Building a Better Villain (With a Little Help from Magneto, Loki, and Gollum)

I never read comic books as a kid, so when I went to see the very first X-Men movie, I didn’t quite know what to expect. So, imagine my surprise when the movie began at the gates of Auschwitz as a young Eric Lensherr is being ripped away from his parents. Imagine my even greater surprise when, at this horrific moment, his powers emerge.

It takes guts to tell a story in which the reader or viewer so immediately sympathizes with the person who’s supposed to be the villain in the story. Of course Eric becomes Magneto. How could he not? And that he and Charles Xavier are such old friends adds still a layer of depth to this character.

Now, it doesn’t hurt that Magneto is played by Ian McKellan in the movie, who is, without question, a source of amazingness in the world. But the depth of the character lies in the comic books and in the story they chose to tell on the screen as well. This is not your run of the mill villain. This guy’s got a purpose—and one you can thoroughly understand.

What got me thinking about villains, you might ask? Well, I’m currently revising a story that has a (completely non-supernatural, fantasy-based) villain in it. And I want her to be more than just the villain.

But it’s also because I saw this on The MarySue:

Tom Hiddleston, Loki

A movie poster featuring the villain, and only the villain. Sure, there’s one of Thor, too. But having seen both the first Thor movie and The Avengers, I am here to tell you that there’s a reason why folks love Loki—and it’s not just Tom Hiddleston’s boyish good looks (though that helps, of course). It’s just that he’s a much more interesting, nuanced character than Thor is.

And being someone who reads a lot of fan/geekgirl stuff, it’s clear that the makers of the second Thor movie (and the second Avengers movie) are fully aware of this. In fact, in a recent interview, Joss Whedon tried to explain why Loki’s not going in the next Avengers movie, basically by admitting that the movie’s about the Avengers, not the villain. Or in other words, Loki might be just a hair more popular than some of the actual Avengers.

The Lord of the Rings, GollumThen there’s Gollum, both on the page and on the screen as performed by Andy Serkis. But for an accidental finding of a ring, Smeagol (who becomes Gollum) might have lived, if not a happy life, at least an uneventful one. The hints of Smeagol still emerge in Gollum, making for a heart-wrenchingly duality in him. Alas, the ring eats away at him and ultimately destroys him. Sure, the supposed villain in The Lord of the Rings is Sauron (and even Saruman). But Gollum steals the villainy show on every level, just because he’s so much more than just a villain.

So, how do you build a better villain? I guess the only answer I’ve come up with thus far is to make him or her a real person as well as a force of badness—to make a really compelling villain you first have to make a really compelling character. Which is no small task.

And with that, my little exploration of sci-fi and fantasy villainy is finally over. Just be glad I spared you my treatise on Anakin Skywalker….