The most commonly asked question I receive nowadays is, “Hey Rae, what do you think makes for a great villain?”
The thing is, this question can’t be answered simply. There are a series of fundamentals that every villain needs, yes. But likewise, there are villain types that every villain is categorized under. If you plan on creating a villain, or antagonist, for your story then you have to first gather the fundamentals, and then you have to understand the category your villain will fall under. Finally, you set him loose!
So this month I’ve decided to break down my top ten villains of all time. Most of these villains come from nostalgia, others from sheer awe and respect as a writer. Still, others, simply because they are unabashedly bad to the bone! All will be carefully dissected so that we as writers can appreciate why these villains shake us and how we can create villains just as intriguing in our own stories.
So, today I’m revealing #10- #8, and I’ll be breaking down what category each villain falls under, and what makes these villains so memorable, so spine-tinglingly scary, and so unique!
First, let’s discuss what every villain needs to have- the four fundamental characteristics of all great villains:
- Delusions of Grandeur
Yes, every single villain out there suffers from a terrible, incurable case of this nasty characteristic. This quality is what blinds the villain to their undying belief in their ideals and inexcusable actions. This quality leaves all villains believing they are above the common person by either being smarter, faster, stronger, slicker, or more brutish than others. This characteristic leaves them blind to a conscience, or moral code. In fact, such “frivolous” qualities are “beneath them”, and are viewed as a weakness commonly found in “less elite” human beings. They believe their way is the only way and likewise the best way.
Manipulation is a common spice found in the mix of an ideal villain. The identifying mark of all villains is their capability of convincing their victims to abandon their ideals or trick them into doing something they would not do. It’s a mental chess game that the villain enjoys and is fantastic at. They don’t view their actions as dishonest or their lies as lies. Manipulation can be more powerful a weapon than brute force, or, well, weapons. The power behind manipulation lays in the fact that the villain plants an idea in the head of the victim, making them believe it was the victim’s own belief or idea in the first place. Using slightly skewed but believable logic enforces the lie that the villain can be trusted. And that sort of conniving convincing can make the victim do nearly anything the villain wants them to do. That includes pulling a trigger for the villain! Worst still, paranoia and distrust confuses the victim and soon enough the victim doesn’t even trust himself. Truly, manipulation is a powerful characteristic found in every villain.
3. Blind ambition
You know those two flaps covering the prereferral vision of the horse racing to his goal? Yeah, the iconic villain’s got ’em and he slaps ’em on with unwavering resolve. Blind ambition is the fuel that pushes every villain to reach their goal regardless of who or what gets mowed down along the way. And more often than not, it requires the mowing down of someone or something in order to reach that goal. This brick on the gas pedal leaves no room for a moral compass or a conscience and that is what frightens innocent folks the most. Blind ambition, whether based on a selfish desire or a command from a superior authority, leaves no room for negotiation.
4. Lack of a moral compass
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- all villains lack a moral code or compass. There is very little a villain wouldn’t do and that’s because he’s snuffed out the Jiminy Cricket in him. A moral compass causes us to decipher if our actions skirt a line we aren’t okay with. The more it is ignored, the more we learn to ignore the sting of our resulting actions, and therefore find ourselves pushing that line more and more. And all villains have either manipulated themselves into believing their actions are completely okay, or they just don’t care if they are okay or not anymore.
These four traits should be found in your villain no matter what type of villain you’re creating. Now, what type of villain do you want to create? There are 5 major categories that all villains are parceled into. Some embody two or more categories but are typically lead by one major type. So, which type(s) will your villain mainly embody?
The “mind games” villain is a master at manipulation. The major weapon in his arsenal is a mental chess set and he’s a master at his own game. In fact, this villain can talk his way out of an execution and gain the trust of even the most paranoid skeptic. This villain can kill any and all targets he chooses without pulling the trigger himself. That’s right- he’s fantastic at getting others to do his bidding and getting them to believe it’s a good idea to do it too. This villain is the most chilling villain of all because they can hide in plain sight, or even be your own best friend!
2. Power/ Intimidation
Some villains wear a crown like a pair of devil horns. They abuse their authority and wield an iron fist. This power is used to intimidate any and all opposers to bend to their decree whether they want to or not. Because they typically have a legitimate form of authority, innocent folk bend to the belief that they are helpless and therefore believe there’s no use in opposing the villainous authority figure. Power of this kind breeds ruthless, heartless villains that eventually see as equally gruesome an ending for themselves as they freely hand out to others.
3. Loose Cannon
A loose cannon villain is unpredictable and truly dangerous. They hold to no pattern, no ritual, and find no joy in leaving predictable footprints. These villains have no real reason for the actions they commit. They simply do what they do because they have nothing to lose, or they want to leave their mark on the world before they go. Loose Cannons tend to be the most violent and the most feared villain.
4. Loyal Minion
This villain is simply obeying orders, whether consciously or not. Personal choice is not in the equation. That is because he has to answer to a higher authority and is being sent out to commit wrongdoing on the behalf of a more powerful figure than himself. Interestingly, that factor makes this villain “most likely to be reformed” because the dilemma for this villain is whether or not to finally wake up that silenced conscience and make a conscious decision! Now, that’s not always the case since more often than not this sort of villain is a robot. When that’s the case, this villain is very feared but more likely to be defeated. Defeat of sentient minions all depends on the strength of their loyalty to “the cause”.
5. Terrorist/ Fear Mongerer
Terrorists have a blind, relentless devotion to an idea, cause, or higher authority figure, and will stop at nothing to achieve victory. Terrorists target and destroy masses heartlessly. They are all about sending a very specific message. The thing here to remember is that the terrorist has himself been blinded to a belief or idea he will absolutely die (and kill) for. Terrorists are all about inciting crippling fear in the hearts of their targets and gather all power available to them to achieve results. The only desire greater than the fear mongerer’s desire for sending a message is his desire to make his targets feel like helpless, cornered animals. They may even enjoy achieving that feeling more than they enjoy decimating their enemies.
Now that I’ve broken down villain types into categories, I can begin counting down the villains I believe stand head and shoulders above the rest and how they fit into the categories they fall under:
#10: The Shark from Jaws
“What? A monstrous sea beast? Seriously that’s what on your list of top villains?”
Absolutely. Allow me to explain why:
Monsters, or brutish beasts, truly are the epitome of the fearsome “loose cannon”. Loose cannons are completely unpredictable in their habits and their actions, therefore that makes “loose cannon” type villains one of the most feared villain types of all time. Because there’s also no real way to communicate with a beast or monster, there’s likely no way to find out how they think or what they want to accomplish. And that’s the most honest/real interpretation of a loose cannon possible!
The shark was unpredictable, but he was also intimidating because of his sheer physical power. A massive set of blood-thirsty jaws that have the help of murky waters hiding their every move? Now that’s what I call a true terror of the deep! The shark inspired fear, not just in its victims and potential prey, it inspired fear in the heart of us audience members as well. Who could swim freely in the open ocean without a care in the world after this movie came out? No one– that’s who. Truly, the shark was a big part of my childhood, causing me to even avoid my backyard pool for a spell! And that’s the idea: monsters, beasts, other aliens and creatures still haunt us far into our adult lives because of the unknowability of their actions and their power. Jaws gave us all an (un)healthy fear of the mighty Great White. And that’s why the Shark from Jaws makes it as #10 on my list of top 10 villains.
#9: Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada
What stood out to me about Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) the most was her unsettlingly calm demeanor. That is what made her actions as an authority figure all the more frightening. No one could tell if she was truly furious or not. Her demands were outrageous and inconsiderate, and her view of the world was narrow and elitist.
In fact, in one pivotal scene which perfectly sums up her person in a moment, she doesn’t use a single word to make her judgments known. She looks Andy Sachs, (played by Anne Hathaway) her assistant, up and down, locking onto her clunky pair of shoes. Looking her assistant in the eye once more, she says, “That will be all.” and goes back to figuring out her fashion line. Without a word being said, Priestly demands her assistant abandon her poor choice of shoe. That is one killer example of a mind games villain.
Master of manipulation, Miranda Priestly constantly demeans her assistants, whether it’s calling them by the wrong name on purpose, throwing her coat and purse on their desk, or disregarding their personal lives. Eventually, even Andy herself changes to mirror that of her intimidating, fashion-savvy Editor-In-Chief. It isn’t until Miranda says, “I see much of myself in you” that Andy receives her wake-up call and drops her career choice.
The final reason I’ve included Miranda Priestly is because she is a common, realistic antagonist we may have worked for ourselves. We can all relate to Andy, and we all find Miranda’s actions shocking, but believable. This villain walks the streets of New York, Paris, or London, and we worship them as they walk down the runway too. This perfect example of a “mind games”/ intimidation villain is why Miranda Priestly is #9 on my list of villains!
#8: Sylar From Heroes
I can still hear it now: that bone-chilling sound of Sylar using his finger alone to slice some poor fool’s head open to take a peep at their super-powered brain. This was one of the first villains I had ever seen on television that I was truly terrified of. Yep, I remember having to sleep on the floor of my big brother’s bedroom the first night I witnessed Sylar take his first victim. That baseball cap emerged from the shadows and that iconic dead-eyed, detached stare targeted its next victim. It was as if he glided out from the darkness and cornered his villain with a sickening twinge of delight. Yeesh– I shudder even now just thinking about this brilliant villain born from the Heroes saga. Sylar was a master of terror, using his power and unsettlingly calm demeanor to intimidate and cripple his victims into submission. Sylar didn’t care who he had to kill in order to gain greater power, which included his (adoptive) mother! Gaining the super powers of his victims, Sylar grew more and more unstoppable, thus his acts of terrorism grew into more of an insurmountable threat. Sylar was outwitted at some points by brave heroes willing to risk their lives for the safety of others, but defeating him was never actually about K.O’ing him. No, it was only about containing his power… for the mean time. And this is why this terrorist of the Heroes universe glides his way into slot number eight on my ‘best villains of all time’ list.
Stay tuned in the following weeks as I continue my breakdown of villains, how we can create masterful villains, and reveal numbers 7-4 of my favorite villains of all time.
And, better still, stay tuned for the upcoming release of this third workbook in the”The 16 Point Checklist Every Author Needs” series!:
Share in the comments section below who your favorite villains are and why they gave you nightmares! I’d absolutely love to see who you come up with!