There’s nothing scarier than a villain you admire. If you make a villain totally evil, it’s easy to hate him, but if you make the villain likable, now you may still hate him (or her), but you also can’t help but admire the villain. When you like the villain, it makes the eventual conflict between the hero and the villain tougher because you have mixed emotions about the outcome. You may still want the hero to win and the villain to lose, but you no longer have a one-sided view rooting against the villain.
Think of “Die Hard” where the villain is not only clever, but smart, funny, and sophisticated. He’s not just a thug with a gun, but a dangerous man with a brain and a gun. Now he’s not only physically imposing but intellectually scary as well. When John McClane runs into Hans the villain, Hans mimics an American accent and pretends to be hiding from the terrorists too. Now he’s far more dangerous because he seems to have gained John McClane’s trust when John gives him a gun and turns his back on him.
What happens if you have a less likable villain? In “Avatar,” the villain is the Marine commander who seems helpful but isn’t as likable as Hans the villain in “Die Hard.” As a result, the villain in “Avatar” seems more one-dimensional and easily hated. Now the final confront between the hero and the villain at the end of “Avatar” is more of a physical battle than an intellectual and emotional one, which occurs in “Die Hard.”
Darth Vader in “Star Wars” isn’t quite likable, but we do admire his use of the Force to silence his generals who disagree with him. This makes him a bit more formidable than just a strong man with a lot of guns behind him.
In “Ghost,” the villain is actually a friend of the hero and we don’t learn until later on that he’s actually the villain. Now the hero not only has to face a villain, but a villain who betrayed him. That makes the villain’s actions even more reprehensible because he got the hero killed out of greed.
Make the villain likable somehow, even if his actions aren’t likable. The more we like the villain, the greater the emotional conflict in the end, and that will only make the final battle more memorable and powerful.