The Seven Deadly Sins of Villainy
We all know villainy is a fairly high-risk endeavor with an epic mortality and turnover rate. In fact, in most planes of existence, simply to be a villain is to start a short clock winding down to your near-inevitable demise. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the fact most villains don’t fiddle about with things like OSHA regulations, UBC building and wiring codes, being able to actually read the sooper-sekrit plans for their planet-obliterating bases and thus identify weaknesses and so on. Such carelessness and hubris practically beg for a Darwin Award!
The good news is, your favorite villains don’t have to go the way of the dodo, music on MTV and the mullet. (Although, if they wear mullets, it’s probably better for all concerned if they do. Just saying.) All you have to do to change the all-but-certain outcome of reaping what one sows is to avoid the Seven Deadly Sins of Villainy, which I’m going to lay out for you here.
- Read the fucking Evil Overlord List!
Okay. Look. I know for every person chuckling knowingly reading this, there are probably two or three going, “Whuzzat, Cletus?” The Evil Overlord checklist gives you everything you need to avoid the idiotic and cliched mistakes of your villainous forebears. Whether your baddie lives in a galaxy far, far away, a distant past time, underwater or wherever, this list can save their life, and you the angst of having created an awesomely epic bad guy who will at some point in the near future get aced by an uppity MC and their ragtag crew of misfit allies. Read the fucking list!
- Obsession is not your friend.
Being driven is one thing. After all, Rome didn’t rise all at once, and it required a guiding vision and the active cooperation and participation of its people to become the dominant world power of its era.
But when I speak of obsession, I mean the craving for whatever the villain’s goal is which must be achieved at all cost. Whether it’s the unattainable mate, ultimate power, deification or the simple destruction of an enemy, obsession is dangerous and destabilizing. No matter how well your villain pays or how much leverage they can bring to bear against the populace to keep them in line, it only takes one arrow, bullet, blaster bolt or inconveniently timed moment of clumsiness at the top of a flight of stairs to take them, and their distressing brand of crazy, out of the equation.
Unstable villains tend not to last long, and those who don’t know when to cut their losses and get the hell out of Dodge epitomize this. Know when to say when, even if the goal is so close they can taste it.
- Never leave your enemies alive.
This is Day .001 Villainy 101, but somehow it seems like it always gets overlooked. Maybe your baddie is overconfident, which is really just a shorthand way of saying they made a down payment on a tombstone. Maybe they think suborning their enemies is more effective. Maybe they’ve just got a lot to do and time is at a premium, so they leave the dirty work to their underlings, who will almost invariably botch the job. Or maybe they’ve got a really super-cool, absolutely positively guaranteed to never ever fail to leave the hero as a squishy, goopy smear of strawberry jelly and maybe a few random bone fragments deathy machine of death they’ve just been itching to try out.
Whatever the reason or circumstances, turning your back on a live enemy is simply stupid, to say nothing of poor policy. It encourages sloppiness in your minions and gives your enemy a lovely big target to do nasty things to while you’re preparing your grand revenge gesture. You can turn your back on them when, and only when, they have no pulse, no breath and no way to claw their way back to the land of the living. Dismemberment, beheading and burning is a timeless classic to prevent this, but if you’ve got a live, active volcano handy, that’s really just as effective. The point is, if your enemy isn’t clearly, most sincerely dead, you need to keep your eye on them and your weapons at the ready.
- Embrace practicality.
Your really super-cool, absolutely positively guaranteed to never ever fail to leave the hero as a squishy, goopy smear of strawberry jelly and maybe a few random bone fragments deathy machine of death is all very well and good, but really, what are you trying to prove? You can achieve the exact same effect with a sharp blade, a few hundred grains of lead moving at high velocity, a single blaster ray, jettisoning them from the nearest airlock or even just breaking their summoning circle at the perfect time. Besides, your cleanup crew will appreciate the reduced mopping and scrubbing they have to do.
While the deathy machine of death looks nice and menacing, and will certainly make an impression on your minions, you can save yourself a wad of cash, a lot of planning and assembly time and a whole heap of embarrassment by going practical with the murdery bits of your plan. Besides, if those special straps break at the wrong time, you’ve bought yourself an expensive liability which is all but guaranteed to bite you in the ass at the worst possible time. Bang-bang-bang-thump, or its setting-appropriate equivalent, is a classic for a reason.
- Skip the gloating bragfest.
Yes, yes, you’re right on the verge of taking command of the entire world, attaining godhood, holding the world at ransom for seven hundred gazillion dollars and the continent of Australia. Good on you. But you ain’t there until you’re THERE, Bucky, and that pesky hero and their meddling friends are just waiting for you and your flunkies to drop the ball.
Which is why, when you have them on the ropes, SHOOT THEM! STAB THEM! KILL THEM A LOT, AND THEN KILL THE PIECES EVEN MORE UNTIL THERE’S NOTHING LEFT TO KILL! THEN BURN THE WHOLE DAMNED MESS! Don’t brag about what you’ve done or are about to do. Don’t tell them what your plans are, or reveal the full, horrible majesty of your inevitable victory and the design which brought it about. Let them wonder what the hell you’re up to as they tumble into oblivion. Not your circus, not your monkeys. You know what you’re doing; they don’t need to. All they need to know is that they lost and you won. It’s not your problem if they have to die with their curiosity unsated. Life sucks; get a fucking helmet!
- Don’t make enemies.
So you’ve got this great plan to achieve world domination, and you’re perfectly okay with breaking a few thousand eggs to make your grand omelet. It’s a surefire victory with no downside, you’re thinking!
Well…no. See, those eggs you’re breaking? They’ve got friends and family, siblings and parents and children who are going to be mighty unhappy about the unfortunate and untimely demise of their peeps. It’s far easier and better public policy to not piss off the people who will ultimately be the cornerstone of your power base. Besides, once you’ve secured your power, you can pretty much do as you like to the approbation of your people, which greatly reduces the odds of someone hatting up and coming for you. Until you’ve got it locked down, though, maybe lay off the human sacrifices, public executions and general assholery, huh?
- Don’t be boring!
Dark robes, menacing followers in faceless uniforms and the basic trappings of the Evil League of Evil are all very fine and good. They’re also played out. Paging Kylo Ren…
The trappings of traditional villainy have become so shopworn they’re really kind of hokey at this point. Be original! If you can stand to walk around in a bright salmon bathrobe and fuzzy bunny slippers, do it. Even the most paranoid and vigilant hero isn’t going to consider someone in that kind of outfit any kind of a threat. It’s even better if you’re well-known for not carrying weapons, and your crew dresses in shirts with duckies and kitties on them.
You can be a villain and have fun with it at the same time! People are willing to forgive a lot in their villains, but they’re NOT likely to forgive a boring or simplistic villain. You’re complex, complicated, intelligent and ambitious. You’re not an amateur who needs to rely on cheap props and yawn-inducing shock tactics. Show it! Play with people’s expectations. Prove you deserve to be on top. Wear your bunny slippers and duckies, and march forward proudly to rule your own future, beholden to no one.
Or, you know, you can go ahead and be a cheap Darth Vader/Sauron knockoff who gets smoked in about .2 seconds by someone who sees you coming a mile away, continuing the lamentable tradition of villains who ignored history and thus doomed themselves to repeat it to its inevitable and terminal conclusion.
Obviously, writing a villain who doesn’t make any of these missteps poses some challenges. The tropes of villainy have become tropes simply because they’re easy. But you’re not just any mere mortal, you lunatic! You’re a writer, by God! You take blank paper and create and destroy lives, worlds, even whole universes at your will and whim. With such formidable powers of creation at your disposal, surely you can bend these rules to suit your purpose and develop the most terrifying villain of all: the one no one sees coming until it’s too late and their ascension inevitable.
I’d like to thank The Dark Lord Journal for having me as a guest, and you, honored visitors, for playing along and taking this trip with me. I’d like to close with a question for you, if you’re so inclined.
What rules and tropes would you add to this list? How would you change this list to suit your writing, or your villain? I’m excited to hear your thoughts!
Born in Amarillo, Texas, Jericho “J.S.” Wayne has lived, worked, and traveled in approximately three quarters of the North American continent, amassing a résumé which could kindly be described as “eclectic” along the way. Currently he lives in Portland, Oregon and feels no particular urge to be anywhere else.
An author in multiple genres, a misanthropic humanitarian and cynical optimist, J.S. spends most of his time when not writing erotic romance turning words into money as a website designer, SEO/SEM consultant and article and blog writer, filling the balance of his hours as a polyamorous kink practitioner and educator. He is fascinated by the use of language, human sexuality, occultism, quantum physics and trying to figure out just what the hell the lyrics to “I Am The Walrus” actually mean. He enjoys receiving mail and comments from his fans, and invites you to follow him on Twitter or simply email him at firstname.lastname@example.org!