Because is it so important for readers to connect with the villain or antagonist, show vs. tell is a necessary discussion.
The two extremes of the show vs. tell villain spectrum are the Throne-Sitting Villain and the Hands-Dirty Villain. There are, of course, myriad points between these two on the spectrum, but finding the right balance for a particular story can make or break a reader’s ability to make and maintain a connection to the villain.
The Throne-Sitting Villain
This type of villain rules tyrannically, but never takes direct action. He or she remains apart from the hands-on aspects of the plan or journey. He or she makes decisions and delegates the dirty work.
Readers never “see” this type of villain actually being evil. The reader must rely on author “telling” him or her that the villain is bad news. This creates a weaker connection with the reader, in most cases, and makes the hero’s connection to the villain more abstract.
Secondary antagonists become more important barriers or stumbling blocks than the main villain and readers typically form stronger bonds with those characters instead. This may be an effective tactic over the course of a series, where individual lower-level antagonists are featured in specific books or sections with the overall villain remaining in a “throne-sitting” role until entering the story for a final confrontation.
A good example of this type of villain is Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. Minor villains such as Saruman, Gollum, The Witch King, the Goblin King, etc. present multiple barriers along the heroes’ journey to keep them from destroying the One Ring, all while Sauron quietly directs things from his tower. Sauron never really presents as an embodied, physical villain the heroes need to fight, leading to a weak connection with the readers as actual main villain of the story.
The Hands Dirty Villain
This type of villain takes direct action against characters who the reader cares about, creating an immediate and recognizable sense of threat and dislike in the reader’s mind.
Direct action by a villain against a hero creates an emotional investment for readers. Rather than simply an overarching feeling of conflict, every action and decision matters to the reader because it could directly impact the characters who the reader is emotionally bonded to.
The close conflict between and hands-dirty villain and the hero creates an intensity in the story that is hard to match with a non-present villain. Tensions run higher with more frequent or up close interactions or battles.
A good example of this type of villain is Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series. Umbridge is an agent of Voldemort, but while Voldemort rarely makes appearances in the series, villains like Umbridge inflict physical and emotional pain on Harry on a regular basis, constantly reminding the reader how much he or she dislikes the villain and wants him or her to fail and be punished.
A villain in a story doesn’t have to be only one or the other. It’s important to evaluate a story carefully in order to determine what point on the spectrum will work best. A villain may also move along the spectrum during the story in order to control pacing. When planning interactions between heroes and villains, consider how that reaction will impact the reader’s connection to both the hero and the villain.