Understanding Characters: Villains 101

Over the course of my various posts I have spent a lot of time talking about villains.  Unfortunately a lot of that time was spent explaining how shitty certain villains are.  So I figured it was time to condense my thoughts on the subject into one post for your convenience.  Ladies and gentlemen today I lay down some basic guidelines for making decent villains complete with examples of how to fuck it up.  From here on there will be scattered spoilers, you have been warned.

Let’s begin with the basics, do not make your villain one note unless everything about this person is built to support that one note.  When you want to make someone compelling the key is to find ways aid the audience’s suspension of disbelief.  One way to do that is to make your character, in this case the villain a balanced character.  Real people are not one note, even figures we love to ridicule for their single-mindedness like Hitler or Stalin were not one note men.  So creating a villain who is one note will subconsciously ring false.  For example Sugou from SAO, the villain from the Alfheim arc is utterly unbelievable because he has one character trait and that’s it.  A good villain is often even more complex than the hero of the story, after all it takes a certain kind of life experience to end up being a villain whereas any kid can want to be the chosen one who saves the day.  Case in point Tamiya Ryouko of Kiseijuu.  Tamiya Ryouko was more complex than Shinichi, her thinking was constantly evolving as she came to better understand her surroundings to the point where minor one note villains turned on her for her complexity of thought.  I’m not saying every villain should or realistically can be another Tamiya Ryouko but keeping the villain interesting is crucial and one note is rarely interesting.  The exception to this rule is when everything about the character contributes to their one note status, and I mean everything.  You can’t just do what SAO did with Sugou and be like “well he’s a rapey bastard” and call it quits there.  The character’s backstory, philosophy, and actions should be intertwined in an airtight bubble.  A good example would be Makishima Shogo from Psycho Pass, although he’s not so much one note as he is focused on a single goal.  Makishima’s experiences growing up in an environment controlled by the Sybil system combined with his exceedingly rare status as a Criminally Asymptomatic person work together to determine his philosophy as an adult, which in turn becomes the basis for all of his actions.  Makishima makes sense, there is a clear chain of events and circumstances that lead to his actions.  Everything we know about him points to single direction, and therefore he is incredibly compelling and believable.

The next thing to keep in mind although its closely related to the first is the villain’s motivation.  Going back to Makishima, part of why we works so well is that we understand his motivation so clearly.  The motivation doesn’t have to be particularly complicated, it can be simple greed for all we care, but we need to be able to understand it.  You can’t expect me to take a villain who doesn’t even know why he’s a villain seriously unless there are some very special circumstances at play.  To see how this is done wrong, look back to SAO.  Kayaba the creator of Aincrad a world where thousands of innocent people die doesn’t even know why he trapped anyone in the game to begin with.  It’s so fucking lame and really it’s more than a little embarrassing that a man who writes for a living can’t be bothered to make a motivation for a major villain during the climax of an arc.  It didn’t even have to be that good.  For example if Kayaba was perhaps taken with a certain kind of story to the point of lunatic obsession and then made it his life goal to see the story enacted… well it has some problems but it at least would give us something to go on.  This is rarely a problem so I think I’ll stop here and talk about the exception I mentioned.  There are certain circumstances where a villain could feasibly be believable and not know their own motivation.  If the villain was indoctrinated or raised by other villains and has no proper concept of right and wrong, if the villain has amnesia and is constantly coming under attack and has to defend themselves, or something along these lines could work.  But in most such cases the villain is victim of circumstance and rarely a true villain at all so it can be tough to work with.  One of the only good examples I can think of is Wrath aka King Bradley from FMAB because he was raised to be a bad guy, understood he was doing evil and decided to keep doing evil anyway.  A character that works in a similar way would be Kotomine Kirei of Fate Zero, a man who is empty and adrift and is pushed towards evil without initially being a villain.  In either case this sort of setup is rare and difficult to do well.

The last major thing I want to touch on is managing scale.  This is mostly a problem for long running shounen but it can crop up elsewhere and it’s pretty important.  When I’m talking about scale and villains I generally mean either their power or the level of their level of influence over a story.  I already touched on the issues of brokenly overpowered characters here, but here’s a quick summary.  Characters that are too powerful make the story less believable because they don’t quite feel like they belong in the world the story takes place in.  Likewise simply scaling up your villain’s power level to surpass a continually growing hero is a bad idea that can quickly get out of hand and ruin the experience.  As for influence, a villain should be an influential force on the story however I want to apply this specifically to villains who are playing the role of manipulators.  Manipulative bastards make for good villains because they are easy to hate, and combine intellect with ruthlessness.  However, any given villain, even a manipulative one can only have so much influence over a story and still be compelling.  Take for example Aizen Sosuke from Bleach.  His initial debut as a villain was awesome but somewhere along the line his story fell apart, that point being when he declared that he had manipulated Ichigo’s growth as a shinigami from birth and had a hand in which opponents he faced in what order he faced them and holy fucking shit this sounds so goddamn retarded.  Likewise Madara just pulled a similar stunt during the most recent episode of Naruto at the time of this writing, claiming that he had manipulated the Hidden Mist village into implanting Rin with the Sanbi all so he could Obito to fall to darkness.  In both these cases the amount of influence the villains are claiming over the story is absurd especially when you consider the circumstances.  Aizen could not have possibly manipulated Ichigo’s growth to any real degree, it would require him to always have access to information he shouldn’t have and that everyone involved follows his suggestions without question and wow this is sounding really stupid too.  Likewise Madara is his own goddamn mess.  First off I have no idea how he survives his fight with Hashirama, the First Hokage had mastered Sage Arts and Wood Style there’s no way he wouldn’t be able to know whether Madara was alive or dead after their fight.  But even ignoring that how can Madara, who at this point is super old and only alive because he has linked himself to the husk of the Juubi, go out and influence the Hidden Mist Village in any tangible way?  He is essentially chained to the Juubi statue, he has no business understanding the current status of Hidden Leaf or Hidden Mist let alone devising plots to ruin both on the basis of understanding the personal relationships of one random team of Hidden Leaf Ninjas… this is fucking absurd.  You can’t just dump all the major events in a story on the villain because they’re the biggest bad guy, even the major league villains have to have limits or else the story goes to shit.  And the sad part is the manipulation doesn’t have to be all encompassing to be dramatic and compelling, case in point Naraku from Inuyasha.  In Inuyasha Naraku is such a powerful manipulator not because he’s the biggest bad guy around but because he has personal ties to everyone he manipulates.  His story is deeply intertwined with the that of the main characters, i.e. he has a long history with them so he can manipulate them.  He also doesn’t determine every encounter along the way either, he is only one of several forces that influence the main characters throughout the story and there is nothing wrong with that.  In fact it makes far more sense than some villain everyone thought was dead suddenly coming out the woodworks and basically saying they own the story.  There’s no need for bullshit like that and I can’t fathom why anyone would write their story that way.  I assume it’s for a dramatic twist but it’s just so stupid, why would anyone create a scenario that is full of plot holes and logical fallacies while stripping away the agency of almost everyone else involved in the story.  It doesn’t make any fucking sense.

Anyway to summarize the above.  Villains should be complex either in their construction as a multi-faceted character or in the circumstances that enable them to be more one note and yet remain compelling.  Villains need to have motivations that we the audience can understand unless the story has been built around their lack of a motivation and accounts for it somehow.  Villains need to be reigned in just as much as heroes in terms of their power and their influence on a story.  Good villains should be strong and influential, this is true, but they should not be brokenly overpowered nor have too much influence over the story.  There are always going to be other forces at work in the story from random chance to helpful mentors, do not take away the agency of everyone in the story to make the villain seem bigger, it creates far more problems than any perceived increase in dramatic tension is worth.  And that wraps this one up.  Thank you for reading, hopefully you enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

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