villains, what not to do

I’m sort of dubious when it comes to Villains with a capital V, anyway.  I am more inclined to set up several more or less equal human characters with conflicting goals or one character against aspects of his world (Repeating History begins as a man against nature story, but changes as it goes on).  If I’m going to have a villain at all, I prefer him or her to be someone who thinks he’s the hero of his own story.  Who’s doing what he’s doing with the best of intentions, but whose view of the situation is  skewed by his worldview or his sense of the way things ought to be.  Or perhaps because he’s missing vital pieces of information.  Or had a weak moment (or life) and got in over his head.

Even heroes act in their own best interest, after all.

All this to say that I feel cheated when the villain is of the type who insists that he’s being forced to do what he’s doing because other people aren’t doing what he wants them to do.  The serial killer who says, “I wouldn’t have to kill these people if you’d just give me my ten mil.” (or give him the hostage he wants, or a get-out-of-jail-free card, or a ticket to Bolivia, or whatever)  Well, no, nobody’s holding a gun to his head to make him kill anyone.  As a matter of fact, it’s pretty much a no-brainer to assume that everyone around him is doing their best to keep him from doing so.

It’s such a copout in terms of characterization.  “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities.  Truth isn’t.”  At least according to Mark Twain.  In other words, yes, this sort of person can and does exist in real life.  But in fiction it’s lazy characterization.  It saves the writer from having to tell us the real reasons a villain would think he could get away with something like this.  It saves the writer from having to make his villain three-dimensional.  It’s just too Snidely Whiplash.

It’s also a rather lame attempt to manipulate the hero, for no reason other than the villain is a madman.  The hero comes across as damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, and the story is weaker for it.

So.  What kinds of villains do you hate?  And which do you love to hate?  Or do you feel about them the way I do?  Inquiring minds want to know.