They're half the reason you fall in love with the story even though they're typically the source of conflict and what makes the hero's journey so harrowing, enveloping and often times excruciating. They're the person you can't help but love to hate and consistently find yourself awestruck at their ability for evil.
That's right, I'm talking about the villain.
A little while ago I got together with some friends and we did a march madness style bracket of all the modern villains, individually ranking them from a1 seed villain (Darth Vader) all the way down to 16 seed villains (Biff Tannen) and then averaging them all up to get the final rankings for the seeding. What's so interesting to me is that despite our three very, VERY different opinions of who the best villains (and movies, and heroes, and comic book characters...you get the idea) of all time were, three of the final four villains were the same in every person's bracket. That's right, out of 64 modern villains, three of the final four were unanimous inclusions in every single bracket, defeating every other villain in their way.
Despite our personal tastes and differing perspectives on what makes a legendary villain so wonderful, Darth Vader, Dracula and the Wicked Witch of the West all earned a spot in the final four (the last spot was split between the Joker, Sauron and Voldemort; again, this was a modern villains list so more classical villains like Faust, Medusa, etc, weren't eligible). Now the reason I bring this up is because after further reflection, every single final four member possessed three traits, or as I like to call them, Degrees of Diabolicalness, that raised them from mere "bad guy" status to the "when you think of a villain, you think of them" place in modern history.
First Degree of Diabolicalness: They delight in their superiority, flaunting their power in the face of all who would challenge them
Maybe it's a sick grin of knowing that they're stronger and more powerful than the poor souls before them right before they crush whoever is in their path, maybe it's the swagger that their body language exudes with each egotistical and narcissistic word or maybe it's simply an unforgettable laugh that is permanently burned into your memory because of the evil it embodies (seriously, the Joker and the Wicked Witch may honestly be the definition of this one), but the greatest villains of all time always seem to revel in the knowledge that you are but a pawn to them, a bug under their magnifying glass of evil glee. They know they are more powerful than you and, by golly, it's just really fun to flaunt that fact.
And to their credit, they can't really be blamed, can they? After all, that same power is usually what got them into villainy in the first place and boy is power rather intoxicating. Now maybe their power is more psychological (maybe it's their limitless drive, unbreakable conviction, or even maniacal psychosis) than it is mystical or purely about strength, but rest assured, they're stronger than you are and anyone else who comes across their path. And they know it. They cherish it.
In fact, the most real world example of this would be sports teams who showboat or make a spectacle out of their superior collection of talent. Not only are they going to crush you beneath their heel, but they're going to toy with you, maybe force choke you from across the room as you gasp for breath knowing that at any time they can let go--or finish the job with an entertainer's extravagance and you can do absolutely nothing to stop them. I mean, that kind of might and superiority is hard not to enjoy, right?
Because when it comes down to it, they can't help but know that they're beyond any of the foes in their ruthless path to domination and conquest. They're a little too aware of just how outmatched their opponent is and, well, that's just awesome. Crushing the hope and confidence of the underdog in their wake when they can't possibly stand a chance is just too much fun.
But boy do we love it when that underdog grabs a sling and stone and slays the giant. It's seeing the mighty fall at the weaker hands of the true and the just that gives us that heroic satisfaction. It proves that the villain fails not out of a lack of might, but a lack of heart, unyielding hope and self sacrifice. A lack of soul, even. Because if the hero beats someone who is not stronger than them or more ruthless and cut-throat than anyone else around, what's so great about that?
No, we need that villain to be nigh unstoppable, even a god among mortals who strikes fear and panic in everyone but that that one group of people, that one person with the resolve to say, "You shall not pass." That one person who is more courageous and focused than afraid even though they feel the panic and raw power of the evil they most vanquish. Otherwise the triumph would not be nearly as momentous. Thus the hero, and the heroic victory and colossal struggle we long to see, the one that keeps us turning the pages, is only as great as the villain that must be overcome.
Tune in this afternoon for Part II...