Behind every great protagonist in fiction there is a foil; an antagonist who gives the hero meaning and pushes them to extremes to bring out the best in literature and films. Sometimes those antagonists are simply people who think they're on the right side of things, or at other times even mindless monsters who are bent on the destruction of everything around them. Every now and then, however, some antagonists go to even greater heights and become a true villain. An agent of evil. Someone so extreme in their methods and so conclusive in their ideology that they give the hero of great works pause and even make them question their own beliefs in contrast to these horrendous values. But what makes a character a great villain? What is it about the more memorable antagonists that takes their abominable actions to the next level leaving behind that simpler version of antagonists who just happen to be on the opposite side?
To answer that, first we must look at some of the more memorable villains in fiction. When you think of a villain who pops up in your head? We here at Nonsensical Ramblings typically swing towards comic culture and fantasy, so when asked we think of great evil beings such as the Joker, Smeagol, Hannibal Lector, heck even the Wicked Witch of the West can get grouped in with the terrible company. But what separates them from antagonists? What makes them evil rather than just disagreeing with the protagonist? Sure there are plenty of movies with the typical bad guy a hero must over come but what makes a great evil that draws that black and white line and forces the hero to definitely decide? The first thing we're going to look at is wickedness.
Wickedness is the quality of being evil or morally wrong. Now throughout literature there are many antagonists who commit wicked deeds. But these deeds are usually backed by a righteous morality. That is to say; they typically think they are doing a good thing even if we as the reader know it is wrong. Truly wicked villains on the other hand seem to be able to objectively look at their available option and choose an unjust action on purpose. For this example consider Smeagol. Here is a villain with conflicting personalities,one that believes his own twisted ideology and one that feeds it to himself. The evil side of Smeagol, and ultimately the one in control of his actions, is able to see exactly what is wrong with his character and goes further than this to use these apprehensive instances riddled throughout his life to torment the good side of his conscious in order to bend it OT his will. We see this when Sam overhears him talking to himself at the pond. Smeagol's good conscious may have justified his initial blood spilling over the ring but his wicked side knows the difference and calls him out on it. He knows he's committed murder and uses this to ease himself into further murder by luring the Hobbits into Shelob's lair. When he questions why he shouldn't just do it with his own hands the only reason he doesn't is because he's not physically strong enough to. This is just one example of what true villains must have in order to separate themselves from antagonists. It's the difference in one person being against another person for political, religious, or idealistic reasons. It's not that one character thinks the other character is wrong and opposes them its that the antagonist must be wicked. They must surrender the good they have in them completely to take the next step from hostility to villainy.
The next idea that makes a villain is obsession. Now this point many antagonists actually have and quite a few heroes tend to have too but it goes a little deeper when comparing villains to antagonists. The obsessive desires that heroes receive are usually at some point questioned. Take for example Luke Skywalker. He was obsessed with his quest to end empirical rule and defeat the Emperor, but after a while his obsession changed with introspection. Then all he wanted to do was save his friends. Later he changes again to save his father. This willingness to compromise is what typically ends up in strong favor for heroes. They are able to look at their desires and make upstanding decisions. Antagonists typically also comprise on their values or more often their methods. In military fiction we see this quite often as the enemy faction chooses to do something different if they believe it will benefit themselves or their potential subjects. But true villains rarely compromise. In fact good stories often go further than this to trick the audience into thinking the villian has compromised only to reveal that it was all part of an elaborate plan to further their original values. Horror does this quite often with such villains as Jigsaw or Hannibal Lector. They often help the protagonist in some way, or have a character believe they have changed, even by a small margin, in order to get what they want in the end. It's this ability to confuse the characters and audience into thinking that they are no longer obsessed with what they once were that creates compelling stories and in effect villains.
Finally the last subject that all great villains seem to share is a direct relationship with the hero. This one may seem common, but it's not as inclusive as one might think at first glance. Take for example Sauron from Lord of the Rings. We are told about how he is a great evil that must never return and the protagonists are actively working against him, but we never actually see him. To call him an antagonist is a fair assessment but to go further and say he's the villain of this particular instance in Middle Earth isn't exactly convincing. Smeagol was way more active in the journey and plot and we get a more intimate sense of danger as the books come to a close in whatever scene he's in. All of this stems from the relationship he shares with the Ring and Frodo. Sauron wants the Ring and his presence is felt, but the looming threat and feeling we get of him is stagnant when compared to Smeagol, who did seem to convincingly compromise in his obsession, and we get a much deeper sense of dread the closer he gets to the protagonist even though the protagonists are geographically walking towards Sauron the entire time. Another good example of this is the Joker and Batman's relationship. The Joker is such a good villain because he embodies all of the reasons I've listed and they all tie into reason three. Jokers wickedness derives from his obsession over the relationship he has with Batman. It's why he's usually at the top of peoples lists who enjoy pop culture villains. Everything he does makes Batman a better protagonist because he challenges Batman's ideology as well as his ability. This is why a direct relationship to the protagonist makes a good villain. A good villain makes the hero better through their connection.
As with any list, there are some outlier examples and of course more reasons that can attribute to villain qualities or counterpoints. Take Darth Vader for example. He toes the line with all of these things. He's a villain made so well he's arguably a protagonist by the end of his story. He had all the qualities, wickedness, obsession and a direct relationship to the hero, and is one of the only examples I can think of that despite all these eventually overcame them. Using him we see the difference in villains and heroes. Everyone agreed he was an ultimate villain when a new hope came out, but over the course of the next two movies we see his obsession change, his relationships change, and ultimately his wickedness is dampened. Because of the sudden loss of these traits he can objectively be called a protagonist on the last moments we see him in. So I leave you with this; what do you think makes a good villain?