So after a series of posts about villains, we come to the question of how to make a good villain. As always with writing, the answer is, “It depends what serves the story best.” But since that’s too vague to be much help for beginning writers, let’s try to get some more specific suggestions. (Suggestions! Not rules, suggestions.)
Villains only exist because they make the heroes’ stories better. If a villain is a great entertaining character, but doesn’t fit with the hero’s story, the villain has to go. (Save such villains for later; maybe give them stories of their own.)
So what does it mean for a villain to “fit” with a hero’s story? At the very least, the villain must provide enough opposition that readers think the hero might fail. If a villain is a pushover, there’s no dramatic tension.
But that’s the easy part. There are plenty of straightforward ways to make someone imposing: make them stronger, smarter, better equipped, better prepared, more connected, less inhibited…the list goes on. But which qualities from this list are best suited for opposing a particular hero?
That depends on the hero’s personality and character arc. How is the hero going to change in this story? What are the temptations that might lead the hero astray? What kind of villain might threaten to induce such changes? What kind of villain reflects the hero’s personal demons? What kind of villain may have strengths that the hero lacks?
As a case study, let’s take Batman. He’s famous for having some of the best villains in comics. Some are just physically imposing (e.g. Killer Croc or Solomon Grundy). But many are more distinctive and tailored to Batman himself.
The Penguin is a rich kid gone wrong…as opposed to Bruce Wayne, the rich kid with moral fiber. Poison Ivy crusades for a noble cause (just like Batman), but she takes it too far and doesn’t care who gets hurt. Two-Face went through a traumatic experience (much like Bruce Wayne losing his parents), but instead of gaining a purpose in life, he gave up and decided that everything is completely random.
All these villains (and more) are twisted reflections of Batman, suggesting ways he might have gone—ways that he still might go if he loses his resolve. But of course, Batman’s foremost enemy is the Joker, because of Joker’s threat of corrupting what Batman is.
The Joker kills for fun. Batman never kills at all. The Joker is guaranteed to keep on killing—he’ll never stay locked up long before he escapes and starts killing again. Everything about the Joker is aimed at tempting Batman to kill him, thereby saving numerous future victims. That’s the challenge that the Joker presents: not whatever scheme the Joker is up to, but whether Batman is going to resist resorting to murder. And the Joker knows exactly how to push Batman’s buttons to bring him to the edge of finishing the Joker once and for all.
Of course, the Joker is also colorful, unpredictable, and sometimes even funny. But that’s not why he works so well in Batman’s stories. The Joker is the guy who does something awful, then laughs in Batman’s face and says, “What are you going to do about it?”
The Joker is perfect for making Batman prove himself. And that’s the sort of villain that’s worth aiming for in any story you write.