Shakepeare’s Best-Loved Sociopath: Advice on Villains

One of my all-time favorite villains in literature is Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello.  He’s out to take down Othello for any number of reasons, but his motivation for doing so is never entirely clear. Is it because he’s got a thing for Othello’s wife, Desdemona? Is Iago angry that he was passed over for a promotion, which Othello gave to Cassio instead of him? Or is it because Iago’s heard rumors that Othello has been screwing around with his wife (And whether they are true makes no nevermind to him!)? What makes Iago such an intriguing character is that he’s sneaky; he’s the type of guy who will smile in your face while screwing with your head, and he seems to do it just for the fun of it.  Additionally, the way that Shakespeare allows Iago to break the fourth wall and straight up tell the audience that (a) he’s untrustworthy, (b) that he hates Othello, and (c) he just loves being the bad guy.

Yes, Iago is a thoroughly despicable, awful, and evil person; he is the definition of a sociopath.  Even so, you can’t help but enjoy him.  Despite the fact that Iago would give even Satan a run for his money, the reason Iago fascinates so many people is due to Shakespeare’s masterful talent at making even the villains of his plays compelling characters.

The key to fleshing out a strong antagonist, especially if she is the villain, is to keep in mind that she needs to be at least as strong as, if not stronger than, your protagonist.  After all, your protagonist will grow and change throughout her character arc as she experiences the successes and (more importantly) the failures and set backs that prepare her to defeat the antagonist in the end.  Othello is highly intelligent, but Iago is a master manipulator who excels at mind games.  We want to spend time with him because even though the things that he does to Othello are reprehensible, we listen to Iago tell us what he is going to do and we can’t believe that he pulls it off; we are utterly fascinated at his ability to engineer so much evil and get away with it over and over again.

Even a villain, from his own point of view, has concrete goals that are positive.  Iago hates Othello.  From his point of view, getting revenge will make him happy. So he does it, and he enjoys it.  Like most memorable characters, he is likable–just not in a traditionally understood way.  We admire his extreme intelligence and charisma. That the collateral damage of his plan results in four deaths and one serious injury, and that he would have gotten away with it if his wife hadn’t turned on him at the last minute is also impressive. And both his boldness and lack of remorse resonates with that shadow side of ourselves that has probably surfaced once or twice when we’ve wanted to exact revenge on someone whom we perceive has wronged us.

If you have an antagonist who is a villain, try spending some time inside his or her head; try to see things from their point of view. One helpful character development exercise is to swap your protagonist and antagonist; summarize or outline the plot of your play from the antagonist’s point of view, focusing on why his goals and objectives are worthwhile and justified? From where he sits, why is your protagonist bad guy?   How does your antagonist feel that your protagonist creates conflict, tension, and complication? When you afford your antagonist this sort of respect, you’ll be amazed at how much better the interactions between him and your hero will be.

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