What's Good About the Villain?

Everyone remembers the hero of the story, but I would venture to say that everyone also remembers the villain. Do you recall Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice? How about Darth Vader in Star Wars? There was also the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. And, of course, Hans in Frozen. I watched that one several times over the holidays with my granddaughter, so I'm quite familiar with Hans. As much as we love the main character, the story would be bland and uninteresting without a villain.

The Villain Isn't All Bad

Sometimes, the bad guy is awful through and through. Such is the case in The Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West is mean from beginning to end. But my favorite villain to write is one who initially causes the reader to almost feel sorry for him. Or they can at least understand a little why he became a bad person. It wasn't all his fault. He was a victim too. That is definitely the case in my first novel, Reluctant to Wed. There are actually two villains, but Fitz is the more complicated one. His heart had been broken and he became bitter and distrusting.

When we look at Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, she is terribly haughty and self-centered. She looks down her nose at Elizabeth Bennett (Lizzy) who is far beneath her in society and, therefore, also far beneath Mr. Darcy who seemingly is interested in her. Lady Catherine DeBourgh's daughter, however, would be a perfect match. The poor girl may be extremely shy, sickly, and lacking any mind of her own, but she is one of the elite of society, and Mr. Darcy should marry her. He most certainly should not marry the opinionated Elizabeth Bennett. So Lady Catherine De Bourgh takes matters into her own hands and visits Elizabeth Bennett. The Lady puts Lizzy in her place with some rather sharp words that were demeaning and insulting.

Hans in Frozen is a great villain. He had me completely fooled. I actually felt a little sorry for him when Anna and Kristoff were thrown together. As much as those two annoyed each other at the beginning, we sense that this will lead to a romance eventually. Poor Hans? Ha! As I said, I was completely fooled! But I wasn't the only one. Elsa and Anna were in big trouble in the climax of the story because they still trusted Hans.

As much as we dislike the villain, he is essential. I once read a book where there was no villain. I don't remember the title and I'm sure I skimmed through much of it because it was so boring. I have no idea why the author decided to tell a tale where no one is bad, but it made for a terribly boring book. As much as we don't want villains in our own lives, a book has to have tension or it's not worth reading.

The Villain Isn't Always a Person

Of course, the villain doesn't have to be a person. It can be almost any difficult, life-threatening, career-destroying, relationship obstacle you can think of. The villain could be a terminal disease or an approaching hurricane. It could even be a long wagon-train journey across the country and the main character disguises herself as a man so she can join the wagon train. How long can she continue her disguise before she is found out? What will be the consequences of her deceit?

The villain is a challenge that must be conquered. Can you think of a story you read that doesn't include a bad human being but rather a different type of obstacle? How about The Sound of Music? The problem was that Austria would soon be ruled by Hitler, and Captain Von Trapp resisted this change of government. When it was evident that Hitler had begun his invasion into Austria, the Captain had to find a way to leave with his wife and children before the border closed or they'd be stuck having to submit to a dictator.

Let's look at the movie, While You Were Sleeping. One brother (Peter) is in a coma after being saved by the heroine of the story (Lucy). A misunderstanding causes Peter's family to believe Lucy is his fiancée. The family is thrilled that he finally plans to marry and settle down. And what a great choice he made. Lucy is such a kind and lovely girl. However, Lucy feels terrible about the misunderstanding. But a friend of Peter's family advises her not to take away the family's only joy while Peter is in a coma. Despite her misgivings, Lucy's tender heart allows the ruse to continue. Peter's brother (Jack), however, suspects that Lucy is not his brother's fiancée. She doesn't seem the type of girl Peter would date. So Jack tries to trick her into telling him the truth. The more he spends time with her, the more he develops feelings for Lucy. The "villain" in this story is this big misunderstanding and the kindly-meant deception.

Recently, I saw I Heard the Bells. There is certainly tension in this movie, but I had to stop and think about who or what the villain is. It wasn't a person. I finally came to the conclusion that grief was the enemy. The main character had to learn to live again and find purpose for life after a devastating loss.

All of my fictions have a villain who is a person, but recently I wrote a memoir for someone, and the "villain" of that story is a virus and the challenge not to lose hope. I'm currently writing a book about my grief journey. Again, there is no bad guy. The tension in this book is the terrible loss and the struggle to regain hope and cling to faith after the worst has happened.

Why I Enjoy Developing the Villain in My Story

I once heard an actor say that his favorite role was that of the villain. He said it's fun to be the bad guy in a movie. It surprised me at first. I mean, fans love the hero. However, as a writer, I admit that I enjoy creating the villain, his back story, and his greed—what he can't live without—at least to his thinking. It's fun to play around with different ideas for the villain. Often he/she is very likable at the beginning so that the reader wants him to be a good guy, but then his greed takes over and the reader realizes he's going to mess it up for himself and for the main characters. But if the book has a happy ending, the villain's schemes will ultimately fail.

Villains are especially fun to create in a mystery or suspense. For example, in the 1941 Alfred Hitchcock movie, Suspicion, the wife becomes suspicious that her husband is trying to kill her. She fell head over heels in love with him, but after they wed, she began to realize he's a gambler. He thought he had married an heiress, but she only inherited one painting and no money. Her life insurance is worth more than what she brought into the marriage. As the movie progresses, everything points to the husband. Does he really want to kill his wife? I won't spoil this ending for you, but it will surprise you.

It's so much fun to create that eye-opening moment for readers. In my book, Ties That Bind, there was more than one villain. I began writing the story with only one villain in mind. But as the story developed, I realized there would be two villains—one much worse than the other. However, it wasn't until a few chapters from the end that I realized I needed a third villain. This one will surprise the readers the most. If truth be told, this villain surprised me too. It's funny how the story begins to write itself.

Redeeming the Villain

As a Christian, I want everyone to be saved. God desires the same. "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9 NIV) For that reason, I am tempted to give the salvation message to every one of my villains. Of course, they would see the error of their ways, and their lives would change forever. But reality is that not everyone will choose to follow God. Many selfishly continue pleasing only themselves. To make my stories believable, all my villains will not become believers by the end of the book. But, man, I sure am tempted to make that happen. After all, it's my story, and lost souls can become followers of God. This is a dilemma I face with each fiction I write.

Villains in the Real Life

Real-life villains are mostly likable until they are not. For example, Samson and Delilah in Judges 16. She must have been attractive to Samson in more ways than just her appearance. I imagine she endeared herself to him. They probably laughed together and enjoyed each other's company to the point that Samson trusted her. Even when she began to show her true character, Samson was willing to believe for the best in her. Sadly, his willful ignorance cost him his reputation, his sight, and eventually his life.

Another person that comes to mind is Saul who became the King of Israel. He started out humble and gained the respect of an entire nation. He fought and won many battles, and his enemies feared him. When a shepherd boy, David, came into his life and helped Israel win a one-on-one battle against a Philistine giant, King Saul honored David. Sadly, when King Saul sensed God's anointing on this young man, he became the villain in David's story.

Judas was a friend to Jesus's disciples. They even trusted him to handle the money that came in through their ministry. But his greed got the best of him, and he eventually betrayed Jesus.

Often we see people who started out well, become evil, and end up defeated. But how many people do they harm before justice is served? It has been prophesied that even the antichrist will start out as an appealing leader. He will appear to be the answer to the problems of this world. But he will eventually change and demand worship, which will cause multitudes to surrender even their souls to him.

A Villain is the Hero of His Own Story

Interestingly, the villain usually thinks he is the hero. The men who flew airplanes into the Twin Towers in New York City on 9/11 were heroes in their own story—even heroes of their terrorist group. Timothy McVeigh, known as the Oklahoma City Bomber, who killed 168 people including 19 children, did this as an act of revenge against the federal government. He must have seen himself as some sort of hero. He wasn't going to stay quiet and do nothing like so many others. No, he would take matters into his own hands and kill even if he killed innocent people.

I recently watched a Hallmark mystery where a human skeleton was found. Obviously, this was a cold case. However, after a long investigation, they had a suspect. His wife was terribly upset about it. She insisted her husband was innocent. By the end of the movie, we find out she was right. He was innocent. She had been the murderer. She did it to protect her husband and hide that she had been unfaithful to him with this man. In her mind, she was the heroine who protected her husband and saved their marriage.

We certainly don't see these people as heroes, but they see themselves that way and will fight hard to accomplish their goal. They are convinced that they are right.

Villains Make it Interesting

We would all be happy to go through life and never encounter a bad guy, evil person, or devastating situation. If we could all live happily together, get along with each other, help each other out, always be courteous, have all the provision we needed, stay young, never become sick, and never die, we would already be in heaven. This is what we all desire. But when it comes to movies and books, it would make for a terribly boring story.

Every story needs tension. You need a villain of some sort, whether a person or a situation. This is what page-turning novels and movies that keep you at the edge of your seat are all about. The reader must feel angst. Even a memoir must be written in this manner. This allows the story to develop, reach a climax, and resolve to a happy ending or some type of a conclusion.

The next time you read a book or watch a movie, pay close attention to the villain. There should be a backstory. He should evoke some type of emotion in you. The hero is only as heroic as the villain is powerful.

*Photo Credit: Sam Williams from Pixabay


Anneliese Dalaba

January 18, 2023