"My child, you have come to me my son. For who now is your father if it is not me? I am the well spring from which you flow. When I am gone, you will have never been. What would your world be, without me?"
While the protagonist is the beating heart of the novel, the antagonist is the spine, the rod that shapes and molds a main character into that person we come to feel for, cheer for, harrow with. Without the villain, there is no story. Without the villain, it is an easy life not worth the telling. The two are inextricably locked together and so a great story, a great hero or heroine, deserves a great villain as well.
Your story may offer a villain, whose actions must be thwarted and who knows she is not doing so-called 'good'. Or it may offer an antagonist, who thwarts your protagonist's actions and believes his path is the right one. Either way these characters must support the protagonist's believability as a real person, and generate the tension which drives the plot. As such, don't they deserve to be human (or vampire, elf, or whathaveyou), rounded, and believable as well?
The best villains, the ones we remember, feel like more than caricatures who cackle malevolently or sit in high-backed chairs and stroke cats. I've read decent books where the villain elevated the whole story and made it shine, kept coming back to lacklustre movies because of a captivating enemy. The best villains compel us, challenge us to linger for a moment in their motivations and think 'You know what, I see where he's coming from.' A character like Hannibal Lecter, for example, fascinates us to the point of dominating our attention despite only 16 minutes of screen time in Silence of the Lambs. Why? Because as alien and atrocious his actions are, he is real, compelling, and challenges us to examine his point of view. We may not agree with his actions, but we can understand why he agrees with them.
Personally, I love to relate to a villain, to linger for a moment in that mindset (regardless of narrative point-of-view), spend time with a human character who also happens to be a murdering psychopath. I like to teeter that little bit, believe maybe, just maybe the villain's got the right idea of things...
"I offered you shelter. I taught you how to survive. I cared for you as a father, as a brother, but what did you do? You took from me. Took everything I had and thought you could just leave."
If you can relate to a novel's villains, believe in their view and their struggle, their motives, you can legitimately fear for their possible success, fear for the protagonist's downfall. You understand why they're doing it, so what if the characters realize the same? What if they agree?
Even in romance, where happily-ever-after is baked right in, a good villain can make the reader wonder how -- how on earth will the hero/heroine possibly overcome such obstacles?
Maybe not the best example of a romantic story (the movie does begin with the words "This is not a love story"), but one of my favourite guilty pleasures in film is Original Sin. Perhaps not the most stellar of movies out there, but the villain utterly saves it for me. I adore Thomas Jane's performance, from his wheedling introduction to venom-spitting conclusion, and his utter sway over the main characters' actions holds the plot hostage until the final minutes with the possibility of several messy endings. The dynamic, compelling, and most importantly real antagonist draws an audience into deeper realms of villainy, eager to see how and if the main characters will escape. If he steals each scene and captivates us, the audience, how can we expect the characters to break away from his influence and persevere?
I'll leave you with a few questions from Donald Maass:
"What does your antagonist deeply believe in? What drives him forward? Why might his worldview be correct? Is your antagonist evil for the sake of being evil?"
So, people of the Prairies, share with me your villains. I want to know who whips the conflict in your current work-in-progress? What drives them forward? How might they justify their actions? If you're uncertain, who are your all-time favourite antagonists and what captivates you about them? Who holds you hostage and makes you hope it never ends?
My name is Hayley, and I'm in love with villains.
(Flickr photo by arbyreed)