Okay, I’ll go ahead and say it – I love villains. Most of the time, I find villains far more compelling than the heroes who face them. To clarify − before anyone goes there − I’m talking strictly about fiction here, and not the real world.
My interest in the bad guys goes way back to my earliest childhood. The first truly awe-inspiring villain I discovered as a kid was (surprise of surprises) Darth Vader. He was a mystery behind that all-too familiar mask of his, with that raspy respirator, hissing and sighing to announce his presence. He instantly commanded respect from those who served him, and brooked no sharp tongue. (I find your lack of faith disturbing!) Vader was just cool, from the way he walked to his deep basso James Earl Jones voice. Like some Black Knight out of legend, he was powerful, strong and – if you’ll forgive the pun – a force to be reckoned with.
You, um, might say that I was more than a little inspired by him. Just a bit…
Vader started a trend with me. I found as I grew up that I seemed to gravitate towards the villains in the various cartoons I watched as a kid. (A notable exception is Transformers, where I liked the good guys better overall.) Take for instance COBRA from G.I. Joe. They get all the sharp-looking vehicles, armor and suits. Most of them wear ninja-esque balaclavas or use masks to hide their faces. Compare that to the Joes, who look like a bunch of regular people. Boring. The only one on the good side who had that level of panache was Snakes Eyes, and let’s face it – he should have been on COBRA’s side. Come on, his name is Snake Eyes for crying out loud!
Unfortunately for all their style, COBRA wasn’t very competent. Your average Viper can’t hit the broad side of an aircraft carrier, but then again, neither can any member of the Joe team. In fact, all of them in that franchise seem pretty incapable of basic marksmanship. Be that as it may, even though COBRA is constantly thwarted in their diabolical schemes, they look great while losing.
Especially the Baroness. Ahem…
It took me a while to figure out what it was about the likes of Boba Fett, Skeletor, Storm Shadow and Magneto that really called to me. Yeah, they were enigmatic and looked imposing, but it was more than that. It was because villains don’t play by the rules, or more to the point, they play by their own rules. One of the reasons they are so powerful is because they are not constrained like the rest of us. They operate by their own code. They’re rebels, they’re renegades. They are the ones who break from the pack and do what they want, when they want. And, you know, there’s something very attractive about that idea.
When I discovered James Bond films, I found another deep well of villainy. Bond villains are a special breed. While they are all too eager to tell Bond about their master plan, and tend to have a predilection for Nehru jackets, they are all very smart (though not all that wise). Many of them are doctors, scientists, secret agents and the like. Intelligence is something that I think all great villains share. Moriarty, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Doctor Doom, Voldemort, Dracula, Sauron, Ozymandias, Roy Batty, HAL-9000 − geniuses all. And let’s not forget one of the most brilliant villains of all time…
When it comes to a villain’s role in a literary sense, I think this old saying about sums it up: “It is the presence of the wolf, not his absence, which makes the deer strong and fast.” There is a symbiotic relationship that exists between heroes and villains. A hero is often defined by his nemesis, and vice versa.
Do me a favor − think about the last few movies, books, comics, stories, etc. that you found particularly powerful or moving. Now think of the villain of each one. Chances are they had a particularly memorable and/or potent opponent playing opposite the protagonist. Villains can make or break a story. Even in those tales where the heroes are up against nature, society, or even their own natures, it is the obstacles they must overcome, the hardships they have to endure, that really make you empathize with them.
Villains are great at forging that pathos between the reader/viewer and the hero. Why? Villains are engines for conflict. Without some sort of conflict, you don’t have much of a story. That’s also why antagonists can be, and often are, much cooler/lethal/stronger/smarter/more awesome than the protagonist. They have to be…or rather they need to be.
If you didn’t have an incredibly competent, seemingly unbeatable opponent for the protagonist to face off against, victory would seem hollow and meaningless. When our heroic lead manages to succeed, even when all hope seems lost, it feels so much more satisfying, right?
We as humans love underdogs, the ones who bravely soldier on against impossible odds. We love to see underdogs succeed even when all conventional wisdom says they should fail. So, the greater the villain, the greater the sense of achievement when our hero emerges triumphant in the end.
And that is why I love villains. At once they represent power, mystery, intelligence, style and the crucible in which heroes are made.
Oh, and the maniacal laugh. Definitely the laugh.