Villains, they say a hero is only as good as his villain. But what makes a good villain? If I asked for a list of good villains, I’d get my fair share of Scars, Ursula’s, and Loki’s, along with some Lex Luther’s and Doctor Doom’s. All of these are villains in different respects and different capacities, but what makes them a good villain?
First, what is a villain? For the basis of this discussion, a villain is anyone who is the antagonist or challenge for the hero to overcome. The hero does not have to be the main character, as is seen in Death Note, where the villain is Light, with L, the hero, trying to stop him. So what makes a good villain? Honestly, it depends on two things; what type of story are you trying to tell, and what type of moral system your world has.
First, what type of story are you trying to tell? Are you trying to tell one like Tolkien, with individuals being evil for evil’s sake, or a story like George R. R. Martin, where individuals do evil things not because they are evil, but because they have a particular goal in mind? A lot of individuals want to go the latter route, but I’m here to tell you that it is possible to make a villain in the former story, and still have it compelling. Chesterton is quoted to have said “Fairy tales are important not because they tell us dragons exist, but that they can be beaten.” In this type of story, the villain is a personification of some evil, and the heroes are attempting to stop or bring down that evil. The mistake many writers and GMs make in roleplaying games is they make the villain a general evil. They don’t focus on a particular thing, they make the villain all evil things they can imagine. However, due to human beings being complex and having many different aspects, it’s hard for us to relate to such a being that is a culmination of all things we disagree with. But if a villain is a personification of ONE thing, acts on one thing that we often struggle with, it’s far easier for the player/reader/viewer to relate to the individual. Take Ursula, she simply desires power that is not hers. She even acknowledges to Arial that she knows she’s done evil things, she knows what she’s doing is evil, but doesn’t care. Her driving force, is power. Which people relate to, desiring power, and can relate to. Or Gaston, he desires everything, or greed. When he can’t have something, he wants it more simply because it’s being denied to him. That’s another thing we can relate to and can empathize with the villain.
The other type of story is a bit easier to write to make empathetic due to removing the personification of an evil, but it’s far, far harder to write a complex villain in such a way that is convincing. First, look at the good thing the villain desires. Then, ask yourself, why do they desire it? Finally, ask, what are they willing to do to ensure they get what they desire? Superman in the Injustice story line is a good example. This is a hero, one who always tries to do the right thing and protect the world. Joker then shattered that illusion Superman had, driving Superman to take a proactive stance as apposed to a reactive stance. This type of story is fascinating because it acts as a cautionary tale of how anyone can fall and do evil things with the best of intentions, but it is hard to write in a convincing way. But, in order to do so, one must next consider the type of morality their world has.
This question is, honestly, probably the most important one and is the one that will ultimately decide the type of villain you will have in most cases. Does your world have an objective moral system, or does it have a subjective moral system? Villains like Hades and Sauron exist in a world with an objective morality, with villains like Light existing in a subjective moral system. Personally, I enjoy the objective moral system, and I often get critiqued because it doesn’t represent reality. However, that’s besides the point. An objective moral system is simply when rules exist that are true regardless what the inhabitants think. As the creator of this world, you can create this set of rules, but it does not mean that the inhabitants of your world are aware of those rules. In a subjective world view, while it might be closer to reality, is a lot harder to pull off. In this, Superman is just as right as Batman. This type of story telling is better for books, where the author can control all characters, but when they are working with players in a game, that lack of structure can lead to issues. However, it can be a perfect structure for a type of game focused on political intrigue instead of a world ending event by a powerful figure.
In summery, the less powerful a villain is, the more complex and human they can be. The more powerful a villain, the more simple they need to be in order to still be empathetic.