Yes, yes, the official term is three-way Venn Diagram, but that’s not nearly as catchy.
Look across the great villains of art history, in film, in movies, in video games, in anime, in anything at all, you’ll find three major themes that the writers exploited. All great villains have one, two, or even all three of these, hence the Venn-Triagram model. Each one can bleed into the other.
What are those three qualities? Devious, Funny, and Tragic. Great villains sap at least one and the boring villains don’t do enough of any of them.
But the best way to teach is by example. I’ll use Disney villains for each prominent example simply because I’d wager a lot of money you know who they are.
So here are some examples of excellent villains who drew from one, two, or three great wells.
Devious villains are those who are 100% pure evil and love it. They have little to no “real” motivation other than being evil and we love them for it. Sometimes, they have incredible style that stands out more than the heroes. Sometimes, they have great cackles that show you how mad they are. And sometimes, they’re just genuinely terrifying.
Maleficent encompasses all of this in great form. She is a proud, slithery, smiling, scheming, laughing villain who clearly delights in all the bad she does. But she’s also a serious, horrifying threat when she turns into the dragon. Style, terror, and delight.
Other Examples: Chernabog from Fantasia, Light Yagami from Death Note, Joker from Batman.
FUNNY: Captain Hook
This is a villain who isn’t really that threatening or scary, and he’s probably not very good at his job. In fact, they’re more often sidekicks than villains, and they’ve kind of gone by the wayside nowadays. But the joy comes from watching him or her bumble through their attempts.
Captain Hook has one or two proud moments, but usually he’s the butt of every joke. He loses a swordfight to a child. He’s desperately afraid of a crocodile. And he doesn’t seem like a good pirate in the first place. But boy, is he fun to watch!
Other Examples: Professor Fate from The Great Race; Most Looney Tunes villains, Pete from the old Mickey Mouse cartoons.
TRAGIC: Long John Silver
This is a much more modern villain. They’re not completely evil–often not evil at all. Sometimes they’ve been maligned, sometimes circumstances push them over the edge, and sometimes their evilness is melting away. You may even want those villains to win.
Long John Silver is a too-often overlooked character from the too-often overlooked Treasure Planet. He starts off caring for nothing but treasure, but develops a fatherly affection for Jim. You soon see he’ll never really hurt Jim, so he’s not scary, and you just want the two to reconcile and go home happy.
Other Examples: Elfeba from Wicked
DEVIOUS AND FUNNY: Gaston
In the beginning, Gaston is the beefy doofus. He fails to get the girl and falls face-first in mud. Then he sulks about it until his friends make him feel better.
But when the chips are down, those same childish characteristics turn him into a genuine threat when he’s eager and able to kill the Beast and claim Belle for himself.
Other Examples: The Sheriff of Nottingham from Disney’s Robin Hood. Kefka from Final Fantasy VI.
DEVIOUS AND TRAGIC: Darth Vader
Yes, that’s a Disney property now.
Remember Vader’s intimidating entrance? The way merely breathing made him menacing? His horrid revelation to Luke? His immense power and long line of successes? Vader was a force to be reckoned with.
But he was not beyond redemption. In the end, Vader sacrificed everything to do the right thing. He found his humanity and made the audience empathize with him enough to earn three more movies.
Other Examples: The Phantom of the Opera, Severus Snape from Harry Potter
FUNNY AND TRAGIC: Loki
What do you remember about Loki? How he nearly took over the universe? No. How he manipulated people? No. You remember two things: how he desperately wanted to be appreciated, and how he got rag-dolled by Hulk.
Rare is the villain who makes you laugh and cry at the same time, especially in Disney, so here are some better examples:
Harley Quinn from Batman, Lucy/Nyu from Elfen Leid, Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter
THE GOLDEN CENTER: Prince John
This is one of the most impossible tasks: combing three opposing forces into one villain.
Prince John from Robin Hood starts out as Mr. Pratfall. Even by the end, he’s still sucking his thumb and calling for Mama.
However, he also shows surprising cleverness and cruelty. He organizes the archery-tournament trap and nearly kills Robin Hood. Then he orchestrates and even greater trap by plotting to kill a man of the church, and once more nearly succeeds. Not to mention his vicious disregard for peasants.
And yet, there’s also a sympathetic side. Why does he do all these evil things? He says it in the beginning. “Mother always did like Richard best.” He never could please Mommy and his older brother always outshone him. And when did he become truly cruel? When the town laughed at him. All he really wanted was love. And a clean thumb.
Empathetic reasons, villainous results, and enough incompetence to keep him from going too far either way. That’s a delicate balance indeed.
THE EVIL INVERSE: Base Selfishness
Ladies and gentlemen, there is a flip-side to the Villanious Venn-Triagram. A character right in the middle of the extremes because he is none of them at all. He’s not devious, not funny, and not empathetic.
He is merely selfish, and destroys all those around him because of it.
The closest Disney example I can find is Lady Gothel from Tangled. She’s not quite evil enough to be terribly memorable, she’s not all that funny or much of a simpleton, and she’s not terribly empathetic. But she’s a genuine threat to the heroine because of simple selfishness.
A better example is Makoto from the anime School Days. Makoto is just a guy who sleeps around a lot, cheating on everyone around him, and this results in misery for the cast and even murder.
But he’s not laughing about cheating on these girls. He doesn’t twirl his mustache and plan his next diabolical move. He’s not prone to pratfalls, nor does he have some tragic backstory.
He’s just endlessly selfish, taking from everybody, almost unaware.
Why do these inverse villains work? For one thing, they’re the most realistic. Most of these villains are overblown for dramatic effect, but we see selfish people every day.
Worse, they don’t know they’re the villain. Makoto genuinely thinks he’s an okay person despite rampantly using girls for sex, and Mother Gothel doesn’t admit to being the bad guy until nearly the end, despite kidnapping a baby, then manipulating her for years.
And once more, we all know people like them. That’s what makes the Selfish villain so terrifying: he’s right outside your window.
So there you have the great villain traits: Deliciously Devious, Hilarious Half-Wit, Sympathetic Scapegoat, Comical Madman, Tragic Extremist, Laugh-Til-You-Cry Madman, the Terrible Trifecta, and the Selfish Inversion.
Pick one and run with it. Have fun!