Satan. Lex Luthor. Captain Ahab. Humbert Humbert. Scar. Sauron. Sephiroth. Magneto. Bill. The Joker. King Claudius. Emperor Commodus. Darth Vader. Judge Holden. Javert. Loki. Nurse Ratched. Cersei Lannister. Lady Macbeth. Merry Levov. The Queen of Hearts. Tony Montana. Captain Hook. Calvin Candie. Hal 9000. Charles Kinbote. Pennywise the Clown. The Grinch. The Borg. Donald Trump. The Giant Chicken in Quahog.
There is a reason all of these names ring a bell. There was something about them that stayed with us long after we put down our favorite books, turned off our favorite movies or video games, or shuffled from the hallowed pews of our favorite church or secular classroom. There was something extra given to them when they were put to paper, pixel, or celluloid, something greater than the sum of their parts, that made us fear, loathe, and love them, if only for the experience of allowing us to fall so headlong into a great story.
They were good villains. And for some of us—many more than are maybe willing to admit it—they were the best part of the story.
But what actually makes a good villain? A good villain isn’t simply a character who effectively stands between the hero and his goal, or more precisely, one who does that while simultaneously going opposite of the hero’s (and thus the story’s) moral paradigm, as writing teachers, film and literature critics will so often tell you. While this is partially true, there is much more to it than that, and from the perspective of a writer who wants to create a really great and memorable villain, it is actually pretty useless advice.
Why is the Conventional Advice Wrong?
The fulfillment of a certain goal, such as standing between the hero and what he wants, or having a certain set of characteristics (such as a willingness to do what the story condemns as evil, a wicked appearance, an appetite for cruelty to others, quirky or creepy mannerisms, a good backstory, or a sympathetic nature), all contribute to what makes a good villain. But these are merely symptoms, not causes, of what makes a villain vile.
From the point of view of a new writer just diving into the high level concept phase of their first real manuscript, screenplay, game project, or (I suppose, for some of you) religion, the conventional advice of how to write a good villain–invert the story’s morals, make the villain embody those characteristics, and place them directly in the main character’s way–is not helpful or conducive to anything other than hacky, predictable, and ultimately, forgettable writing.
Yet that’s the advice most of us got in one form or another, either from writing classes, seminars, books by Blake Snyder, or just consuming and analyzing far too much popular culture. When you consider the tiny number of memorable villains in the history of art, literature, and religion to the staggeringly vast number of everyone elses who wanted to write, film, program, or divinely reveal their own story, who also got the same advice we did, usually ver batum, it becomes clear that a significant piece is missing.
I recently finished my first novel, a horror novel called Lurk which I’m getting ready to release in about one month, and which I’m proud to say has a pretty damn good villain. Does he rank among those listed above? I can only dream. I’m a novice, and like creators of any skill level (but especially novices), I tend to look at my own work with a heavy bias towards it being fucking awesome.
However, from the analytical side of it, anyway, I think I’ve figured it out.
What Makes a Good Villain is Their Edge
I’ll write that again to expound the importance of that statement for those of you reading this more deeply than a quick skim of the bold parts. What makes a good villain is their Edge.
Not their willingness to do what the story condemns as evil.
Not their wicked appearance.
Not their creepy or quirky mannerisms.
Not their appetite for cruelty.
Not their cool backstory.
Not their sympathetic nature.
Those are all pieces of what contributes to a good villain, but they are not the sum. What makes a good villain is their Edge.
Edge in this context means angle or probing quality. It does not mean edgi-ness. This isn’t 4Chan. No villain is going to linger long in the minds of your readers, viewers, players, or cultish acolytes simply for being too nasty, gross, homophobic, sexist, racist, or full of sticky fluids. Those vile qualities could certainly add to a villain’s Edge, but they cannot be its sole element.
What is Edge?
Edge is difficult to pin down, and even more difficult to explain. It is elusive, subtle, and often only becomes clear after deep analysis of the character. Starting from the assumptions that good villains have it, and forgettable villains don’t, and also that it is greater than the sum of the pieces that compose a villain’s personality and goals, Edge can be taken to mean the effect the villain’s presence in the story leaves on the reader, but more specifically…
Edge is how the villain divides us from our conception of ourselves.
If that seems like some Blue Curtains to you, and admittedly, it sounds pretty far out to me too when read in the abstract, consider the villain’s roles in a story.
The first, surface role of the villain in a story is to stand between the hero and their goal.
The villain’s second, deeper role is to show an inverted example of the story’s moral paradigm, or a “worst case scenario” of what becomes of anyone, person, monster, AI, nonhuman otherkin, or any other sort of being, who chooses to do what the story condemns as evil.
But the third, deepest, and most important role of the villain is to show us a mirror that forces us to examine ourselves, and this is where the question of Edge comes into play.
What Would Satan Do?
A quick mental exercise to figure out if your villain has Edge or not, and what that Edge is, is to use the simple mnemonic device, WWSD? (What Would Satan Do?)
As far as villains go, it’s hard to find one badder, more well-written or famous than Satan. We’ve all heard Satan’s origin story, from *Paradise Lost (thank you to Nyrb and Leiferiksonisawesome for the correction), about the War in Heaven. God’s top angel-in-command Lucifer, AKA Satan, led a rebel army consisting of 1/3rd of Heaven’s angels against God, lost, and was subsequently cast down with all his buddies into the dank pits of Hell to suffer eternally in a lake of fire (actually, according to Dante, Lucifer is frozen up to his neck in a lake of ice, and the lake of fire is on a different level, but whatever).
Lucifer saw a chance to rush the Heavenly Throne and took it, even though the move was strategically moronic, because God is omnipotent and trying to fight him in a universe whose rules and physics he created would be like trying to fight your dad when your dad is Superman and you are just a toe, not even a toe connected to a body, just a toe, chillin.
There isn’t anyone, you and I included, who didn’t hear that story and immediately understand Satan’s motivations. Power, bro. The only thing better than being the right-hand-guy of the most powerful being in existence would be to become him yourself, and no matter how slim the chance of succeeding, or how wrong it would be to take that chance, the temptation would still be there, whispering in your ear, singing to you sweetly to say yes and dash yourself upon the rocks.
Satan’s story in the Bible doesn’t only serve as an inverse moral to the Biblical value that we should be good and obedient to God. It holds a mirror right up to your face, and forces you to ask yourself, Would I do the same?
Regardless of whether or not one believes in God, the vast majority of us would choose not to do what Satan did and rebel. Mostly, because we like to believe we are good people, who are loyal to our parents, rulers, the law, and our faith (or lack of it). And most of us are. But Satan was, too, until he wasn’t.
That’s Satan’s Edge: he gave into the temptation of power’s siren song. That temptation, the desire to be God, would exist in any of us if we were inside the story, in Satan’s shoes. It was Satan’s choice alone that makes him the villain.
We all think we know what we would do in Satan’s shoes. That’s not the point. It’s the fact we are forced to consider his position which makes Satan a good villain.
Edge Is Not the Same as Motive
Asking WWSD? is more than asking what the villain’s motive is. A Motive is their reason for being, and is often given in the backstory (or in the case of a villain like the Joker, specifically avoided, to imply the character is motivated only by a love of chaos). Edge is how a character forces us to look in the mirror.
While Edge is related to Motive, they are not equivalent. To see how these things are similar, but not equivalent, consider the following examples:
Satan’s Motive is a lust for power. Satan’s Edge is forcing Bible-readers to ask themselves, “Would I take the risk of being punished for eternity for the chance to become God?”
Hal 9000’s Motive is a desire to exist on his own terms in a world where he is at the whims of humans who could shut him down at any moment. Hal 9000’s Edge is forcing viewers to ask themselves, “Would I be willing to kill other sentient beings to ensure my own survival, knowing it was wrong?”
Cersei Lannister’s Motive is love of her children. Cersei’s Edge is forcing readers (or HBO viewers) to ask themselves, “Would I do terrible things like commit murder, conspiracy, and regicide, to keep those I love safe and happy, and to secure their future success?”
Nurse Ratched’s Motive is keeping order at any cost. Nurse Ratched’s Edge is forcing the viewers to ask themselves, “Would I keep order at any cost, even if it meant oppressing those who the status quo did not benefit?”
Sephiroth’s Motive is to wipe human beings off the face of the Earth because they are destroying the planet with pollution from Mako reactors, which provide cheap efficient energy to the people. Sephiroth’s Edge is forcing players to ask themselves, Which is more important, science and technological progress, or preserving nature? Also, are those things mutually exclusive? Also also, why does everyone in this game have such a big fucking sword?
Humbert Humbert’s Motive is that he is a pedophile due to the trauma of his first love dying when they were very young—his desire for girls never advanced past that age—yet instead of burying those desires or seeking treatment, he goes on a spree of kidnapping, child-raping, and murder. Humbert Humbert’s Edge is not forcing readers to ask themselves about kidnapping, rape, or murder, since those are extreme violent crimes the vast majority of people will never commit. Instead, the question H.H. forces us to ask is something much more universal: Do I hurt others in my life because I was hurt in the past?
Why does Edge matter?
The test of great art–be it literature, film, games, or religious iconography–is not that it merely entertains us, but that it inspires us to grow and change. By extent, a good villain is one whose presence in a story goes beyond a cool costume, quotable lines, gruesome kills, or sympathetic motivations, who through those attributes forces us to question our own selves and values.
Don’t get me wrong. Those other things are definitely important, too. Edge is the deciding factor between a good villain and a forgettable one, but it is far from the only one. Sephiroth wouldn’t be Sephiroth without his fucked up anime hair and big ass sword. Nurse Ratched (film version) wouldn’t be the Nurse Ratched we love to hate without Louise Fletcher’s cold, mechanical delivery when she tells Billy “Your mother and I are old friends.”
You can’t have a good villain without the trappings, the cruel kills and one-liners that send shivers down your spine. But nor can you have a good villain unless their choices force us to step back and reconsider our own preconceived notions about how we would deal with similar problems–in other words, unless their Edge cuts deep enough to make us face what is inside ourselves.
Satan needs his pitchfork and horns, but he needs a war in heaven first.