What an awesome day to get to write about villains! I'd totally go through the horror movie bad guys list for you, but after watching the first quarter of American Werewolf in London when I was probably far too young to have seen a guy's torso ripped open and the ribs shining in the moonlight - horror movies were O.V.E.R. I think I saw 30 seconds of Nightmare on Elm Street. Got one half coherent thought out. "Wow, misogynistic crap, who the heck . . . NOPENOPENOPE." So. Yeah. YOU contemplate all the knives, chainsaws and hockey masks. I'll -- avert my eyes.
I contend that bad guys get terrible press. You've heard how the history books are written by the winners. What if the same is true in novels? Nowhere else in life are good and bad so clearly delineated as in fiction (not just novels - TV, movies, podcasts, you name the media). Our world is filled with competing stories, all of which are trying to sell you a bill of goods delineating who the white hats and who the black hats are. How many sides have you picked? Or did the old Saturday morning westerns (pretend I'm not the only one old enough to have watched those, please) put you off believing in such simple binary definitions of good and bad? (You know, the stories native peoples are depicted as mindless, murdering savages, and wherein no one bothered to mention these people were fighting for their homes and survival because then they might be sympathetic.) Messaging matters. Perspective - the angle from which a story is told - matters.
Consider: Are tigers or lions or wolves bad or evil when they chase down and kill some sweet little, bounding herbivore? Or do you suppose they have cubs or pups crying to be fed? What's evil in that situation - killing? Or letting the young starve? Do you have a dog or a cat at home? Are you crushed when the dog gleefully brings you a dead baby rabbit from the yard one spring day? Or when the cat catches and plays with a live mouse for hours? Are either of those animals being purposefully mean or bad? It might feel like it to us, but they aren't - they are acting in accordance with their deepest natures - they are predators. Each is specifically designed to do a job and do it with exquisite efficiency. In the wild, the dogs and cats ensured their survival with those hunting instincts and skills. Removed to our hearths and homes, those instincts and skills are displaced and often abhorrent to our sensibilities. In an environment filled with food, warmth and cushy sofas, watching our companion animals revert to being killers can be deeply unsettling. What if your story antagonist is in a similar position? Someone with specific skills and instincts that are utterly out of place in the world they live in? Your protagonists might have to destroy this antagonist, but, oh, what lovely conflict when your protagonist feels a tug of sympathy for that fish out of water antagonist.
There's also the subtle, slippery slope - which is probably the most realistic way good people wind up in horrible spots. We're surrounded by moral ambiguity. It defines our lives. We're presented daily with little, seemingly meaningless choices. Do you tell a white lie, smile, and tell your coworker that shade of magenta looks great when in fact it makes him look like an extra from The Walking Dead? Wait. Isn't lying evil? Or is hurting someone's feelings the GREATER evil? You're driving in a quiet neighborhood. No other cars. You slow down for that stop sign, but, heck. Not a car or a cop for miles. Why bother stopping? Is that choice evil only if you fail to see the child dart into the street after her kitten? Or have you started down a spiral by rationalizing away your bit of urban lawlessness with a breezy 'it didn't hurt anyone'? Is that the benchmark? Or can that be a moving target? There's a saying in our household: Break in and take all the stuff you want. Break in and touch my family and I will kill you come hell or high water. I am perfectly willing to take a life in the defense of my family. No question. No compunction. But look. Someone will get hurt. Have I just put on a black hat?
The fun of a great villain, for me, is playing with those lines. None of my villains mean to be villains. Some of them don't get the page time to make their inner stories clear, but that's my fault. The aliens in my first book are acting out of deepest, alien nature - what they do is necessary for their survival as a species. It doesn't help that humanoids are alien enough to them that they don't think of us as alive...In human terms, these creatures are brutal, horrifying, and worthy of being eradicated. Until the aliens and humans begin cracking one another's behavioral codes. In the urban fantasies, the big bad was an angel - or something close to it - who went to any length to destroy evil. It was that 'any length' bit that twisted him into becoming exactly what he hated. In those books, there's a lot of crossing the good/evil line for my protagonists, too. Because that's what a good antagonist does - forces or tempts your hero or heroine to cross the line. If that hero or heroine is lucky, they'll see the danger and step firmly back into solidly heroic territory. And if the reader's lucky, sometimes, the heroes remain standing with one foot just over the line.