Am I wrong? Do you notice a definite lack of villains in most books? Modern writing uses multi-faceted characters who are morally ambiguous. I don't want a return to the melodramatic days of mustache twirling, but I find myself looking for villains, and finding my examples are more classic than not.
What makes a good villain? Here's an examination of six villains that have crossed my path, and why I think they're good villains.
1. Steerpike from Gormenghast. Steerpike is an abused boy from the kitchens who shamelessly manipulates his way into a variety of powerful positions, and then starts abusing that power. Hungry for more power and prestige, eventually he begins to kill for it. He also has a ferocious temper that makes him avenge what he perceives as slights.
Why does Steerpike work? He has humble origins, he has moments of humanities, the escalation of his deeds are so gradual we see him slip little by little, and by the time he goes completely mad, a small part of us wants him to succeed in contrast to his enemies. Make no mistake. He's got to go down, and he's evil. He's fascinating.
Peake takes 12 pages to kill Steerpike in my version of the book. A worthy villain gets a worthy death.
2. Dr. Doom.
Dr. Doom comes from the hokey period of Marvel Comics. In general, I've been pleased with his portrayal in modern times. He is crazy and selfish, but when it comes to running his country, you can always count on him to do what he thinks is right for Latveria, in a really stern father kind of way. Doom is deeply flawed in so many ways, including in his irrational hatred of his rival Reed Richards. However, you can count on Doom to do what he says he will do, especially if you have the word of Doom.
There is no moral grayness about Doom. What you see is what you get.
3. Cardinal Richelieu
Of the characters on this list, the Cardinal comes the closest to that modern interpretation of villain as multi-faceted character. There's a reversal in The Three Musketeers that makes Richelieu almost seem a better man than the King (I believe he is), but his motivations make him the villain of the piece. Make no mistake. Richelieu is in this for France, but mostly he's in it for himself.
Most of the adaptations of the Musketeer films make Richelieu into a caricature of himself. I'm still trying to block out the Tim Curry portrayal from the last Disney effort! Brrr! Still, you've got to admire Richelieu's abilities to scheme and manipulate, and you've got to admire D'Artagnan's ability to save the day in the face of it.
4. The Operative from Serenity.
Ah, Firefly! I could count the ways I despise your flimsy writing and your unsympathetic characters, but I would digress. Instead, I will praise the main villain of Serenity, the Operative. I admit that I like the Operative mostly because he wants to kill the crew of the Serenity, but there's more than that.
The Operative see the evil he does as a necessary evil in an imperfect world. He doesn't get off on killing little assassin girls, but he knows he must sacrifice himself to keep civilization safe, and he'll do it. He has embraced his role as monster, and will do whatever it takes to keep the world safe and sound from the threat of government experiments gone aglay (a little Scottish for ya).
That's cool. He's one scary guy.
5. Narnia Witches. The White Witch, of course, has a ruthless agenda and an unfeeling heart. She symbolically sacrifices the good in the world when she does Aslan in. I love her beauty juxtaposed with her temper. Also, I truly enjoy her sister the Green Witch, and the way she enchants Rillian to her own purpose. Yeah, they're some heartless, manipulative women who take charge of their own desire for power.
Those are my top five. I'd love to hear where you've read your villains, and who works for you.
Here are some villains I think don't work from fairly popular fantasy.
Voldemort: The threat is coming! It's so bad you can't speak his name! He's really bad! And...then he gets here, and he doesn't do much beyond that really scary scene at the end of book 4. And then he gets played by Ralph Fiennes with a squished nose and a bald cap. Meh. Somehow, I want a partial refund...
Sauron: Sure. The war is bad. The ring is bad. The orcs are bad. But all he does is glare, ya know?
At any rate, I would love to hear from you. What makes a good villain? An effective one? Who are your favorites?