I recently watched a documentary that featured a quote that I feel hits the mark in a few different ways.
“I’ve always asserted myself as a villain because villains are always the more interesting characters in any story that I grew up reading and because the villain in any walk of life is the person who refuses to follow blindly and always wants to question things, and for me, art is supposed to be a question mark, so I’m merely asking questions.”
– Marilyn Manson, from the 2006 VH1 documentary Heavy: The Story of Metal
First, the quote speaks of villains in stories, showing why I believe the villain is actually the most important part of a story, which is why I personally find that Marvel movies tend to be forgettable, because they put the emphasis on the hero while the villain takes a backseat (really, though, I watch a Thor movie to see Loki, not Thor, and I’ll never forget Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight). To me, it’s the villain who holds everything together while we follow the hero on his/her journey. It’s the villain who makes the journey possible and necessary, so, in my not-so-terribly-humble opinion, a strong villain is needed for a strong story.
The second part of the quote talks about the nature of the villain. The villain is the one who doesn’t do what he/she is supposed to do but instead does their own thing for their own benefit. A villain can be seen as someone who wants to bust the status quo and shake up the world. Think about that the next time you hear about protests over issues such as minimum wage or lack of healthcare; remember that the current minimum wage or current lack of healthcare are the status quo, and the protestors want to bust that status quo for their own benefit, which, to the side wishing to preserve the status quo, makes them the villains. Also remember that corporations that strive to pay employees as little as possible and push to give people as little healthcare as possible are doing this for their own benefit, making them the villains as well, even though each on the opposing side sees themselves as the hero. This kind of makes me wonder if this world is mostly villains up against villains. Sure, we have our real heroes – those who sacrifice their time, effort, and even lives for the good of others – but I feel there’s a lot more villainy going on than people tend to realize or want to acknowledge.
Finally, the above quote discusses art and how art poses questions. I feel it’s important for art to ask questions, especially uncomfortable questions. A comfort zone is a safe zone, one in which risks are not taken and challenges are not faced. With fiction, in order to escape this comfort zone, uncomfortable questions should be asked, the status quo defied, and the mindset of villainy brought to the forefront, a mindset that bathes the truth we don’t want to see in a twisted light we have been raised to believe isn’t right or moral.
This is how to create an interesting villain, and, to me, this is the most important aspect of creating a strong story. It’s the villain who makes the hero stronger. If the villain isn’t done well, then what makes the hero a hero except for our predetermined images of what a hero is?