Thursday, October 27, 2016

Bad Guys and Gals Can't Just Be Bad

Of course I'm evil!
I'm sexy and wearing black, aren't I?
The trouble with a lot of villains isn’t just that they’re evil, but that they’re only evil.  Think Sauron or Emperor Palpatine or the White Witch or Voldemort.  What they’re generally after is power over the masses to . . . rule, I guess?  It’s never exactly clear what they intend to do once the good guys are all defeated, and the rest of Middle Earth is safely under the oppressive heel of their fashionable, black leather boot.

They’re evil, and that’s about it.

The best villains aren’t.  That is, they don’t have a black hat, mustaches to twirl and a handy set of train tracks nearby where they can tie down a helpless damsel putting her in great distress.

A hero is only as good as his/her villains, and the best villains aren’t easily identified by the glowing green evil wafting in the wake of their passage.

If you haven’t watched Longmire yet, give it a go.  It’s a mystery-of-the-week kind of show, but with some fascinating story-arcs that cover multiple seasons.  Possibly my favorite character as a villain on the show is the ever-present Jacob Nighthorse (A. Martinez).  Without any spoilers, Nighthorse (which is such a great name) starts out as the identified man-you-should-hate.  He’s big business and pro-casino and most importantly anti-Walk Longmire—or rather, Longmire is anti-Nighthorse.  Having the hero point with one inflexible finger at a character and say, “That’s the evilest baddest no-goodest bad guy around!” pretty much cements them from the start.

Keep calm and call Jacob Nighthorse.
Nighthorse isn’t all bad.  In fact, one of the things that makes him such an excellent antagonist for Longmire is that he is easy to dump all the ills and evils on, even if he was out of town that week.  Nighthorse has a set of goals, one of which is to make a lot of money.  That’s not his end goal, but since greed is equated with bad, if not downright evil, that goes some distance to making him the villain.  But wealth is not his end goal.  He wants the money to, so he claims, better the position of his people on the Indian Reservation.  Nighthorse’s checkered past and run-ins with the law, not to mention Longmire, mean that he has huge moats with pointed sticks at the bottom to overcome if we were to even consider removing the “villain” title.

And he does.  Sometimes.

Everyone on Longmire has their demon or demons.  Nighthorse is no different, and most assuredly neither is Longmire himself.  Their goals and ideals clash and clang until the raucous noise leaves your ears ringing.  That’s the perfect protagonist-antagonist relationship.  Five seasons in and Nighthorse has ridden them all along the spectrum from Horrible Nogoodnik to Dudley Do-Right of the local Cheyenne tribe.  The ability to relate, or even to sympathize with Nighthorse is what makes him such a great “villain” and Longmire such a wonderful, and wonderfully flawed, hero.
Checklist for good villains:

What does an Evil Overlord have to do
to get a decent Scotch?
Motivation—More than just “power” and “domination”.  The goal(s) motivating the villain need to be realistic and understandable, driving the bad guy to blur, step over, and cross the lines.

Relatable—No man/woman is evil in their own eyes.  The path they took that brought them to the point of conflict should be on a scale that most reasonable people can grasp and understand the logic of the choices, even if they wouldn’t do it.

Likability—No hitting the minions, shooting the messengers, or whatnot.  A good villain is Bill Clinton silky smoothness, or at least has more likable characteristics than unlikable. No matter how much wealth and power are offered, most people will stay through charisma.

Clever/Smart/Witty—Really-real villains are talented, gifted, and accomplished or they wouldn’t have risen to the level they have (unless daddy gave them a small loan of a few million).  To really match the hero, they should at least be the hero’s equal, if not better.

Willing—Remember those lines that most people won’t actually cross?  The villain must and should cross them.  The reason can be fuzzy, although clarity here doesn’t hurt and only helps.  But when presented with failing outright, or erasing the moral barrier, the villain gets out stain remover and gets busy being a bad guy.

If you can hit all those, then you're find that not only is your villain truly a scary antagonist, but your hero will become a better protagonist to overcome.  Invest the extra effort into the realism and that rising tide will lift all the ships in your Black Fleet of Doom!

Don’t forget to watch some Longmire.  It’s very good!


  1. Great article with useful advice! Thanks! :)

    To further your point on being able to relate/sympathize with the bad guy and their "willingness"; a well-done villain also has lines he will NOT cross and those boundaries will usually surprise you. They have at least ONE strong value (ie. "Children have Value", so they are involved in fundraising for local kid's programs). These values can - but don't have to - relate to their "evil" motives. Everyone has something they will not do (ie. hurt animals) or that is so abhorrent to them (ie. child trafficking), including villains. These are things which good and decent people can relate to, making hating them more poignant.

    1. Thanks Rosa. I can see it going both ways, depending on the villain. How important the goals of the individual are, how consumed they are with achieving those ends, and how far down the road they've already gone. If they're in for a penny, they might be in for a pound. But the more complex you can make your villain, the more awesomely evil they can become!