V is for Villain

By Alison Bruce

"I firmly believe that a story is only as good as the villain."
Clive Barker

"The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture."
Alfred Hichcock

Given their outstanding successes, Clive Barker and Alfred Hitchcock should know what they're talking about. As a writer, I'm not about to argue. As a former philosophy major who was questioning everything before it got me good grades, I'd only argue about the nature of villainy and what makes a good bad guy.

Villain is a funny term. It comes from the Latin word villanus which means a farm worker, specifically a worker on a Roman farm or villa. In Medieval French, the word became villein and referred to farmers who were not knights. Since they were not knights, they were technically not chivalrous. Behaviour that was contrary to the chivalric code became villainous and the modern word developed.

Some of the most interesting villains start off as innocently as the word. Darth Vader comes to mind.

Anakin Skywalker starts off at a social rank similar to the Roman villanus. The same circumstances and temperament that drive Skywalker onward and upward in rank and power lead to his moral fall. His son almost goes the same route, but Luke's moral compass is made of sturdier stuff.

One of the things that makes the Star Wars Saga great is that it speaks to mythic archetypes that go beyond culture. The Journey of the Hero. The Redemption of the Fallen. These are themes that are repeated over and over in stories worldwide.

"Somebody has to wear the black hat and give the audience someone to shake their fists at. They want someone to hate. And if that's what you want to pay me to do, I'm happy to do it!"
Jane Elliot

I enjoy a good black hat as much as the next person. They are especially fun when they are treated with tongue firmly in cheek. One of my favourite bits from an otherwise forgettable play is when the landlord tells the young widow that she is being evicted.

"But I'm in the family way!"

"You're in everybody's way."

You can't miss the black hat. If their hat isn't actually black, or they have a mustache to twirl, there will probably be something else that sets them apart... like being green.

When they were first casting The Wizard of Oz (1939 version), the concept for the witch was very different. Gayle Sondergaard was cast and the first costume and make tests had her elegant and snooty. This witch concept didn't fly. She was evil and should be ugly.

Sondergaard disagreed and backed out. Margaret Hamilton stepped up to the broom and became the poster child for witches in popular culture. (Samantha, in Bewitched and Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer complained about this.)

Until Wicked, the Wicked Witch of the West was a classic Black Hat villain, but I can't think of black hats without thinking of westerns.

Why did the bad guys wear black? In the old west it was a sign that they didn't do "real work". Farmers and ranchers might start off with black clothes, but they soon fade from working outdoors. Affording black, colour-fast dyed cloth showed you had money and that was often suspect if not actually villainous.

My romantic secret is that I love the villains that can be redeemed. I believe, both in stories and life, there is real evil in the world. Mostly there are evil acts. Finding a truly evil person, who does evil for its own sake regardless of whether or not it profits them, is rare. More often than not, the people who do evil start off doing it for, what seems to them, a good reason.

Revealing what made the bad guy bad makes for good story telling. Villains with depth are always more interesting. Even if they have a sad back-story, they can still enjoy their wickedness.

"When you are a hero you are always running to save someone, sweating, worried and guilty. When you are a villain you are just lurking in the shadows waiting for the hero to pass by. Then you pop them in the head and go home... piece of cake."
James Marsters


  1. Love it! And love my villain. Cedric is a textbook case of how you can turn a villain into the character people root for. Great post.


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