Every now and again, I binge watch Criminal Minds. On Saturday, I watched “The Big Wheel” (Season 4, Ep. 22) and during the first half of the episode, I kept thinking the serial killer, Vincent, looked a little familiar. He’d talk and I thought, “I know that voice!” Finally, it dawned on me that it was one of my favorite actors, Alex O’Loughlin. He had disappeared into the character of Vincent so well, I almost didn’t recognize him. It was an all-around awesome episode, mainly because of Vincent.
What made Vincent so compelling as a villain is that, unlike the usual sociopaths on the show, he’s not the mastermind of his fate. I’ve known people afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder and it’s a disorder that owns the person. Vincent wasn’t the mastermind of his fate because his compulsion owned him. A major part of the episode was him fighting against his OCD and reaching for true control. Because of that, a serial killer came off as human and vulnerable. I felt just as sorry for him as I did for his victims.
We remember the villains who draw us in, who make us feel something other than disgust or disdain. We like villains who remind us that they are human. That’s why Loki is such a great villain. In the movies, he has this wonderful arc of going from a wounded prince to power-grabbing psychopath. However, Tom Hiddleston is always careful to show that Loki’s pain and vulnerability are just below the surface. While the audience abhors Loki’s choices, they also feel sorry for him. They feel some of his pain with him.
As a writer, coming up with villains that enamor and are three-dimensional is a tough challenge. Tom Hiddleston once said, “Every villain is a hero in his own mind.” A good example of that is in Whedon’s Serenity. While killing Dr. Mathias, The Operative says, “This is a good death. There’s no shame in this, in a man’s death. A man who has done fine works. We’re making a better world. All of them, better worlds.” Approaching a villain from his own point of view adds another layer to the villain’s personality.
Villains can be a combination of noble ideals and heartbreaking vulnerability. They make a series of very bad choices because of their noble sentiments and their vulnerability makes it difficult to just outright hate them. In their vulnerability, they betray their feelings. I remember that while I read Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise, I feared a certain knightly character was going to become a bad guy because of his series of bad choices. He also came off vulnerable while making them because his behavior sprung from his need to prove himself honorable.
One last example of a villain. In the video game, Dragon Age 2, the main character, called Hawke, is constantly trying to keep the mages and templars from killing each other. H/she (dependent on the player’s preference) makes a series of choices throughout the three acts that slowly build up to the climax. During the story, the companion Anders becomes increasingly rebellious. He’s a vulnerable character because he lobbies really well for the rights of mages all while bemoaning the fact that he can’t have the free, happy existence he would prefer. And he wears his wounds out on his sleeve, so to speak, which is something that only intensifies if you choose Anders as a source of romance.
At the climax of the game, the Chantry explodes. If you got the Sebastian DLC, then one of your companions will drop to their knees in horror because he was particularly close to the Grand Cleric. While the Knight-Commander (the head templar) is busy trying to accuse the local Circle of Magi of being behind this, Anders steps forward and claims responsibility. The spirit of Justice, which he had consumed prior to the game, has driven him mad with the need to see justice for mages prevail. He used Hawke earlier in the game to get into the Chantry to set his bomb. A man that had at first been a trusted companion, and perhaps even a love interest, has become a terrorist. Hawke now has to choose between executing Anders, exiling him, or granting him the opportunity to redeem himself.
Anders is my favorite type of villain. He’s the one you don’t expect. He’s the bullet from left field. He’s the blade from the unexpected corner. He’s Caesar’s Brutus and Batman’s Miranda. He’s also the quiet voice from the dark that whispers, “We can all become villains.”