When you set out to determine what a villain is, you’ll inevitably hit on the “classic villain” – one who is the nemesis of the hero, representing evil to combat the hero’s good. The villain is resoundingly evil or bad or wrong, or dastardly, or any of another dozen or so words. The problem in defining villainy based purely on bad traits is that it tends to dilute the meaning of a villain. In doing so, many authors have, perhaps knowingly, or not, caricatured villains into something laughable, easily dismissable. Rarely, will you find yourself intrigued or fascinated by these, to borrow a term, “bargain-bin Nazis.” No, a real villain is something more than just an evil character, a “bad guy.” They are full characters in their own right with ambitions, personalities, challenges, and goals. They are the hero of their own story.
Before we go much further, we have to distinguish a villain from another type of character, an antagonist. These two are often mistaken for each other and the terms are used interchangeably in a frustratingly imprecise way. An antagonist is a character defined entirely by his relationship to the hero. Without the hero, the antagonist doesn’t really have a place in the story. These characters oppose the hero in some way, either his ideals, goals, or personality. Antagonists are actually plot devices rather than independent characters. They are effectively speed bumps on the hero’s path – they exist to provide a challenge the hero has to overcome. Many authors expand the scope and scale of an antagonist to use as their “big bad guy,” mistaking it for a villain. The best examples of antagonists can be found in comic book so-called “villains.”
Villains are more than antagonists. A villain will act whether the hero is there or not because he is a character on his own, rather than a foil for the hero. These characters are trying to accomplish something, that must be stopped. Actually, if you look at a story from a villain’s perspective, the hero is the antagonist. In a broad sense, the villain is acting against the world, to reshape it or change it in some way that is undesirable to the hero. In contrast with antagonists, villains are characters in their own right and are subject to the same kinds of development as normal characters.
Of course, there are a great many different kinds of villain, some better than others. Some are klutzy, some are pure evil, some are misguided, while others are just pests. But what makes these villains tick? There are three different broad categories of villains that are broken down by the same “dimensional” model that applies to characters.
One-dimensional villains are extremely shallow. You can usually sum up these characters with one negative adjective. These are the “bargain-bin Nazis.” These characters are usually the personification of one negative trait driven to the extreme. They are usually one of the 7 deadly sins – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, or gluttony. The development of these characters is strictly limited to increasing the scope of their evil acts and magnifying the negative traits they possess. These villains act solely for the goal of being more evil – it’s an end rather than a means. At this point, the villain is nothing more than an idea that the hero must stop because it is evil. In many ways, these are exceptionally lazy villains because they require little thought to use. Just add water and *poof* insta-villain. The problem is that these villains are often so weak, they are so very close to, and can easily be indistinguishable from, antagonists. Of course, the hero has to oppose evil, so by its nature, the evil has to oppose the hero. This doesn’t make them poor villains, just limits their role in a story.
Two-dimensional villains have a little bit of depth to them. These are more like cardboard cutouts. In contrast to the one-dimensional villains, these have thoughts and feelings that are not something to the effect of “how can I commit still more evil?” These villains are still generally evil, but have more complex (at least two or more) motives that help drive the character. Two dimensional villains may feel for their comrades or have a sense of honor or duty – something that may conflict with their obviously evil goal. Even so, they are still undeniably evil. The best way to think about these guys is that they are either a more nuanced use of the 7 deadly sins, or combine several different ones in addition to one or more positive traits. What this does is give the impression of character depth because it represents different forces pulling the character in different directions. We still know that evil will win out with these guys – they are evil, after all.
Three-dimensional villains are very nuanced. They break away from directly representing the 7 deadly sins and take on the feeling of a flawed character. These villains can often be sympathetic because they can be perceived as reasonable. The key to the best villains is this reasonable quality. What is fascinating about these characters is that it almost engages the viewer in a dialogue – we can understand how and why the villain made those choices, but we disagree with them. Perhaps the character had flawed judgment or a flawed character or made bad decisions or is so well thought-out such that he’s not wrong, just going about it in a wrong way. They have feelings and character flaws. Most importantly, they learn. They change and grow and develop as characters, not solely in evil ways. They can have many positive traits and even do positive things. For these villains, doing bad things isn’t their goal, but it is one means of accomplishing what they want to do.
The funny thing about villains is that many authors and anime often malign them – they don’t do villains justice (pun intended). A well done villain represents a genuine threat to a hero, not because he could blow up the world or kill millions of people, but because he has the possibility of persuading you, the viewer, to feel something for him. When done well, they are an extremely powerful character that can challenge and test the very core of our hero’s beliefs, thoughts, and actions.
(Update: Thank you @rogueyoukai for your excellent point.) With all that in mind, just because a villain is one or two-dimensional, doesn’t mean they’re not good villains. They certainly can have a very powerful place in the right kind of story. Not every story needs a villain. For that matter, not every story that needs a villain needs a three-dimensional villain. The wrong kind of villain can change the impact of a story; if the villain is too well done, he could even end up stealing the spotlight. Conversely, a villain that’s too weakly done doesn’t even really present a threat or challenge to a hero. The right kind of villain in a story makes him almost the ultimate supporting character because he sets the stage to highlight our hero’s best traits. He makes a hero the hero. For a villain to pull that off, it requires a careful selection of a villain that’s fits the story.
As you can tell, I appreciate a good villain because I love to see how they make other characters respond.