I don’t know anybody who cheers on Darth Vader in A New Hope. He’s scary, he destroys planets, and–while he looks very cool–he cuts down our newly beloved mentor with a lightsaber. He’s the bad guy, the villain, the terror that flaps in the night–wait. That’s Darkwing Duck. Anyway, you get the picture. But here’s the catch, we don’t just love to hate him, we love him too.
Darth Vader isn’t a good guy, but by his untimely end two movies later, we’re sad to see him go. That’s the mark of a good villain. He was redeemable. And if you bring in the prequels, we can see his deterioration and understand why he made the choices he made to become the source of so much fear. It had a lot to do with the fact that he was super emo and brooding, but then his son started out the same way, so it makes sense. But I digress.
Nothing about Anakin/Darth Vader is out of left field when you know the story. It’s a natural progression. A slave boy who dreams of more is taken from his mother and trained in how to use the galaxy’s greatest power and then told he’s not allowed to love, fear, or hate anything. Naturally, this becomes a problem sometime after puberty. Then when he fears losing his lady love, his fear drives him to make questionable decisions. I know, it’s a very simplistic view of what happened, but when you break it down to the bare minimum, that’s his character arc. And it’s very relatable. We’ve all made questionable decisions out of fear, and I’m almost positive we’ve all made questionable decisions when it comes to whoever we’re attracted to. Just saying. It’s like a rite of passage. His decisions just had higher stakes than looking like an idiot in front of the whole class/school/whathaveyou.
So he’s relatable, and because he’s relatable he’s redeemable. And even while we hate him, we can’t help but be a little in awe of him. And if you don’t believe me, go to a Disney park and look at the line just to meet him.
As writers, our villains should be relatable on some small level. Leave some smidgen of a chance of redemption, even if you know they would rather die than take it. Give them dimension. Sure, you can make them terrifying. You can make them powerful. But make them whole in the process. Nobody is ever just power and fright. At some point, they got that power. At some point, they wanted to be frightening. You don’t have to give the entire backstory in an info dump, but leave traces of it. Leave hints and trust the readers to be smart enough to follow the breadcrumbs.
The lesson here is that in stories, and in my experience life itself, nobody is all good or all bad. Everybody struggles with internal demons of some kind. It’s how they face those demons that makes them protagonists or antagonists. While this post has solidly focused on making sure your villain is more than just one big ball of scary, the same rule applies to your protagonist. They have to be given the opportunity to make bad decisions. Because people do. And they can make the right decision or they can make bad ones and then redeem themselves.
Luke was a whiney brat who just wanted to go to Tochi and score some power converters. He chose to train with Ben Kenobi and Yoda to become a Jedi. He found out who his father was and was given the opportunity to go dark and rule the galaxy. He turned it down. And when he shows up at Jabba’s place dressed in all black, we all know that some questionable things happened since we last saw him, but we trust him to still be at least mostly on the light side.
I could do this for every major character in the story. And before you go pointing out, “But Palpatine!” I’m going to stop you. I watched the movies. I haven’t read the bajillion and one books and comics and read all the fan theories the internet has to offer. I don’t know his backstory, but I’m pretty sure if I did I would find reasons he became a Sith. Because nobody is all good or all bad.
Except for Leia. She’s perfection.