Nobody wants to be the bad guy. That includes the writer. This may be why I see fewer of what I’d call old-time villains, who wreak havoc in stories without becoming monsters, in contemporary films and books.
Historically, a lot of antagonists have been members of out groups. When I was a kid, anyone other than a straight WASP — including American Indians, Asians, Blacks, Italians, Gays, Nazis and Irish — made an acceptable villain. You can find all of them in noir films, TV westerns, and cartoons. Today, if you look at that list, only Nazis are still fair game, and it's safe to say that terrorists of any sort can show up in a story and be booed with impunity. Mostly.
One trick writers have used to hang onto some former go-to villains is to have someone of the same ethnicity on the side of the good guys. (See folks, we aren’t bigots. Look, we know some of “those people” are good.)
The legacy of bigotry is enough, in and of itself, to make a writer reluctant to create a villain.
At the other end of the spectrum is the explained villain. A writer, who doesn’t really believe it him/herself, cooks up a cliche Freudian reason for the bad behavior. It’s a segmented sort of insanity. Yes, the writer has an excuse and can point to it, but that does not make the story less disappointing. It's easy to see why writers avoid this path.
An approach to this problem that’s in between is the antihero. Sometimes these are characters who do the right thing because is serves their own selfish interests (or more likely because they have a selfish excuse for doing the right thing, and so don’t see themselves as being “suckers”). Han Solo more or less fits this type and ends up being a hero, despite himself. But I think it’s notable that Han is flanked by a traditional hero, Luke, and an old-time villain, Darth Vader.
I guess it could be said that the Godfather’s Michael Corleone is an antihero. He’s certainly the story’s protagonist. I see him as a tragic figure who is corrupted by circumstances — mainly a society that is even more broken and flawed than his criminal family.
Science fiction and fantasy helped social critics (and their ideas) make it through the McCarthy era safely. And, as long as the pixies and aliens don’t look too much like contemporary groups, these genres can provide rich and safe opportunities for villains. The problem comes in when the worlds these creatures live in are too distant from our own or the nature moves so far from human that it becomes easier to think of these villains as monsters than reflections of ourselves.
To me, the answer to restoring villainy is bringing authenticity to the work. I’ve tried to present some of the approaches to this, such as reflecting the hero or just going to extremes when faced with an intolerable loss or insult, in previous posts. That provides a “how,” but writers still need to have the courage to present villains that will be unacceptable portrayals to some readers or audience members no matter what. As soon as an antagonist is fleshed out enough for people to identify with, the negative aspects will be taken personally.
Good villains get under people’s skin. Writers who present good villains will be attacked.
Which brings us to the “why.” Why create characters that irritate people when you can always soften them or make them into monsters? The answer is villains are necessary if you want to make the most of many story concepts.
All you need to do to prove this to yourself is to list ten of your favorite villains. In fact, you probably can make the case just by listing ten to twenty of your favorite stories. The best argument for daring to make really bad villains is right in front of you — in the movies you’ve watched and the books you've read, over and over again.