a good one (see Tyler Durden).
They must be morally reprehensible.
This is the most important thing, because if they aren’t basically hateful in some way, you’ve not creating a villain at all. Now, ‘morally reprehensible’ is a broad category. It doesn’t need to be murders or killings – look at Tyler Durden’s mistreatment of the men of Project Mayhem –
but the villain must commit acts which demonstrate their moral compass doesn’t point the right way.
They must be powerful.
Or else how do they threaten the heroes of the story? A critical thing is that they don’t need to be physically powerful – look at Joffrey – but they must be a threat. No-one knows just what Hannibal’s been up to; that, combined with his prodigious intellect means he can get away with more murders than the US police force. The Joker can’t hope to stand against Batman in a one-on-one fight, but he’s so clever that it takes forever before Batman can even get him in a one-on-one fight… and even when he does, The Joker’s stacked the odds against him. Joffrey never found a fight he didn’t run from, but he’s always got men to fight for him, and the law’s always on his side. Tyler Durden’s a capable fighter to begin with; by the end of the story, with a fascist army fighting for him, he’s unstoppable.
How does this relate to 40K?
In a universe where everyone’s capital-E Evil, there are two big villains in 40K: Chaos and the Dark Eldar.
Now I’ve written numerous times about how I think Chaos is an awesome villain (and if you’ve not read those articles, why not take the time to download my free eBook, ‘Sinister Pinion’, where you can read all about it? The link is here .
Consider their relatable backstories: Khorne just wants to be a good warrior, Tzeentch believes in enlightenment, Nurgle loves you, Slaanesh just wants to get high. The Ruinous Powers all come from sapient desires, and honestly, who can’t relate to those drives? Unlike the Elder Gods of Lovecraft’s work, the Chaos gods all have distinct personalities beyond ‘murder all the things’… even Khorne, whose goal is ‘murder all the things’ is doing that incidentally. In truth, he just wants to be the very best. He’s driven by – perhaps even defined by – insecurity. The endless skulltaking is just his desperate effort to prove he’s not.
Then, consider that the Chaos gods all have plans. Khorne’s is to kill everything. Nurgle’s is to spread his love/ disease. Slaanesh’s is to get high. Tzeentch’s plan is, hilariously, to have lots of plans, and just like Khorne, that complexity addiction comes from his humanity. Just as Khorne’s trying to be the best at violence, Tzeentch is trying to be the best at cleverness, so of course its plans are needlessly overcomplicated and overlapping. That madness is a huge part of why Tzeentch is interesting.
As for the last two criteria, they barely need stating. The Chaos gods are obviously morally grotesque, and just as obviously powerful. The Eldar couldn’t withstand them, and the Imperium’s barely managing.
So overall, yeah, the Chaos gods are interesting, engaging villains. Likewise, the Chaos Primarchs, and most of the Chaos characters are fascinating. Horus was driven by his desire to live up the Emperor, and his rage at the Emperor’s failings. Abaddon’s driven by his need to live up to Horus. Ahriman just wanted to save his brothers. Fabius Bile just wants to get high.
Well, maybe not, but he’s definitely got plans beyond ‘wreck all the shit for no reason’. I leave you to conduct your own analyses as to the rest.
The Dark Eldar, on the other hand, are Bad Villains. They just do evil shit because… well, because that’s just what they do. Sad to say, they don’t seem to have a higher philosophy.
Now, the Craftworld Eldar, are excellent villains. Their motivation is simple: we created our own God of Evil, and now we want to survive. Like the Eton Boys who run my country, the Eldar are just selfish. They put themselves and their families above all others, they don’t care who gets sacrificed to keep them on top.
You could even argue that the Eldar’s sacrifice of others is somehow justified, given the ancient age of their species and the terrible loss of knowledge their extinction would represent.
But the Dark Eldar?
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love this faction. They have a great aesthetic, and their background is really solid. The idea of Commoragh, and the distinction between the Kabals and the Covens is clear and interesting (no matter how obviously ripped off it is from ‘Vampire: The Masquerade’s Lasombra and Tzimisce clans. Seriously, good background is good background).
However, it’s my opinion that the Dark Eldar need a bit of a rethink as far as their motivations go. Seriously: what do they want? And it’s not good enough to say ‘slaves’ because… well, why? Economics? Psychosexual sadism? Just because that’s what baddies do?
It’s not well enough thought out yet. Not for me, anyway. And when characters like Asdrubael Vect are essentially a poor man’s Lord Vetinari…
I’m not saying the Dark Eldar are beyond saving. I’m just saying, they’re not really that engaging yet. The newly forged Ynnari faction’s definitely given the army a push in the right direction, but…
Well. I suppose we’ll see. Perhaps the advent of 8th edition will give them some much-needed personality, but as yet, I’m not overly sure.