What are the hallmarks of a good villain?

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I'm curious and thought I would ask your opinions. While I love a good, smarmy, unsophisticated, "evil for evil's sake" style villain for kitschier games, I find myself most endeared to villains I can almost sympathize with, or whose ends might be noble but their means are deplorable. At the same time, I also find the truly awful, easily hated villains the most satisfying to defeat. What, in your opinion, marks a good, memorable villain for you? Examples appreciated!

"No one thinks there the bad guy" is my basic premise towards making villains. Justification is key to a good villain. Aku and Mojo Jojo are fun to watch because they are caricatures of evil. But really, no one ever eats puppies for breakfast because evulz lol.

Let's take Paranorman for example (spoilers ahead). The "villains" of the film are a group of zombies running around chasing after our young protagonist Norman who can see dead people. What's the twist? Will turns out that these "zombies' were Puritans who persecuted  and hung a young girl they claimed was a witch, but turns out she just had a strange power to see the dead as well. So she curses them to have to walk the earth during the night of her execution each year so they know how she feels.

Who's the bad guy in that scenario? Both sides had justifications for their awful deeds. Fear, and vengeance. Making people understand their motivations is what makes a good character villain.

Real life examples. Well I won't be using that one German movement because that's lazy, so I will say just look at communist regimes. Think about the tens of millions of people that have been outright slaughtered in the name of communism and radical socialism. How have people justified this? Equality. We will keep doing whatever it takes until we achieve true social and economic equality. Nothing else matters.

And that really boils down a good villain. "I will keep doing whatever it takes until 'X'. Nothing else matters."

LoAJustification is key to a good villain.
I agree with this. However, I also think that it's not that difficult to create an "evil for evil's sake" styled villain with fairly realistic motivations simply by twisting the moral compass around until it's backwards and finding a perfectly "logical" justification in a horrible act, at least by that villain's own moral code.

Kali-Murti, the villain of an Asura campaign I ran some time ago, comes to mind. Superficially, she was an "evil for evil's sake" villain, because she wanted to invade Civilized Space and destroy as much as possible and had no qualms about doing awful things to anybody. However, her reason for doing so was that the world had become stale and corrupt, and the entrenched power structure was beyond redemption. The only way to purify and allow new life to prosper would be to forcibly burn down the old stagnant systems. In that way it seems a lot more like a radical political movement, with a badly misguided way of accomplishing a noble goal.

On the other hand, while it's possible on some level to sympathize with goals like that, it's pretty much impossible to sympathize with her motives on the whole. I'm not sure if "sympathetic" and "satisfying to defeat" are necessarily strictly zero-sum, but it does seem to be difficult to add to one without taking away from the other due to the moral tension involved.

Three of my favourite villains, in no particular order, from various media.

SteerpikeObivously: Steerpike, from Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy.

Mervyn PeakeIf ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing - flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it. High-shouldered to a degree little short of malformation, slender and adroit of limb and frame, his eyes close-set and the colour of dried blood, he is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy - some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.

Limb by limb, it appeared that he was sound enough, but the sum of these several members accrued to an unexpectedly twisted total. His face was pale like clay and save for his eyes, mask-like. These eyes were set very close together, and were small, dark red, and of startling concentration.

Steerpike begins the novels as an abused kitchen boy, and hovers between an anti-hero and a villain. He's a Machiavellian schemer and a rapacious social climber - elegant, dastardly, incredibly clever, and utterly ruthless. He simultaneously resents and exploits the baroque traditions and hierarchical power structures of Gormenghast. He is an arch-manipulator and duplicitous snake, somewhere between an anarchist and an authoritarian. There's something of Milton's Satan to him - he's a horrible, amoral, even sadistic megalomaniac, but he's wonderfully charismatic, and we share his frustrations with an oppressive society. Even while it's hard to deny he's evil - or, at least, sociopathic - his individualism and intelligence and sheer will are also admirable.

GLaDOSProbably my favourite videogame villain ever – GLaDOS from Valve’s Portal and Portal 2.

GLaDOS“Don't let that ‘horrible person’ thing discourage you. It’s just a data point. If it makes you feel any better, science has now validated your birth mother's decision to abandon you on a doorstep.”

“Remember before when I was talking about smelly garbage standing around being useless? That was a metaphor. I was actually talking about you. And I’m sorry. You didn’t react at the time, so I was worried it sailed right over your head. Which would have made this apology seem insane. That’s why I had to call you garbage a second time just now.”

What makes GLaDOS great, I think, isn’t her malice alone, but the way she expresses it – with sarcasm, passive aggression, and, above all, black humour. No villain has ever made me laugh so hard or so consistently. Despite her boundless hate, she’s also tragic – a prisoner as surely as the protagonist, both of the Aperture Science Laboratory and of her own programming. I think she’s especially close to a lot of roleplaying game villains since she’s essentially an evil wizard running a maniacal deathtrap dungeon.

I think a good lesson to learn from GLaDOS is that evil and levity can go together really well. GLaDOS is really, really satisfying to take down because she taunts and belittles you so mercilessly.

The XenomorphThe xenomorph from Alien is one of the best movie monsters of all time. I include here the creature in all of its forms, including the egg, facehugger, chestburster, etc.

Alien“Bring back life form. Priority One. All other priorities rescinded.”

“You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility… A survivor... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

What makes the xenomorph great? Its utter inhumanity is definitely part of it: this thing doesn’t think like us, can’t be reasoned with, can’t be fully fathomed. It’s very smart, but it exists to breed and sees people as disposable food-sources and reproductive vessels. It’s a good monster because it’s so liminal, so between-things – is it crustacean, insect, reptile? It suggests both the monstrous feminine and abject – associated with birth, reproduction, eggs, womb-like spaces, envelopment – as well as a predatory hyper-masculinity – the phallic, juddering mouthparts, the facehugger’s ovipositor. It confounds the binaries and categorical schema we’re familiar with, disorienting us with its otherness, its refusal to participate in systems of meaning. It is utterly impure, not just terrifying but contaminating. It also brings out the worst in us, spawns sub-villains, reflects back our own “inhumanity” – the Weyland-Yutani’s boundless corporate avarice, its exploitation of its own employees, its reduction of everything to profit margins, to consumer and consumed. In this sense the fact that it blends in so well with the Nostromo – the mechanical and the biological blurring – seems particularly apt.

The xenomorph is satisfying to defeat not just because it’s so seemingly unkillable for much of the (first) film but also because killing it is both a kind of purity ritual – restoring a sense of human agency and order – and a political act, a way of sticking it to the company and the rapacious capitalist greed it represents.

The film is also a master-class in how to reveal a monster to make it scary, and I think a lot of the lessons of good filmmaking can be taken up by roleplaying games as well, particularly of the horror persuasion. The most important thing here is pacing – you need to slowly build up a sense of suspense and dread, teasing the monster’s presence, before revealing it, and ideally, you want the thing to appear multiple times in short encounters rather than in a single confrontation.

Interesting choice of a character to name yourself (or at least your forum persona) after, Steerpike.  :grin: :huh:


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