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What makes for a good villain?

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot recently as I edit the end of the Sedona series. What makes for an entertaining and memorable villain? They’re evil, sure, but it has to be more than that, there has to be something compelling beyond the evil plan to destroy the world or kill the hero or rule the kingdom.

I think the reader has to see the villain as a character of their own right and not just a force against the hero. The villain has wants and goals and has to overcome obstacles (mainly the hero) to get to those goals. The villain has a personality, whether it’s cold and calculating or maniacal and unpredictable. Because I think part of what makes a villain great is how their goals stand against the hero’s, and what the villain is willing to do to achieve them.

I’ve been watching a lot of the Flash, Arrow and the Legend of Korra lately, and the villains that stood out to me on those shows are the Reverse Flash, Slade Wilson and Zaheer of the Red Lotus. In each of those stories we learn a lot about the villains during their arcs, and we spend enough time with them that we understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, even if we don’t agree with their choices. Part of what made the Reverse Flash so appealing was we knew he was watching Barry the whole season, and it built this sense of dread as we wondered what he was planning and why he was working to keep Barry safe.

Slade Wilson was the best villain I’d seen in a while, in part because we saw him and Oliver before, as good friends. We then saw how Shado’s death weighed heavily on him to the point that he became a bitter man, consumed by his hatred of Oliver. So it made sense that he’d go after everything Oliver held dear.

Zaheer was fascinating to watch because here was a man who followed the teaching of airbending masters, a group that’s known for their peace and non-violence, and used their powers to cause so much destruction. Be he only did it because he felt convinced that chaos was the natural order of the world. He also saw himself as a true bringer of balance, rather than Avatar Korra.

So because we understood the journey those villains took, I think we all felt their final fights were earned, because in the end it was their will vs the hero’s, and only one person would get what they wanted.

So there you have it: what I think makes a villain compelling. Now that I’ve written it down, feel free to call me on it if I don’t deliver layered villains in my stories.