We tend to remember the heroes of the movies we watch and the stories we read. We all want to be John McClane, Luke Skywalker, or Clarice Starling. But really, those heroes are only half of the equation.
What makes them heroes?
In Die Hard, John McClane is trapped in Nakatomi Plaza, fighting a group of terrorists, until he finally confronts and defeats their leader Hans Grüber and saves his wife. In a moment for the books, he drops Grüber down the side of the building.
Luke Skywalker flees his home planet and join the rebels fighting the evil empire in Star Wars. He confronts the evil Darth Vader several times, only to learn Darth Vader is his father! Then, in a climactic showdown, Luke turns his father back from the dark side and they manage to kill the Emperor.
In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice is an FBI looking for a serial killer Buffalo Bill. She turns to another criminal, Hannibal Lecter, known as Hannibal the Cannibal. In the end, she manages to find Buffalo Bill and manages to kill him before he can kill her. Lecter, meanwhile, escapes.
So, when we look at the heroes above, there is one important conclusion: they stick in our minds in large part because of the villains they face.
Epic Villains: Hans Grüber
Alan Rickman was a brilliant actor. He made numerous roles come to life, and Hans Grüber was one of them. The brilliance of Die Hard is in part that John McClane has a lot of agency, and the story manages to raise the stakes while making John very sympathetic, but also a hero. Grüber is the other side of that coin. Grüber has a brilliant plan, and John is the only one able to stand in his way. A less formidable Grüber would have made for a less formidable John McClane.
Grüber is also very human, interested in money, and he does not fall into the trap of the psycho boss. He doesn’t kill his underlings, but leads them because he is a good leader. Finally, Grüber is also human, has a sense of humor, and we even see him joining forces with John for a while, and in the end, Grüber drags John’s wife into it, making things intensely personal.
Epic Villains: Darth Vader
Everybody knows Darth Vader. What I mostly remember from visiting Las Vegas in the late nineties is posing next to the Darth Vader suit from Return of the Jedi, which was there at the time. Darth Vader has a very memorable appearance, and a very memorable voice (go James Earl Jones).
But that’s not all. Vader is a very ruthless villain, who is both very powerful, in full control of the powers that Luke is trying to master, but also Luke’s father. The Empire Strikes Back is such a brilliant movie, because it slowly builds up a terrible villain in Darth Vader. Vader ruthlessly hunts Han Solo and Leia, then proceeds to torture Solo to draw Luke out. When Luke confronts Vader he believes him to be utterly evil, only to learn that Vader is in fact his father. Vader offers Luke the galaxy.
Epic villains: Hannibal Lecter
Hannibal is not really the villain in Silence of the Lambs. That’s Buffalo Bill. He is a kind of mentor to Clarice. At the start of the movie, Clarice is good, but it is only under Hannibal’s guidance that she reaches her full potential. He continually cuts through her evasions or waffling, and pushes her to find Buffalo Bill.
Without Hannibal, Clarice would have never found Buffalo Bill, even if she did have all the clues already. Moreover, the movie would have been boring without it. Heck, most of us will remember the scene in the hotel when Hannibal escapes much better than the actual confrontation between Clarice and Buffalo Bill (and that may be for the good, given Buffalo Bill is a textbook villain born of transphobia).
Hannibal is such a scary villain because he is both a cannibalistic serial killer and an intelligent, cultured man. He’s not even the real villain in the movie, and helps Clarice repeatedly. This is even more profound in the Hannibal series with Mads Mikkelsen.
What makes good villains?
Part of this is making the villains the heroes of their own stories. Since I already an entire post on that subject, today I want to focus on another aspect. Having a good villain is good, but not enough. The villain needs to fit the story, and support the arc of the hero.
That’s right, the villain usually opposes the hero every step of the way, but that is by design. The villain has an important role to play. Imagine all the above stories without the villain. John McClane fighting a group of nameless terrorists. Luke fighting the Empire without Darth Vader at the wheel. Clarice looking for Buffalo Bill all by herself. All of those stories would be worse off.
The consequence of this is that the villain has to match the hero’s arc. You can’t just take any good villain and put them in a story. Imagine John McClane talking to Hannibal Lecter for support instead of Sergeant Powell; that would have made for a very, very different story. The same goes for a man like Hans Gruber leading the Empire.
That’s not to say those alternatives couldn’t be cool stories in their own right. The point is, your villain has to match your story. Hannibal Lecter advising Luke would not have made for the best of stories. However, imagine how cool the Star Wars prequels would have been if Senator Palpatine had been more like Hannibal Lecter. The Hannibal TV show, with the main character seeking advise from a renowned psychiatrist who turns out to be manipulating psycho, is exactly what the prequels would have needed.
In short, good villains can make or break a story. They are as important as the hero, and they need to match the hero to build the story.