Many stories are generated from the initiation of an action by a villain or negative force which triggers a cycle of events that must be brought to a halt by the hero. To make a truly great story that follows after this set up, one must have a great villain. There are a number of ways in which the most successful and memorable villains seem to have been portrayed to which I have given headings:
The shadowy villain: In The Lord of the Rings the great forger of the one ring and instigator of the coming war is the dark lord Sauron. Although he is often described as powerful, terrifying, almighty and indestructible bar his ‘Achilles heel’ of the one ring, we never actually see or meet him in the novel itself. This means his presence is felt as a constant menace and is therefore harder for us to measure him (making his possible power seem limitless). Many writers use the trick of the ‘shadowy villain’ by keeping their great villains hidden or perhaps saving them to the very end of the book where there is a catastrophic confrontation. This is a great way to build an almost omnipotent air about the villain which makes him seem even more of a difficultly to contend with than before.
The heroic villain: Paradoxical as the title may suggest there are many of these sorts of villains about. In Milton’s Paradise Lost Satan is seen as almost courageous in his malignancy, so determined to “subdue the omnipotent” as he puts it that he is prepared to cross the depths of Chaos itself and venture into the garden of Eden through guards of Cherubic angels. Someone once said that: “Milton was the Devil’s party without knowing it,” and it is true that we come, strangely, to admire his ambition and fallen majesty. Though he is portrayed as astonishingly arrogant, cunning, and hypercritical we none the less find ourselves supporting his embittered efforts. This is a classic example of how villains can become so brilliant, so ingenious that we sympathise with their plight and they conversely become anti heroes! This is achieved through the emphasis on the character’s remaining positive traits, hey are not seen as wholly bad or evil but fractured men and women, perhaps once great, now fallen but still retaining their talents.
The monstrous villain: Grendel in Beowulf is seen as a terrifying monster, guzzler of flesh and bone, unstoppable and mortifyingly deadly. He is a stark contrast to the noble but courageous Beowulf who combats him. Grendel is memorable because of his simple mindless animosity and animalistic power. I remember when I first read Beowulf the image of him entering the feasting hall and slaughtering the sleeping men stuck with me for a long, long time. There are those villains who are not people but actually monsters or demons of some description, some of the greatest of which have been created in Greek myth such as the Minotaur and Hydra. Important in the best of monstrous villains is an air of realism, the more ludicrous and diverse the more unconvincing and tedious they become, a few simple traits serve to create successful aggressors. In addition the story of their creation, their coming into the world can make them even more intriguing and interesting to read about.
However we also see villains possessing all three of the qualities above and more, and sometimes a team of villainous characters that conjoins the various qualities above. Not all stories have villains, not all need them, but those that do have created some of the most memorable, exciting and interesting characters of all time. “The undaunted fiend what this might be admired,”