Think of your favorite story. It can be a book, a TV show, a movie, maybe even a mother goose tale (okay, well maybe a mother goose tale won’t really work with this post and you’ll see why later). Quick, who is the villain?
Hopefully that question threw you off a little bit. Hopefully you have to think about it a little bit. When you do have an answer, hopefully whether that answer is final or not is a little funny. Hopefully. Now here’s a bold statement: in good stories, truly good ones, you don’t know who the villain is. At least, not definitively.
Take a look at Lost. It was a phenomenal feat in story-telling, especially when you dig below the surface and see themes and allegories that even an English professor wouldn’t shy away from. (Check out this article:) Lost Finale recap. Who was the villain of Lost? Was it Ben? At one point, it certainly seemed so. But then we learned that Ben has a plethora of motivations, almost as abundant as his redeeming qualities.
Was it Smokie/The Man in Black/Fake Locke? He was indeed the man to beat in the end, but was he really the bad guy? The writers could have let us believe that he was purely evil with only ill-intentions for the island, its inhabitants, the world, but they opened us up to his history. We saw the that line separating good Jacob from evil Man in Black was largely blurred. In the end, the guy just wanted to get off an island that he was brought to and bound to against his will. Can you really blame him?
Stories are more interesting when the bad guy isn’t straight-forward. Villains need to be complex, sometimes more complex than your protagonist. In a way, they are the driving force of your story. Their wants and transgressions push the main character to their final destination. Sure, a good story can have a villain who is flat, has no redeeming qualities, and enjoys making babies cry just for the sound, but why settle for good when you can have great?
In The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum, the foster mother, Ruth, allowed terrible things to happen to Meg. Torture superseded by more torture. Was Ruth a soulless shell of a character, though? No. We could see that her hate for Meg was rooted in something tangible. We could see that some disease was eating away at her insanity. And she shared her role as antagonist not just with the children on the block, but with human nature itself. At points, even the main character (the narrator, not Meg) is to blame.
By now some of you may be thinking that not all stories have villains. You’re right. The Girl Next Door is a good example of a story where both a traditional ‘villain’ exists along with the more passive antagonist in other story-types. The antagonist can be anything or anyone, whatever it is that prevents the protagonist from completing his or her goals. This can be a conflict with another person, the self, society, nature, etc, etc. Going with the theme of this post, if your antagonist is clear-cut and easily distinguishable, then you could have done a better job.
A counter-example would be Voldemort from Harry Potter. That guy just didn’t have a redeemable bone in his body. All he cared for was power. He had no friends, knew no love, didn’t even own a pet! Harry Potter was great even without Voldemort for the brand new world it gave us and the many other complex characters we watched grow and develop over Hogwart’s seven years. But I argue that Voldemort (and the series as a whole) could have been even better had Rowling pressed a little more into what made him tick.
And Rowling already had a sense of this. She showed us his childhood, his rise to power, and made his motives clear. Yet it is harder to accept that someone can just be genuinely evil, even from childhood. It would have been good to see Voldemort love and care for something other than himself back when he was Tom Riddle. Can we have some complexity?
There are many ways to frame a villain or an antagonist. I’m not even creating a rule, but even if I was writing sometimes is all about breaking rules. So you could have a bomb villain who just reeks of nothing else, just like you can have a great story that throws plot-structure conventions out the window. As with anything, I’m just providing food for thought. Let me know how it tastes.