In a book I finished several months ago, I had an epiphany about villains. They don’t think they’re villains. The evil cheerleader who picks on the ugly girl with glasses? She doesn’t think she’s evil. Maybe she’s picking on the ugly girl because the ugly girl did something that hurt her when they were in grade school, and she’s holding a grudge. In that case–according to the cheerleader, the ugly girl is the villain and is only getting what’s deserved.
Let’s consider Professor Snape in Harry Potter. He’s the ultimate complex character. He’s the bad guy, a constant thorn in Harry’s side. And yet . . . he’s also a sympathetic character. We feel sorry for him, we understand his motivations, and sometimes he’s helping our protagonists achieve their goals. Sometimes he’s doing things that good guys do. So is he good or bad?
That depends on who you’re asking. Harry would say Snape’s the villain. Snape would call himself the hero. He made the hard choice, did what had to be done, and he did it all for the love of one woman. Isn’t that heroic? Doesn’t that deserve our approval? Or if not approval, at the very least, it deserves our understanding, and certainly doesn’t deserve our censure.
In fact, all bad guys are the heroes of their own stories. They don’t think of themselves as diabolically evil. They usually think of themselves as avengers of wrongs done to them. Or they’re egomaniacs who really think the world would be better if they were in charge, and they can’t figure out why everyone’s trying to stop them.
This is important to remember when writing about bad guys–They usually have some strong motivating factor to act the way they do. A bad guy with the depth of the puddle isn’t very interesting. Your hero is only as strong as his nemesis. You write a strong villain, and it will force your hero to step up to the plate and be equal and surpassing of that strength–because the hero has to win and he can’t if the villain is stronger.
But if you have a weak, two-dimensional bad guy, your hero will also be weak. The best way to give characters complexity and therefore make them interesting is to avoid the “absolute” personality.
No one is absolutely evil. No one is absolutely good. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.
I truly believe that the very best humans are capable of horrible acts if given the right circumstances, and the very worst humans are capable of great kindness if given the right circumstances. Keeping in mind that everyone has their reasons for the things they do will enrich your story and make sure that the characters stay in character. So now you know Snape is my favorite villain and why, who is yours?