I’ve seen heated debates in more than one fandom about the proper role of the story’s villains. The more I see of these arguments, the more I feel that one side isn’t “more right” than the other; it’s a case of two different audiences, each looking for something different from their fiction. This article grew into a trilogy where I’ll take a look at each side of the antagonist debate and examine the different techniques for writing each type.
One of the teams in the villain debate is looking for stories with black and white morality. They want heroes who are heroic; sometimes role models, but more often, wish-fulfillment figures. These are characters who do what the reader likes to fantasize that she could do if she were stronger, richer, a spy, a sorceress. The reader would like to be the hero. The villain, therefore, must be very villainous. There is a sense of security in knowing for a fact that the villain is bad and the hero is justified in whatever measures she might need to take in order to bring him down.
This isn’t to say that the antagonist has no reasons for his actions, nor does it force him to become a cartoon villain who does what he does purely for love of evil (or hatred of goodness). The villain might represent a different political ideology (a dictator, a terrorist, a Nazi,). He might be a criminal. He might be a social deviant. He might covet the hero’s love interest, or be jealous of the hero, or be motivated by some other negative personality trait such as greed or selfishness. He might well have a reason for doing what he does, but it’s a reason the reader can clearly recognize as “bad.”
The opposing camp argues that the “black and white team” are looking for a story that isn’t realistic. When villains are rotten to the core, there is none of the messiness of real life—no innocents hurt, no unjust actions taken, no questioning one’s behaviour, no devil’s compromises. Taken to extremes, the plot can be very simplistic: good guys trounce bad guys and the reign of “justice” is assured.
However, those in the “black and white team” aren’t looking for nitty-gritty reality: they’re looking for escapism. They want to relax and enjoy a story where they’re assured that they know what’s going on and who to cheer for. They get their pleasure from feeling a connection to the hero, hating the villain, and following the hero through to her victory. A well-written “black and white team” story will entertain while it fulfills the reader’s fantasy.
What kind of villain should authors write? First and foremost, the kind that suits the story. There is nothing “wrong” with the black-and-white team; they are an audience willing to buy the fiction that delivers what they’re looking for.
If you’re writing “black and white team,” make sure your hero has qualities that readers would enjoy fantasizing about, emulating, or sympathizing with. Avoid cartoon villainy by giving your villain a reason for his behaviour; be careful not to take him too far over the top into gratuitous acts of evil for evil’s sake. Create the kind of villain your audience will love to hate, and they will cheer as your hero takes him down.