Have you ever come across a villain in a story who could only be described as cartoonishly evil? Did they at all seem like a force to be reckoned with? Was there any sort of weight or gravitas to their motivations? Or were they just a mustache-twirling evildoer who cackles maniacally at every puppy they punt and kitten the strangle? Yeah, I thought so.
Villains can be a hassle to write, for a multitude of reasons, but primarily in my opinion because many writers fail to humanize them. That might sound counterintuitive but hear me out. Think for a moment of the best villains in all of storytelling. Joker, Syndrome (The Incredibles), Darth Vader, and many more. I could go on and on, but for our purposes here, let's dive into the character of Joker.
The Joker is very commonly perceived as the embodiment of anarchy, an agent of chaos, the Clown Prince of Crime. In most depictions, he is given the bare essentials to get him going before sending him straight into the fight against Batman. Because what else does he need? He's insane, insanity is bad, and that's that, right? Well no, actually it goes much deeper than that. Although most onscreen depictions fail to humanize him, the comic origins of the Joker reveal a man who endured a lot of heartbreak in his life, culminating in a single moment when he snapped and unleashed everything bottled up inside of him. He was a failing comedian, just trying to provide for himself and his pregnant wife. But hard times pushed him to make some difficult decisions, and in the end he paid for those choices. And just as those consequences came crashing in, his wife went into labor and died in childbirth. Suddenly, quite all at once, he was completely and utterly alone in the world. Nobody cared, and no one would answer, not even the famous Batman, the hero of the downtrodden. All that he felt within himself was rage and...and...laughter? He fell into nihilism, a belief that life holds no meaning and is therefore pointless. His outlook on life is perfectly summed up in this line, paraphrased from multiple renditions of the character:
"I used to think my life was a tragedy. Now I can see it's a comedy!"
His sole goal in life is to convince the world, and more specifically Batman, that everyone is just one bad day away from becoming like him. He no longer has any joy or pleasure. At least, nothing truly so. Only the deep-seated and ever-present dread that nothing in life matters.
Now, given that context, I would hope that it is much more difficult to simply write Joker off as some cartoonishly evil villain. Villainous? Absolutely, no doubt about it, I am not trying to justify his actions in the slightest. But relatable? Well, that really depends on your own life experience. But can just about anyone relate to being downtrodden at times, or at the end of your rope with seemingly no hope? Yes. And that is what makes him truly special as a villain.
If we can sympathize with a villain, does this mean we that shouldn't want the hero to stop them? Well, those feelings are valid, but here is where we must remember the full context. The difference between the hero and villain is choice. Sure, the villain's circumstances may have had a hand in creating him, but he still ultimately made the choice in the end. The hero is the good guy because, although he may have experienced similar circumstances, he made the right choice where the villain did not.
You might be thinking about how frustrated you are at me, for daring to make you feel sad over a villain's tragic backstory. Fear not, this is normal (please put down that brick). The important thing now is that you should be able to write villains who are relatable because they are human, and therefore deserving of a greater understanding by your readers. If someone reads your story and comes near the end rooting for the villain almost as much as the hero, and the final confrontation arrives with these feelings at a fevered pitch, then you have succeeded. Because no matter the outcome, someone worthwhile has to lose. And this also quite nicely gets rid of the nagging sensation that you know how a scenario is going to play out, since the heroes usually win by virtue of being the protagonist and having armor forged in the fires of absolute good morals and the villains are caricatures instead of characters. Now you have created a situation where a morally good person with character flaws goes up against a morally corrupt person with a relatable and human backstory. The result: a nail-biting experience!