Originally posted on January 23, 2017
A question on a writers’ forum got me thinking about villains again. Particularly: What makes a good villain?
A quick look at Game of Thrones serves up some perfect examples. For anyone who has watched the show, it would be hard to argue that Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Bolton aren’t two of the most hated villains in television history. And Cersei Lannister has been running pretty close, though arguably with slightly more sympathetic traits.
What makes them so hated?
For a hint at the answer, let’s look at another popular series, this time in the movies: Harry Potter. This series, too, has one of the most hated villains of all time. And no, I’m not talking about Voldemort. I’m talking about Dolores Umbridge, who even overshadows “he who shall not be named,” not an easy feat.
Why is this? What makes Joffrey Baratheon, Ramsay Bolton, Cersei Lannister, and Dolores Umbridge so darn hateworthy? Sure, they do bad things to those we like, but is that it? Not really. Others also do bad things to those we like, but we don’t necessarily hate them.
I would argue that, paradoxically, what makes a strong villain is weakness.
Yes, you heard that right.
Think about it. All four villains I mentioned have no significant strength of any kind. One strong person could arguably defeat all four together in a fight within 30 seconds. But each of them is exceedingly powerful and difficult to defeat.
These devious weaklings abuse their power, they foil things for the heroes, they come across as “bigger than their britches,” they often achieve their positions unjustly, and they annoyingly get away with their actions in sneaky, calculating ways. And of course, they do bad things to people we like, sometimes smiling as they do it.
It’s the same with Doug Stamper in House of Cards, possibly the most hated character on the show. Or President Snow in The Hunger Games. Or the kid, Olly, on Game of Thrones. None of them have any particular power, but they’re put in positions of advantage that they exploit to the hilt.
There are exceptions, of course, but by and large, many of the most hated villains are weaklings with an unfair advantage and a lack of empathy.
Just a Pinch of Sympathy and Humor
Of course, just as a little salt can help a recipe but too much can destroy it, a few sympathetic traits, minor backstory elements, and even humor, can add depth to such characters. But too much, and you risk making the villains likeable or sympathetic, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but may not generate the hatred you want for them. It’s more an art than a science—a constant balancing act.
What About That Battle?
Speaking of the “Battle of the Bastards” in Game of Thrones, from which this post gets its title, think about that particular battle. Ramsay Bolton (the villain) vs. Jon Snow (the hero), both allegedly born out of wedlock.
What makes them different? Both were ostracized to varying degrees because of their lineage. But they couldn’t be further apart in terms of their outlook on life.
I believe what separates the villains from the heroes are three things: the choices they make, how they choose to let their past impact them, and their general nature. For the writers out there, these are all things to think about as you craft your villains. And for fans, think about your most hated (or most liked) villains and what makes them so.
I’d love to hear from you all as to who your favorite villains are and why.
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