Today on the Absolute Write forums, I came across this post where the poster was unsure of how clear the lines between good and evil need to be in Young Adult. These were my responses:
Villains in stories don’t always have to be evil. Villains can often believe that they are doing the right thing to the best of their abilities. I have villains in one story who hunt people like my main character because that’s what they grew up with and they think these people deserve to be hunted. Yet in another story I have characters you could call ‘evil’, bent on world-domination and killing anyone who gets in their way. Having villains who are truly evil gives an extra challenge because you have to keep them from falling into the stereotypical, mustache-twirling vaudeville type.
I think [character] could have a lot of potential as the kind of bad guy readers sympathise with, and that can be a powerful thing. I like the ideas you’ve come up with.
It really depends on the talent of the writer (or how well I, as the writer, have managed it). I know this isn’t really the answer you’re looking for, but I’m up for either, as long as they’re well-done.
EDIT: As Zoombie [see link to thread up top] said, it’s possible to have a villain who is both charming and deplorable. Just like everyone has their flaws, villains need their positive attributes. Your villain’s positive attribute (one of them anyway) is that he tries to do what he thinks is right
Villains can come in many forms. They can be the ‘true’ evil characters who have no qualms about harming anyone who tries to foil their plans, or someone with a different set of beliefs to your protagonist (This type of villain generally isn’t called a villain, but rather the ‘antagonist’), or someone being misguided by some kind of adviser. There are also the types who are close to your protagonist, like the ‘frienemy’, who will often attempt to sabotage your character out of envy. Sometimes the villain isn’t even another person at all. It could be a natural environment, like a desert, that your character has to survive in, or it could even be your character’s own psyche.
External villains these days have moved past the point where it is acceptable for them to be only evil. There must be some kind of reason they do what they do, perhaps even a redeeming quality. He must be interesting, unless he is supposed to be a dry character, like if the villain in your story is a boring teacher (not that all teachers are boring). Even then, villains need depth. They need to have both the skills and motivation to undermine your main character. Your villain must be a worthy adversary of the protagonist.