Mythic Villains: Bring on the Big Bads

With this post, we’ve reached the end of our Hero’s Journey, the monomyth based on the writings of Joseph Campbell. The Villain is the last of our cast of characters, and like the Hero, he has a very specific list of qualities.

Much like the Hero, who is supposed to be unambiguously good, there needs to be no question that the Villain is evil. Remember the motto from the producers of Seinfeld: No learning and no hugging. Your Big Bad can’t be misunderstood, can’t be redeemed, and can’t be conflicted. The Villain is often called the Evil One in the monomyth and with good reason.

Seinfeld finale in jail

The Seinfeld finale drove home the “No Learning” lesson. Your villain needs to be just as selfish as these four.

Interestingly, he or she shares a number of qualities with the hero:

  1. Hubris, although in his case, it might be a straight up big head.
  2. An outlaw, but in the true sense of the word. The Villain is a criminal, not just a little rebellious.
  3. Clever and resourceful. A stupid villain easily duped isn’t a worthy opponent. Also, someone who was tricked into doing the wrong thing isn’t truly evil.
  4. May be wounded, giving him an excuse to do evil. This characteristic is terrifically important for making a three-dimensional villain. The mythical Evil One can easily descend into a cat-stroking, cackling caricature. The wound explains the motivation for his actions, but it cannot make us sympathetic. Don’t make your villain evil for evil’s sake, but make him appalling enough that even knowing his back story, we find him despicable.
  5. Have a special talent, which he’s using for evil. If he has a knack for chemistry, for heaven’s sake don’t have him making medicine for babies and puppies. He should be concocting fowl poisons.
  6. Have great sex appeal. This isn’t required, but I’ve always found the good-looking villains infinitely creepier than the wart-covered oozy ones. However, you can’t have any great love affairs here. He or she will be using and manipulating their lovers for personal gain. Sure, they could fall in love, but they are first and foremost selfish, and nothing will change that. Remember, no learning.

The Evil One also has a number of qualities that are directly opposite of those listed for the Hero:

  1. Is motivated by greed, avarice, lust, lust for power, vanity, narcissism, and other moral flaws. With a list like that, it’s easy to slip into posturing and sneering, but keep the wound in mind.
  2. Is never motivated by idealism, only selfishness. There is one exception: the Evil One’s family. He’s allowed to do nice things for his family, but ultimately that is also a form of selfishness and vanity. They reflect on him.
  3. Is often cruel.
  4. Can win by luck.
  5. Is not forgiving.
  6. May quit, but only at the end.
  7. May whine, grovel, and complain. No need for him to suffer in silence.
  8. May not be loyal.
  9. May not be physically superior, although sometimes he has a sidekick or minions that are.
  10. Has no special birth or destiny, although he may claim one.

Not nearly as much direction is given about the Evil One as the Hero, but that should not mean that you spend any less time crafting a deep and well crafted antagonist. Kristen Lamb recently wrote an article about how a lot of writer’s block and sagging middles could in fact be due to poorly constructed antagonists.

Ben Linus LOL cat

When do you know you’re villain has captivated the public? When they start making LOL cats about him.

I, myself, realized that my first draft contained a cartoon villain. A strong antagonist can make a story come alive. How amazing was Lost after the writers added Michael Emerson’s Ben character? Did I like him? No. Did every scene he was in crackle with energy? You betcha. Why was the third season of the Vampire Dairies so amazing? The Originals, lead by Klaus. That set of villains was so good, a year later the CW has spun them off into their own show! Why was season four less interesting? Because the new Big Bad, Silas, is booorrrrring.

A word of caution, though. In your effort to make your Evil One interesting, don’t make him or her more compelling than your Hero. In this summer’s Star Trek, it became clear that someone was going to have to die. As the final showdown between Spock, Kirk, and Khan approached, Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain was so amazing that he was not my first choice to go. I’m not even sure he was my second. And I like both Spock and Kirk.

Related Reading:

Did That Monster Come Out of You? (Reflections on how to write the truly evil villains from the always great Charles Yallowitz)

Sort of Related Art:

I found this post on the art of Kiersten Essenpries, who did a series of pieces on what villains do in their spare time.  If you like her brand of kooky, you should check out the whole series at her website.