|Li Mochou in Romance of the Condor Heroes (2014)|
Psychopathy: Many villains are simply insane, not in the sense that they have a diagnosable mental illness, but in the sense that their reactions are excessive, their motives are bizarre or incomprehensible and their methods are cruel. Take Li Mochou from Return of Condor Heroes for example, she leaves her sect for a man and is burned by love, so goes on a decades long killing spree, killing at the slightest provocation and laughing maniacally. Her actions are entirely disproportionate to the crime she feels the world has committed against her. Which brings me to my next element.
"I Kill Who I Want": I see this phrase a lot in wuxia movies and shows, I don't know if it is a product of translation or true to the original meaning but I like it a lot. Villains after being chastised for killing an innocent person will respond with "I kill who I want" or "I kill when I want". This is the martial arts equivalent of giving someone the middle finger.
This and psychopathy are excellent vehicles for villainy in a wuxia campaign. In the toolbox of tricks available to the GM they are sledgehammers, simple but effective. A madwoman on a killing spree in the village is something the PCs have to deal with or make good effort to avoid.
Shades of Gray: Wuxia is interesting because it often paints the world in starkly black and white morality but at the same time makes room within that for shades of gray. Sometimes this is in the form of misunderstanding, where someone who seems wicked, is in fact less so. Other times it is more about an evil character having capacity for admirable things. I think my favorite though is the truly evil villain who turns into an ally because of circumstances. Golden Haired Lion King from Heavenly Sword and Dragon Saber is arguably all of the above to some degree (he is an ally of the protagonist and not a true villain, but his demeanor and disposition are certainly villainous in flavor).
Contrast: Wuxia is a genre of contrasts. Whether it is the aesthetics or the content. Red blood on white snow, a gentle granny who impales people with her fist, these contrasts are striking and they can work well in a game too. One of my favorite villains is Smiling Tiger from Come Drink With Me. He isn't the most important villain in the movie but I find him the most interesting. Played by Lee Wan-Chung his face holds an unwavering buoyant smile through most of the film. He is affable, warm, and charming, but ultimately a cold-blooded killer.
Ruthlessness: Some villains will stop at nothing to obtain what they want. Dachuan in the movie Dragon Swamp lets his wife suffer in exile, abandons his daughter, and betrays his sect leader in order to rise to power. Ouyang Feng of Legend of Condor Heroes is another example of a villain willing to go to extraordinary length to achieve his aims. Ruthless villains make great opponents, but they generally should have the power to back up their behavior, otherwise they are merely ridiculous.
Corruption: Not all villains start out evil. Some choose evil at single fork in the road and others slowly descend into darkness. Chin Bo in Tai Chi Master is initially a Shaolin monk and turns wicked through the temptations of the world beyond the monastery. Yang Kang of Legend of Condor Heroes is perhaps another example, though his background is not so black and white.
The villain who begins as an ally or friend can be a great choice in a campaign if used sparingly. This could even be a member of the players' party or sect. If you plan to make an NPC evil down the road, this need not be a foregone conclusion. Perhaps there are moments when the PCs could help the character go one direction or the other through their own actions.
The Swordsman II
Cowardice: While cowardice is usually frowned upon in the martial world, I find nothing motivates players to act quite like a cowardly villain. In Wuxia cowards are often non-martial characters who rely on others do do their bidding. There are also plenty of martial experts who simply choose the cowardly path to protect themselves. My favorite example is Kao Pang from The Last Hurrah for Chivalry. Kao Pang is a strange combination of ruthlessness and cowardice. He goes to great lengths to avenge his family, but employs others to protect himself from harm (because he knows he isn't skilled enough to defeat his enemy). In the end he betrays almost everyone who was loyal to him and tries to get the two heroes he hired to betray each other.
Last Hurrah For Chivalry
Love: This is a common theme in wuxia and found among both heroes and villains. Li Mochou (mentioned above) was driven to evil by love, while Dongfang Bubai (in Swordsman II) is overpowered by her* love for Linghu Chong. In an RPG love can be a very effective tool and works well as a motivation or background for villains. While I often shy away from romantic developments in other types of campaigns, for some reason I find it works very well in wuxia. Don't be afraid to have your villain fall in love with a PC (obviously knowing what your group is comfortable with is important here).
Bullying: In the martial world the strong can take what they want, so it makes sense that many villains in wuxia are essentially bullies who use their martial arts to oppress and intimidate others. This can be small scale, like the Serial Trio in The Shadow Whip, who intimidate waiters and staff at an inn, to large scale like Black Demon in Lady Hermit who is a local bandit lord.
Bullies are fun characters to play and always seem to get a response from player characters. They don't necessarily need to direct their energy at the party itself. In fact, if the players are skilled martial heroes, most bullies will find a softer target. Bullies like to pick on defenseless villages, servants, and the elderly. They throw tantrums, they smash things in taverns and play cruel pranks on hapless staff. They have no shame and often shove their way through life, violating any sense of propriety.
*Dongfang Bubai castrates himself to master the Sunflower Manual in Smiling Proud Wanderer, becoming a eunuch. Brigitte Lin famously played the character as a trans woman in Swordsman II and that has become a common depiction since.