"You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues: Wisdom, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. As I read the list, I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, father. Ambition. That can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Resourcefulness, Courage - perhaps not on the battlefield, but... there are many forms of courage. Devotion, to my family and to you. But none of my virtues were on your list. Even then it was as if you didn't want me for your son."—Commodus in Gladiator, just before suffocating his father and framing Maximus.
Villains are bad, it goes without saying. However, they can't be all bad for the simple reason that a character loaded down with all of the Seven Deadly Sins (along with whatever other character flaws writers can think of) will be too lazy, gluttonous, envious, prideful, angry, lusty and miserly to do much of anything.
Even if they only have one vice, a villain is going to need a big heaping of icky good traits in order to accomplish their goals. They don't have to be an Anti-Villain, they just need to have one or more of the Seven Heavenly Virtues or another good trait to get by. The reason for this is both practical and artistic. Practically, a villain with a virtue of some kind will have a way to put their schemes in motion and effectively oppose The Hero. Without these virtues, authors would have to resort to making them a Generic Doomsday Villain to get anything done. Artistically, it helps make the villain a Rounded Character, and helps make them dynamic if their virtue and vice are somehow in conflict.
For example: A Prideful villain might also be very hard working in order to get the power he needs. A slothful villain might compensate with amazing creativity, coming up with amazing inventions, Evil Plans, and limitless funds. A wrathful villain may nonetheless be very loyal to his minions, inspiring great devotion.
Where this can get strange and interesting is when this is applied to a villain who is Made of Evil. Here you have a ball of elemental nastiness who also happens to have one or more positive traits. Who knew elemental evil had such good taste in scones?
However, there are virtues and then there are virtues. Much like Color Coded for Your Convenience, there are some virtues that are okay for heroes and some that are more often seen in villains. These are:
- Ambition. Though heroes may insist that Ambition Is Evil, villains are the ones who try to make the struggle to get better (even if they have a tendency to overdo it), which heroes typically lack until disaster forces them to change.
- Determination Sometimes when a villain keeps on trying despite being stomped into the ground a million times, and still gets up and keeps going after his goals regardless of the constant beatings, you have to at least admire their tenacity somewhat. In general, villainous breakdowns are significantly less common (though also much more spectacular) than a hero falling to bits after a major defeat.
- Hard Work. Despite Evil Is Easy and The Dark Side making access to power easier, many villains will undergo much more extreme ordeals and protracted effort than heroes, who usually benefit from Hard Work Hardly Works. Is it any wonder the bad guy did a Face Heel Turn in frustration?
- Honesty. Though rare, some villains don't lie, and insist that keeping a promise is a matter of honor. In organised crime settings, a villain will not get far without a reputation for honesty.
- Honor. Calling card of the Noble Demon who preaches Even Evil Has Standards.
- Love. Despite Love Redeems, a surprising number of baddies love either their spouses, parents, children, or even underling/superior while remaining evil. Of course, it's worth mentioning that Love Makes You Evil and Crazy. With Love as a villain's virtue, the result is often Unholy Matrimony.
- Loyalty is a pretty even split between heroic and villainous. This isn't being a Lawful Evil Rules Lawyer mind you, because these types can still be The Starscream, but The Power of Trust brand loyalty where even a Chaotic Evil type will avoid betrayal.
- Patience. Most heroes are Hot-Blooded, but bad guys are patient Chess Masters.
- Responsibility. Some villains care. Even if they go the wrong way about fixing problems, they are a lot more sensitive to noticing them.
- Resourcefulness. Another 50/50 split, resourceful villains are exceedingly dangerous because they will defy heroes Trying to Catch Me Fighting Dirty.
- Selflessness. Most villains who try to create a better world don't do it for themselves. They rarely expect thanks for bearing all the difficulties and many accept it that they may not even be able to enjoy the results. Yet they are often willing to sacrifice their popularity and even their life for the greater good.
- Valor. To quote The Kurgan (and Neil Young): "It's better to burn out than to fade away!" Villains despise weakness. So even when they know they're probably going to lose and the odds are in the hero's favor, he's not going down without a fight.
Contrast Mr. Vice Guy, where a hero has an emblematic vice. Not to be confused with Villainous Valor, though bravery could be another villain's virtue. After all, if you're trying to take over the world, you're up against pretty much everyone, and thus it helps quite a bit to be able to look at an army six billion strong, smile confidently, and say "Bring it on."
This trope is very, very common. Listing examples here would just be an exercise in futility.
- (Though villains with enough virtues usually end up switching categories, if not pull a Heel Face Turn)