Proper Villainy pt.4: Learn from the Master

2007 September 11
by Vanir

I’m going to make a distinction here. There are bad guys, and there are villains. What’s the difference? Well, let’s go a little less fantasy and a little more sci-fi for a moment. Let’s take everybody’s favorite Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader. I don’t think too many people are going to disagree with me when I call him a true villain. He’s one of the classics, despite (IMHO) a somewhat poorly-executed backstory in the prequels. What makes him a true villain?

  • Infamy

    Bad guys are bad. They can be heartless, cruel, sadistic, murderous, you name it. But one thing they’re not is infamous. And that’s one thing a real villain has going for him. The seasoned villain has spread fear throughout the land with an iron fist, people quail at the mention of his name. People might not want his name spoken aloud for fear he might hear them!

    You can get infamous fast or slow. You can get it fast by, say, murdering an entire village. Then sit back and watch as your name spreads fear across the land for awhile. But good, long-lasting infamy — that needs slow-cooked in a giant black crock pot with a skull on it. Vader had a very nice crock pot, and he used it religiously. You have to cultivate this kind of infamy, and Vader waged a campaign of terror across the galaxy — and to do that, sometimes you need theatrics. He makes examples of people at staff meetings by choking them with the Force. He blows up entire planets to make his point. But most of all, his official title has “DARK LORD” in it. Everybody everywhere knows you don’t want Vader showing up on your front porch for any reason, and that’s completely on purpose.

  • Advanced FUD

    Not to say all your villains have to wear a black cape and look malevolent and shadowy, but keeping the FUD flowing by staying mysterious certainly isn’t going to hurt. What I mean by this is, people are way scarier when you don’t know how, when, or even if they’re going to come at you. This could mean several things. People could just be ignorant or wildly misinformed about a villain’s battle capabilities (like when Han Solo fires a blaster at Vader in ESB and Vader just stops it cold…. thats gotta demoralize a scoundrel). Or the villain could simply be known for being unpredictable – and frequently catastrophically violent. Think about it, if Darth Vader goes to the grocery store to buy a carton of milk, the dude working the counter is PRAYING LIKE CRAZY that there’s nothing wrong with the credit card reader.

    Vader had FUD down to a science. It seemed like he was everywhere, in a TIE fighter, lightsaber duelling, pointing Death Stars at planets. You couldn’t escape him, and you had no freaking idea what evil rabbit he was going to pull out of his hat next. His breathing made you wonder what the hell was really under that suit. And his Force powers made all of us go “he can do WHAT?” more than once. Come on, being able to sense Luke had a sister and gloating that he was going to turn her to the Dark Side? Guessing Luke wasn’t expecting that. That’s some evil genius right there. And the fact that he could pull stuff like that out of his ass just made him that much scarier.

    What’s that you’re saying? My villain isn’t a Sith Lord, and doesn’t have all those cool powers? No problem. The human mind has a tendency to blow things out of proportion, and that’s what villains need. Your villain may simply be an ordinary S.O.B., but you want people to think of him as an unstoppable dark force who can destroy everything they hold dear with but a passing thought. Incite unrest in the people with tales of your dark army by raiding some villages — but try not to let anyone see the whole thing. This way they think it’s huge — and panic — regardless of whether it actually is. Save an evil twist for the end of an encounter. Do horrible things to people by proxy. Don’t let them steal your villain’s power away by letting them see the real him. When they know what they’re facing, they can plan and move against it.

  • Arrogance

    There’s gotta be a little. It’s just no fun to finally beat the giant emotionless killer robot at the end of the game. It’s much more satisfying to finally put that smug son of a bitch in his place. Vader was right on here too. Not only is he sure he can crush the rebels, he’s gonna turn his kids (and mortal enemies) to the Dark Side. Because he can. And it’s so great seeing the villain’s reaction to their world crumbling around their dark, evil ears when the heroes bring them down. Can any of you tell me you didn’t feel just a little awesome at the end of Star Wars when Han Solo shot Vader just as he was about to blow Luke away? Vader’s reaction was simple, but great – “WHAT???!”

    If you want a villain people love to hate, arrogance is a good place to start.

Now, for contrast, let’s take Darth Maul from Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Evil? Sure! Hell, he even killed off a Jedi. But nobody has any idea who he is. About the only thing Darth Maul had going for him was some seriously amazing Jedi whoopass skills. But once he got chopped in half, nobody cared anymore. Even at 8 years old, I didn’t want Vader to die. Maul was just a bad guy. Vader was the real deal. Vader even out-evilled the goddamned Emperor. What’s that, you say he turned good at the end? Pardon me, but I think turning your back on goodness and justice and terrorizing an entire galaxy for 30 years and STILL getting into the shiny guys’ club when you die is the best con job ever performed.

Darth Vader had Proper Villainy down to a science. Learn from the master.

P.S. Yeah, I know I was going to talk about the pitfalls of evil characters this time. In the heat of my sci-fi nerd-lust, I forgot. We will explore those depths next time. Until then…….

<evil laughter>

2 Responses leave one →
  1. ChattyDM permalink
    September 12, 2007

    That was a great post with a lot of passion in it.

    You make me root for Vader!

    “I’m altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it any further”

    Yeah I dig that!

  2. Destructo permalink
    September 13, 2007

    It’s really all about style, and Vader oozed style, or let if out in little puffs, whatever. Great post!

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS