Ah, the One-Dimensional Villains, those Snidely Whiplash clones that populate the Grand Imaginarium where all fictional characters live together. They are mean and evil because they were born that way. They deserve any misfortune that comes to them. We are to rejoice when their caricatured plans go awry.
Sometimes they have names so comically evil that you can’t help but think, “What parent named their kid that?”
Sometimes they’ve taken that comically evil name upon themselves, to show how awesomely wicked they are.
Sometimes they are evil Just Because.
The Two-Dimensional Villains weren’t necessarily born that way. There may exist, somewhere in their past, a Trauma (their second dimension). Often their inability to cope with that trauma in a mature way results in their villainy.
“This person hurt my widdle feewings, so I MUST DESTROY THEM.”
The Trauma usually exists to invoke empathy in the reader, or to teach a moral lesson. If the creator is not careful, this class of villain can end up feeling flat, like they only ever existed to push a narrative. They serve their purpose, however, when the story wants to focus more on the protagonist’s internal development than any external conflicts.
The Three-Dimensional Villains, for me, come in two types.
First, there are the ones whose characters are so well developed that you almost kind of want to root for them instead. They have backstory. They battle disappointments and insecurities. Their nefarious plans often come about because of a twisted Savior Complex or a stalwart belief that their cause is just. This type frequently crosses over into antihero territory, the villains you love to love.
And sometimes, these villains are villains only because their worldview opposes that of the story’s protagonist, not because they themselves are wrong.
The second type are the sociopaths, those who commit evil acts because they enjoy it, because they don’t care about consequences. As Batman’s butler Alfred so eloquently says, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” (h/t The Dark Knight)
The Joker actually serves as a great example of the villain spectrum: Cesar Romero’s Joker to Jack Nicholson’s Joker to Heath Ledger’s Joker, who makes his predecessors look like… they came from the pages of a comic book. (Which, in all fairness, they did.) Each representation has value, and each carries his story well. But even though they all represent the same source material, they’re each developed to such a different degree that there’s no mistaking one for the other.
Villains should always match the depth of the story in which they appear. Whether they are born to villainy or choose that destructive path of their own free will, they carry an essential role.
A good story always has a good villain.
(But not “good” good, you know.)