Villains are a bit of a challenge for me. There are lots of bad people in the world – and quite a few of them are really bad – but are they villains?
The traditional view of a villain is the guy with a monocle and white cat. They can be quite one dimensional, but in that sort of book the heroes are equally one dimensional. I think a lot of people’s ideas of a villain come from the age they are in. Post WWII it was easy to have really bad villains – either neo Nazis or Communists. Between the wars you had gangsters. And before WWI you had anyone who was from another culture. It seems to me the more you understand other people and cultures the more challenging it is to find someone you can mark out as an obvious villain.
There are still some obvious choices you can make – sociopathic serial killers, paedophiles and other people with a mental illness are options, and if you are aiming for the Daily Mail readership overweight muslim asylum seekers would be a good choice. For the rest of us there are always merchant bankers and ruthless global capitalists to fall back on.
Or you can pander to people’s paranoia and choose your favourite conspiracy group, ignoring the fact that most conspirators are loners who couldn’t organise a booze up in a brewery or they would take the easier route of being successful in the real world.
Villains in the real tend to be people who are (a) selfish if not sociopathic to the extent they have no real empathy for other people (b) charismatic enough to attract followers who are generally marginalised in some way and see this as a way to gain status or other rewards and (c) want to change some aspect of the world because they believe the society they live in has got it wrong on some basic level. If that sounds a lot like many politicians then there is a good reason for that.
Part of the trick to creating them on a page is to show that there is a reason why they behave the way they do and their basic humanity. For everyone who thinks they are a villain there will be someone who shares their world view who thinks they are hero. In Ian Banks Consider Phlebas we realise part of the way through that the hero figure is actually on the wrong side. Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream is set up as a science fiction novel written by Adolf Hitler in an alternative universe where he emigrates to America from a Europe that has gone communist and the hero mirrors both Hitler’s actions in the real world, and lots of the “One man who knows” heroes in pulp SF. Robert Wilson brilliantly spoof’s Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged by simply changing what the heroes are fighting from socialism to black people. Similarly David Britton changes Manchester Chief Constable James Anderton’s speeches from a rant against gay people to a rant against Jewish people – equally objectionable but you could get away with the former more easily in the 80s.
In all cases the view of who is the hero and who is the villain changes depending on whether you share the world view of the lead character – not on their actions.
I suppose what I’m suggesting is (a) the field of conflict in fiction nowadays is more about conflict between different word views (b) no-one is a villain in their own novel and (c) the real villainy is in not caring about the impact of your actions on other people, or worse doing things that will deliberately hurt others because your view of the world has de-humanised them.