When your novel features a ninja assassin as its protagonist, you have to think long and hard about what makes a villain.
Ultimately, villainy is usually a matter of perspective.
Real villains aren’t the mustache-twirling cardboard cutouts of Saturday-morning cartoon fame. Snidely Whiplash is funny, but not really frightening. Horror villains, like Nightmare on Elm Street’s infamous Freddy Krueger, are scary for a moment but not in a way that makes you think. (Sweet dreams the night you see it, though.)
The truly lasting, classic villains – the ones we love to hate (or hate to love) – are the ones which display humanity beneath their selfish goals.
J.K. Rowling’s Severus Snape (both in the books and as brilliantly portrayed by Alan Rickman in the films) is such a villain. He is hostile, dark, and blessed with both the power to terrorize Harry Potter and brilliantly-written lines with which to do so. Yet that alone does not make him a brilliant villain. His true strength lies in the fact that he also has reasons to love Harry Potter – and does, in a way – and yet hates the fact that he does so.
Snape’s villainy is born of personal conflict.
To write a lasting villain, an author must dive beneath the surface and understand the story from the villain’s point of view. In the hero’s world, the villain exists as a stumbling block, a threat to the hero and those he aims to save. But the villain’s perspective on the tale is different. In the villain’s world the hero must not succeed, for reasons the villain considers both legitimate and justified. The key, for the author, is knowing those reasons as well as (s)he knows the hero’s motivations to succeed.
Snape loathes Harry Potter because Harry had what Snape desired most of all – the love of Lily Potter – and because Harry wears the face of the man who guaranteed that love would remain forever beyond Snape’s reach. Severus Snape is wounded, not evil, and from those wounds (and some very bad choices) antagonism springs.
To me, the best villain is the one whose version of the story casts the villain as the hero. The one whose villainy springs from circumstances, choices, and an extra dash of selfishness (or sometimes bad intent).
The most frightening villain is not the one who springs out of a closet or ties a princess to a railroad track.
It’s the one who makes me stop and think “there, but for choice and circumstance, go I.”
What makes a good villain to you?