So, I know more than a few Disney fans. And we’re using “fan” in the “fanatic” sense from which it’s born, and not in that casual “I’m a fan” way people use when they mean “yeah, I like that thing.” No, they love them some Disney. Which I certainly enjoy, myself, but not so much that I could construct a March Madness-style bracket system by which one might determine who the best Disney villain is.
This is not make-believe. It happened. Also: they decided on Ursula. They eliminated Maleficent to Jafar in an early bracket, though, so you’re welcome to call their collective choices into question. Anyway, after I finished ogling the sheer enormity of the bracket system they had catalogued, I did start to wonder what makes a “good” villain.
True Blood is ending its season (you heard me. I’m a gay, sci-fi / fantasy fan. I’m pretty sure I’m bound by law to watch it). So villains first jumped me to vampires and werewolves and zombies, at which point I realized that monsters aren’t really the same thing as villains.
Monsters are physical. They’re nasty things that you don’t want ripping through your chest. Or eating your head. Or eating your head as they rip through you chest and sing off-key. Monstrosity is physical. So, in that way, you can certainly have a monstrous villain. Villains, after all, do really nasty things, and we often remember them, in part, for those deeds.
But a good villain isn’t just the set of atrocities she commits. She’s a person. She’s a set of motivations which are in and of themselves compelling. Doing nasty things is entertaining, but telling a story that makes some kind of sense out of what motivates a person to do those nasty things? That can be downright seductive.
I think from a storytelling perspective, it’s also useful if the motivations of your villain are on one level or another resonant with the motivations of your protagonist. Consider:
I think that’s what makes a really good villain. It’s seeing those elements, like ambition, which would be praised in a hero, twisted around, shaped into something monstrous. But even then, we recognize them. This isn’t an undead, mindless ghoul. It’s not a rabid man-wolf. This is someone. Someone who may not just have elements in common with our hero, but with ourselves.
Ah, the good old dark mirror. As a side benefit, the darkness helps hide the gray. Shut up, it totally does!