The Importance of Being Villainous

So I’ve been thinking about bad guys in fiction.  When I was a kid, I always rooted for them.  I wanted Wile E. Coyote to catch the Roadrunner, Gargamel to transmute the Smurfs, and if I had been Luke Skywalker, it’s pretty likely I would have taken Darth up on his offer to rule the galaxy as father and son.  The bad guys just seemed, well, cooler.  Maybe this attitude is typical of children, or maybe I was just a morally impaired little monster.  Who knows?

As I got older, my sense of conscience matured.  These days, I find that when I read novels and watch movies and TV shows, I’m yearning for the heroes to prevail more often than not.  I’m not sure why, but I have a theory—the older you get, the more precious life starts to feel.  Suddenly, that Bond villain’s cavalier destruction of innocent lives doesn’t seem so cool.  That dude driving to work when the super-bomb erupts a volcano in the middle of the freeway could be you, after all.  And once you have your first kid, forget about ever again empathizing with a villain who endangers children!

In adulthood, I have become a decent, conscientious, kind-hearted person.  And I’m fighting it tooth and nail.

Why?  For you, dear reader.  Because your entertainment depends on my ability to think like a villain, to put myself in the bad guy’s head, to be evil, at least within my own skull and on the page.  As a writer, this maturation of conscience I’ve experienced sucks, because great stories are built on great villains.  And I’m not just talking about modern thrillers.  Hannibal Lecter is a classic villain example and should be studied by all storytellers, but Shakespeare knew the importance of great villains, too (Richard III, Macbeth), as did Milton (Satan), and numerous Neanderthals (saber-tooth tigers painted on cave walls).

What makes bad guys so compelling?  My hunch is that good villains tap into our longing for empowerment and freedom.  Maybe the villain shoots lightning from his fingers.  Maybe she’s got a lot of money, or a private army, or a nuclear warhead.  In any case, a villain worth his or her salt is powerful enough to be a threat to the hero—and in a good story, that means a lot of power.  And with power comes freedom.  The freedom to do the things that we would never, or could never, do, but that we might like to imagine ourselves doing.  Like, say, robbing a bank, or seeking vengeance on a hated nemesis.  For good reasons, of course!  After all, some of the best villains don’t even know they’re bad.  In their own minds, they are the heroes in their stories.

Readers love bad guys.  Even bad guys who do the most heinous, horrible, evil deeds.  Especially them.  And because entertaining readers is the single most important part of any storyteller’s job, I hereby pledge to you that no matter how upstanding a person I may become, I will never lose touch with my inner evildoer.  If you want great villains, you can count on me.

Have a favorite bad guy?  Tell us in the comments!

Posted in Books, writing