O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,–meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain…
What makes someone a good villain?
It seems a contradiction in terms, so perhaps I’ll discuss an effective villain. I feel that a villain should be not pure, shapeless evil (e.g., Morgoth, Sauron, Morningstar, Ungoliant, bent eldila, Galactus, Lord Ombra, etc.), but human; further, I think such humans should be refined in temperament and in dress, being suave and debonair to hide their seedy underbellies of cruelty and malice. The stringy underfed denizens of the underworld are, perhaps, ne’er-do-wells or hooligans but they are not villains, proper. That would be the equivalent of calling a fellow a “gentleman” when he in no wise merits the title.* The villain acts as he does not because he has made his allegiance to darkness, but because his god is himself. He wishes to behave according to his own ends, which are wise in his own sight. He can rationalize or justify what he does, but that does not make his actions kind.
The best villains are like a pitcher plant: they lure the unwary with the sweetness of false promises, trap him in a sticky web of ill consequences and deceit, bring him further down the slippery slope of malevolence, and finally devour him. The villain in the middle, the “Big Bad,” uses whatever means achieve his ends: Turkish Delight, blackmail, trickery, gold, good old-fashioned lies, etc. Without his plotting and machinations, the ring of malefactors around him do very little malefacting.
That’s why the image of Moriarty, the unnamed adversary in Murder Must Advertise, Macavity, Voldemort, the White Witch, the Man in the Brown Suit – all of these are, in my opinion, the best villains. There’s a reason why the protagonists go to suicidal lengths to take down whoever sits in the center of the web: “Mangalores won’t fight without their leader!”
(Rather a failure on the part of evil, though, loving power so much that one’s underlings cannot carry on in the event of one’s demise. Seems Rule #107 on the Evil Overlord List could use another clause.)
But not all villains are Evil Overlords; it’s not like everyone has the wherewithal or the capital to have their own little cadre of amoral minions. So who might be the worst of the villainous singletons? I’m thinking of a murderous fellow in a litel bok I love called Whose Body? Said book is another by Sayers, and one of my favorite Lord Peter Wimsey books. This is no crime borne out of passion, nothing clumsy or loutish. This is the intricately planned, coolly executed, and cunningly hidden destruction of another person to meet one’s malicious ends. I will not divulge whodunit, but I will say that within those pages exists a mind who does all these things with artful flourish and who, when in company, smiles and smiles.
*You may say I have committed a grave error. Indeed, I agree with you that etymology does not back me up. At all. “Villain” comes from the Late Latin villanus, “farmhand,” by way of Old French, and simply meant “one tied to a villa.” Such people were not of knightly status, and thus the word came to mean “not chivalrous.” And as many not-chivalrous acts tended toward the rakish or wicked, it became a term of abuse, eventually taking on its present meaning. Behold how I have raised the villain’s stature! They are the nouveau-riche of evil, or something.