What Makes a Great Villain? Panel Summary

Since Rhoda asked, here is a panel summary. 😀 I was on this panel with Matt Moore, Thomas Gofton, and either Gregory A. Wilson or Rob St. Martin – one of them didn’t show up and now I can’t remember which one. UGH. As you can see, I am having a bit of trouble remembering who said what, but the actual content is still pretty fresh in my mind, so let’s see what we can do in point form, without attribution.

There was no official moderator, so the panel was a bit of a free-for-all, but I think the four of us worked together pretty well. Villains are a complex and fascinating topic, and there was only time to scratch the surface on many of their aspects.

So what does make a great villain?

  • Villains are often the most active characters, the ones who set the plot in motion
  • Villains have to be powerful enough to create a truly challenging situation for the hero
  • The villain also has to have motives that make sense, and a reason to be creating this situation
  • The villain is a “hero” in the sense of having goals and working towards those goals, and having a story where they could plausibly succeed or fail, and where the audience cares about which one happens – even if their actual goals are horrible.
  • So in some sense writers who are employing villains in their storytelling need to treat the story as if it has “two heroes” – the villain has to work towards their goal just like the hero, and to be concerned about failing, and the author needs to get just as deep into the villain’s head as the hero’s

How should the audience feel about a villain?

  • My opinion: the best villains are the ones the audience “secretly likes”.
  • Or, as another panelist put it, the ones we “love to hate or hate to love”
  • An author’s goal is to make readers want to know what happens next; wanting to see what the villain does next is part of that
  • Other panelists mentioned the opposite: villains who stuck with them because they had been awful and dislikeable and hadn’t received their comeuppance, and years after seeing the movie, they still wanted to go up to the villain and smack them!
  • Also there can be problems when a villain is more compelling than the protagonist, which is why certain 80s horror movies have so many sequels centred around the villain and not the Final Girl; the villains were the ones that audiences had questions about and wanted to see more of.

Villains and morality, part I

  • Some of the most compelling villains start out as good people, who might have stayed good if things had been even a little bit different, but a series of events and misunderstandings happens that bring the villain to a point where they are dead set against the hero, in a way that no longer has a simple solution
  • Others have a good goal (e.g. trying to save the environment) but go about it in unacceptable ways, believing the ends justify the means
  • Most (all?) great villains believe that they are the hero, and the hero is the villain; they are right and the hero is wrong
  • But villains can also be compelling when they are “moral black boxes” (e.g. The Joker or Hannibal Lecter). Their villainous behaviour becomes fascinating because it is so far from what we consider acceptable that it implies a completely alien way of looking at the world.
  • Even “moral black boxes” have to have a goal and care about something
  • For example, in The Dark Knight, the Joker wants to upset the status quo, and will allow himself to be hurt or even killed to achieve this goal

Female villains

  • About halfway through the panel, someone in the audience pointed out that all the villains we had discussed so far were men. WHOOPS.
  • This led to a lot of discussion of people’s favorite female villains
  • Fandoms suggested by the audience for having lots of interesting female villains: Batman, Disney, anime
  • Female villains are frequently sexualized in specific ways, using their sex appeal and/or apparent vulnerability as a weapon
  • Some audience members did not think this was a problem; a villain who is seen as attractive should logically be able to use that to their advantage
  • While this is logical on its face, I pointed out that not every villainous woman will happen to be conventionally attractive, nor will they necessarily have the skill set or interests that would make sexuality a good choice of weapon for them
  • Some examples of non-sexualized female villains suggested by the audience: the Borg Queen from Star Trek, Ursula from The Little Mermaid (although someone in the audience was like “what are you talking about, Ursula looks great!”), Mother Russia from Kick-Ass 2, Stephen King’s Misery, someone from Mobile Suit Gundam Wing whose name I can’t remember anymore >_<
  • There was also a very brief discussion of maternal villains
  • While maternal villains are still potentially problematic, they can be a refreshing change from compulsory sexiness
  • We agreed that we wanted to see more options for female villains in general

Villains and morality, part II

  • We continued discussing this sort of at the same time as female villains
  • Villains who are completely evil for evil’s sake (e.g. the devil) are very hard sells today
  • Post-Vietnam, and especially post-9/11, there is increasing interest by the American market, in particular, in morally gray fiction. Heroes who are not necessarily in the right, villains who kinda have a point or who retain their humanity / remain sympathetic despite doing things the hero finds unacceptable
  • This also relates to the trend of retelling old stories from the villain’s point of view, making the heroes of the story into the real villains – e.g. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked & the upcoming Maleficent movie
  • Villains reflect underlying cultural unease in this way because villains are one way in which we culturally work out some important moral questions. How should we think about people who seem to have the power & intent to harm us, or who do things we find abhorrent? How should we treat them? How hard should we work to understand their perspective? Can they be understood? How do we know if they can be rehabilitated, or if they are even in the wrong in the first place? What do we as a culture call evil, and how should we think about evil?

It was a very lively audience discussion. We reluctantly ended the panel at five minutes to the hour, mostly because I was getting worried about going overtime and messing things up for the panel that came after us. We agreed that there are whole books that can be written about villains, and that we would love to talk more about them; we have only scratched the surface.