What makes for a good villain?
The same thing that makes for any good character, motivation, relatability and a goal that actually makes some kind of sense.
That last one seems to be the hurdle that eludes many writers, myself included, but I think that if you remember one key fact about your villains/antagonists then it naturally flows into their endgame goals.
That simple fact is this everyone thinks of themselves as the protagonist in their story. You, the novelist might know that they’re the doomed love interest, the gay best friend or the sinister henchmen but you don’t think of yourself that way, and neither should your characters. And if a character is a protagonist in a story, then they have to have goals and some means of achieving them. Typically a more villainous character is more pragmatic, if not outright ruthless, in their approach to those goals and care rather less about whom they might tread on to get there.
A villain with no motive beyond just being evil is boring. A villain with some motivation and depth is a more interesting and entertaining character and so enriches the narrative.
I’ve been reading a lot of X-Men comics lately, so let me pull an example from those. In the original, largely unsuccessful Silver Age run of the comic, Magneto was a typical cackling one-note supervillain who wanted to take over the world and establish his new order just because. In the words of Grant Morrison, who would write for the franchise in the early 2000s, Magneto was “a mad old terrorist twat.” This Silver Age characterization apparently didn’t sit well with long-time X-Men scribe (1975-1991) Chris Claremont who tried to move Magneto from this rather one note characterization to a more well-rounded villain. This is established by making Magneto a holocaust survivor who lost his entire family, playing into the long time parallels of mutants as persecuted minorities in the Marvel universe. The motivation that he has seen the worst humanity is capable of when they turn on a smaller scapegoated group, and fears such will be repeated really became a keystone to the character going forward. There is more than just that, but it became such a key element of the character that the first X-Men movie opens with young Magento’s powers awakening at a concentration camp. This earns the character a modicum of empathy and sympathy before we get to the present day plotting.
While that’s just one example, think of all the best villains you’ve seen in popular culture. With very few exceptions they have some kind of backstory and explanation as to why they do what they do. Very, very few characters are just evil for evil’s sake, and of the ones that are (the only example that springs to mind is another comic book character, the Joker) they are often rightly feared by other antagonistic characters and regarded as being completely and utterly insane. The alternative is that the villain is the source of all evil, like Satan, or the First from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
So, when you’re creating antagonists, what type of backstories do you give them? How do you conceive of the characters? And is there any particular villain or bad guy you find to be truly compelling or utterly pathetic ? Does backstory factor into that?
Let me end by quoting from a movie that has something of a villainous protagonist, Wreck-it Ralph:
“I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”