For those of you just happening upon this post, this is the second in a series of villain studies I’m writing in order to learn what makes an effective villain. By looking closely at some of the best (by which I of course mean, worst) villains out there I hope to learn a trick or two for my own (eeeevil) designs.
That said, may I present…
VILLAIN STUDIES, Entry 2: ANAKIN SKYWALKER / DARTH VADER
Alright. Now I’ll admit I’m a little out of my element with Star Wars. I have seen each of the films approximately once, and most of them at an age where loads of it was probably over my head, anyways.
But what immediately stands out to me about Vader, a villain everyone has heard of and is at least vaguely acquainted with, is the immense amount of backstory we get. One suggestion I am repeatedly finding as I seek villain-crafting advice is this: the protagonist is only one of the stars in any story; equally important is the antagonist. As such, we should develop our villains with the same care and effort as our heroes. An antagonist needs his or her own history, motivation, and conflict; that is what makes him or her compelling, relatable, or pitiable. A well-developed villain can even incur sympathy and make the reader/viewer conflicted about what to want and who to root for. Darth Vader is on that shit like peanut butter on jelly.
Vader’s backstory is unusual: he starts as a protagonist. Anakin Skywalker is a nine-year-old boy and slave on a remote desert planet who gets his lucky break when Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn discovers that the Force is unusually strong in him. Thought to be the prophesized hero who will restore balance to the Force, after winning his freedom the young boy makes the difficult decision to train as a Jedi, although it means leaving his mother and home planet behind. He is young, auspicious, and vulnerable. We are rooting for him.
It is the very fact that Anakin once was the protagonist, and groomed to be hero, that makes it all the more devastating when he turns to the dark side. We feel the loss, and Kenobi’s pain, when teacher and student duke it out in Episode III. “You were the chosen one!” Kenobi cries after he has cut Anakin down. Anakin clings to the edge with the one arm he has left, spitting and bitter as he slides toward the lava. “You were my brother, Anakin…I loved you.” When the flames catch his clothes and begin to consume him, Kenobi only watches, a tortured expression on his face as Anakin screams, before leaving his former friend to burn. To this day it is one of the most haunting scenes I have seen.
Of course, this is all build-up. Technically Anakin Skywalker is not his full-fledged villain self—that is, he does not become Darth Vader—until the end of episode III, and he really doesn’t assume the presence until episode IV. And while Vader’s motive (power lust) is hardly new, the rich drama informed by his backstory is: in episode VI we see him do battle, not just against Luke Skywalker, but within himself. What is left of Anakin Skywalker, a human being and Luke’s father, acts to save his child’s life at the price of his own. Here is another reason for Vader’s epic and unrivaled antagonist saga: he is a redeemed villain by story’s end.
Other factors that help the Darth Vader legend:
Mask (helmet, to be exact)
Finally, if you’ve any thoughts on what / who makes a good villain, please feel free to chime in below! I am interested to see what villains stand out in other people’s minds and why.