One of the truths of genre fiction is that any story is only really as good as its villain. Historical fiction doesn’t have to do this, crime fiction plays at it mattering, literary fiction is a beast I have no interest in understanding …but fantasy and sci-fi? Villains matter.

Not that a good villain is strictly necessary for a good story, but they do elevate it. “German National Socialists but magic” or “in space” are ubiquitous and, at this point, a bit dull. Nebulous Malicious Evil (may take the Lovecraftian form) needs a bit more detail and some kind of original gimmick to really hit the mark.

But a Darth Vader does something extra. He’s got a malicious style, if that makes sense, and is actually very snarky but it’s a dark pit of a sense of humor. The family aspect is a nice touch that gives him dimension. Dimension George Lucas wasn’t quite up to exploring, in my opinion, though the Clone Wars series did a good job of making it work.

Or a villain can be just skin-crawling evil. This is less common these days- everyone is trying to recreate Darth Vader while forgetting he really was evil, reasons aside- but Sauron from Lord of the Rings is actually this way. The movies and hippie-ish understanding of LotR make it hard to believe but Sauron is terrifying. This is the near-divine being who brought down the best and brightest hope of humanity, Numenor. He didn’t destroy it. He perverted, twisted it into a mockery of itself by exploring its weaknesses, leaving no other option for the Maker of the Universe but to eradicate it. He did this with beyond human cunning, and afterward, rallied an army do massive and terrible that he nearly killed the still-true remnants of that noble kingdom. He would have succeeded if not for the desperate slash if a broken sword from a grieving, defeated prince. Sauron’s evil is never properly depicted on screen, and Tolkien is too classy to describe it in detail, but it is in his dungeons that Arwen’s mother is so traumatized she cannot remain in Middle Earth. She was, unfortunately, not a unique case.

You can base a villain on a bully taken to the 10th degree, or even a bad teacher, or all sorts of things you’ve brushed against in real life, too. Take a character suggested in a song and flesh it out into a real- and terrible- person. I’ve done both those things before.

See, a good villain is not just someone people “love to hate” or someone with a striking s sense of evil style. The villain that carries a story to the next level is one that makes the reader realize the villain is a force for your heroes to reckon with, with bonus points for touching some visceral part of readers and giving them at least a little shiver.

Now, the trick is to take my own advice…

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