When writing villains in fantasy, always remember one thing… One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.*
I once taught a class for young writers in which a student read from the prologue to her fantasy epic. Her black-clad, black-haired villain strode the black hallways of his black castle until he reached his black throne, where he mulled over his black thoughts and made his black plans. I was unable to repress the image of some mustache-twirling bad guy slamming into walls and tripping over furniture because he couldn’t see where he was going.
More so than most genres, fantasy and horror feature clear-cut villains. From Darth Vader to Sauron to the Devil, they tend to be hugely powerful, terrifying of aspect and completely, utterly outside the realm of anything real. Occasionally, as in Lord of the Rings and The Exorcist, it works. Usually, it doesn’t. Villains in these genres tend to be unmotivated and ill-conceived, acting more from a sense of genre expectation than any real meaningful reason.
Contrast this with the villain of a film I recently watched, 1962’s Damn the Defiant! Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the story is a clash between humane Captain Crawford and his second-in-command, Lt. Scott-Padgett. Scott-Padgett is a sadist who enjoys meting out brutal punishment for the slightest infraction. He’s also–and this is important–a brilliant seaman and courageous fighter. His greatest flaw, besides his almost sexual satisfaction from watching floggings, is his insistence on always being right, and that puts him directly at odds with the hero.
Scott-Padgett, then, is a believable human being. In fantasy and horror, villains are often not literally human, but they must have human reasons for doing what they do. Otherwise, your reader will have no sense of them as characters. This is a must to remember when writing villains in fantasy and horror.
As someone once said to me, “The villain must think he’s the hero.” That’s an oversimplification, but it makes the point. Few people set out to truly do evil; they believe what they’re doing is right, or that their actions redress some perceived wrong. Even Shakespeare’s greatest villain, Richard III, blames his deformed body for his inability to be a hero and therefore decides to become a villain.
When writing villains in fantasy and horror, spend as much time on your villain as you do your hero. Give him or her believable motives, understandable actions and a clear purpose beyond simply opposing your hero. Give them human flaws. Remember, your reader measures the strength of your hero by the villain that must be overcome. If you create a weak villain, or just as bad, a villain so powerful and oversimplified he’s a joke, then your hero becomes that much less heroic.
*from Hamlet, which features Claudius, a murderer and traitorous usurper who steals both his brother’s wife and crown, then repeatedly plots Hamlet’s death. A villain? Sure. But he does this because he’s sincerely, desperately in love with Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. So his actions have a very human, very understandable motive.