The antagonists, or villains, are the manna of a story’s power. Without them, our oh so noble heroes (protagonists) would still be stamping out their secret I.D.s as newspaper journalists, photographers and kings of Ithaca. We all know a few. In fact, I’ll wager you could name more of the scary guys than the good guys…the following is why.
Way back in the good ol’ days of the Roman Marius Event, phalanx formation and the nursing of democracy in Athens, the die of our modern conception of hero and villain was cast. Priests and poets declared tales of exploits upon Mt. Olympus, whether it be one of Zeus’ many affairs (which led to the birth of many heroes) or the gods’ defiance against human creations. The Greeks, Romans and much of the civilized Mediterranean world thus set into action the snowball effect of our modern literature. Take, for example, Heracles and his twelve tasks to purge himself of killing his own children or Perseus accepting the wager to slay the Gorgan and Aeneas while facing his hated destiny as the founder of the Roman race, tales of this caliber are what distinguish a memorable work of literature.
Now what made tales such as these, or of the ilk of “Moby Dick,” “Silence of the Lambs,” or even the “Trial of Socrates” so memorable? The answer is the villain. Antagonists, the immortal ones of our mind, are of the same consistency as your bleakest nightmare. We all still have them, and they should be recorded! Wake up sweating, grasping at your chest to ensure your heart doesn’t burst from your bosom? Write down what you saw. Villains are what our parents always warned us to avoid.
That dark corner, the stranger without a name, the vacant house at the edge of town, our secret wishes that would tear our social lives upside down! Harness this.
Villains that are memorable offer a similarity, even so slight, with their audience. There is something congenially sinister in all of us. This is why we love the carnage, the suspense and the rage of their fury. Take Hannibal Lector, we all know him, but why? Is it because he cooked people and ate them? What about because he’s a genius? No, it’s because of his lauded compassion for style and wit. The reason he ate people was because they were rude, now imagine that! How many times did you line up ways to dispose of that annoying, pitiless employee at the DMV? That is what makes Dr. Lector and all in his company so, well, loveable. They perform the atrocities of society so that we don’t have to. Admit it. We watch, read and fear them because we all think the same. Create villains to be believable, bearable and loveable, for the villain of imagination is the only mode the sane and moderate possess to commit one standing ovation of a crime.