Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Character We All Love to Hate

Who says villains only belong in mystery thrillers? Remember Mr. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights? He’s the type of character we love to hate. He was not your typical villain but he had some rogue traits (for some he's the Byronic hero, for some the hero, take your pick). Your villain can be smooth or despicable or both. This character can be anything…he/she just has to be credible. As writers, we have a responsibility to our readers: create believable characters.

Hallie Ephron says, “Create a villain that captures the imagination of your readers and challenges your main character throughout your novel by using these three techniques.” On July 12, 2010, the Writer’s Digest published Ephron’s article titled “3 Techniques for Crafting a Better Villain”.

Some writers know right from the get-go which character is guilty. They start with the completed puzzle and work their way backward, shaping the story pieces and fitting them together. Others happily write without knowing whodunit until the scene when the villain is actually unmasked. Then they rewrite, cleaning up the trail of red herrings and establishing the clues that make the solution work. Thus, having a plan up front can save a whole lot of rewriting in what should be the home stretch.

You can’t just throw all your suspects’ names into a bowl and pick one to be your villain. For your novel to work, the villain must be special. Your sleuth deserves a worthy adversary—a smart, wily, dangerous creature who tests your protagonist’s courage and prowess. Stupid, bumbling characters are good for comic relief, but they make lousy villains. The smarter, more invincible the villain, the harder your protagonist must work to find his vulnerability and the greater the achievement in bringing him to justice.

Must the villain be loathsome? Not at all. He can be chilling but charming, like Hannibal Lecter. Thoroughly evil? It’s better when the reader can muster a little sympathy for a complex, realistic character who feels her crimes are justified.

So, in planning, try to wrap your arms around why your villain does what he does. What motivates him to kill? Consider the standard motives like greed, jealousy or hatred. Then go a step further. Get inside your villain’s head and see the crime from his perspective. What looks to law enforcement like a murder motivated by greed may, to the perpetrator, be an act in the service of a noble, even heroic cause.

Here’s how a villain might justify a crime:
• Righting a prior wrong
• Revenge (the victim deserved to die)
• Vigilante justice (the justice system didn’t work)
• Protecting a loved one
• Restoring order to the world.

Finally, think about what happened to make that character the way she is. Was she born bad, or turned sour as a result of some early experience? If your villain has a grudge against society, why? If she can’t tolerate being jilted, why? You may never share your villain’s life story with your reader, but to make a complex, interesting villain, you need to know. By understanding how the villain justifies the crimes to himself, and what events in his life triggered these crimes, you give yourself the material you need to get past a black-hatted caricature and paint your villain in shades of gray.

There are many ways to kill off a character. You can have him shot, stabbed, poisoned or pushed off a cliff. You can have him run over by a car or bashed in the head with a fireplace poker. You get the picture.

The first issue to consider is: Would your villain have the expertise and capability to commit this particular crime you’ve conceived for him?

Here’s an example: Suppose there’s a novel about a surgeon who, up to Page 302, has been the soul of buttoned-down respectability. Suddenly, on Page 303, he leaps from a hospital laundry bin and mows down his rival for hospital director with machine-gun fire. Never mind that up to this point in the novel the guy has done nothing more than attend board meetings, get drunk and obnoxious at a cocktail party, and perform heart surgery. Now suddenly he’s The Terminator? The behavior doesn’t fit the character. If he stabbed, poisoned or pushed his rival off the hospital roof, the reader might swallow it. The author might get away (barely) with the shooting if hints were dropped earlier that this surgeon once served in military special forces.

Choose a modus operandi that your villain (and all your suspects) might plausibly adopt, and establish that your villain has the capability and expertise required. A murder by strangling, stabbing or beating is more plausible if your villain is strong and has a history of physical violence. If your villain plants an electronically activated plastic explosive device, be prepared to show how he learned to make a sophisticated bomb and how he got access to the components. If a woman shoots her husband with a .45 automatic, be prepared to show how she learned to use firearms and that she’s strong enough to handle the recoil of a .45.

The second issue to consider: Is the rage factor appropriate for the character’s motivation? The more extreme the violence, the more likely the crime is to be fueled by hatred and rage. A robber shoots a victim once; an enraged husband pumps bullets into the man who raped his wife until the ammunition runs out. A villain may administer a quick-working deadly poison to a victim he wants out of the way, but a villain who loathes his victim might pick a poison that’s slow and painful—and hang around to watch.
Adjust the violence quotient to match the amount of rage your villain has toward her victim.

Do you create likeable or despicable villains?


  1. Both. I like to make my reader really have to work to decide if the villain is good or bad. Like Denzel Washington in Training Day. That character had me on the fence the whole time.

  2. Ooooh The Talented Mr. Ripley, *shudder*.

    Great points. Complex villains are just as important to a story as complex heroes.

  3. Great post, Claudia! Villains are so important...I just finished Nightshade City and mg novel. There are two main villains, one of them I detested, the other I had a sot spot for....I won't be a spoiler, but the end had a surprise. :-o

  4. I would like to think that the villain in my story at the moment is a tortured soul! LOL!!

    Awwwww I thought Heathcliffe was more an anti-hero and Edgar Linton more of the "villain" - although his villainy stemmed from his love of Catherine (whom he knew didn't truly reciprocate) and he did love his daughter too! Gosh villains could be so complex!!

    Thanks for these tips on how to write a believable villain!! After reading I'm now of the opinion that villains truly require more work than the hero but for me are the most fun to write!

    Take care

  5. Thanks for all the great tips. I like your methodical approach. One of the best villain I've seen portrayed was in Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood". He portrays Perry Smith as a human being rather than a monster. That plays with your perception quite a bit because the crime is quite monstrous.

  6. Hi Anna,
    Yes, a good villain is complex and keeps you guessing till the end. ;)

    Hi Steph,
    I really despised Mr. Ripley, so that means the writer did a good job at describing him.

    Hi Sharon,
    OMG! two main villains?! How did you manage? That was probably some challenge because you really want to keep them as villains. Unless there's a major twist ;) I guess we just have to wait and read your novel. ;)

    Hi there, Old Kitty,
    I can see you have a soft spot for Heathcliff. I only felt sorry for him at the beginning and then I loathed him. Hmmm, villains can be complex but some MC require a lot of work as well. Cheers!

    Hi Ben,
    We all love a good villain. :) If a villain stirs our emotions, then the author has done a great job, don't you think?

  7. Considering i cannot plot a novel to save my life I just have the born bad villians in my story. i do need to work on making him likeable though.
    This is a fantastic post Claudia.

  8. I love those villains that put up an act of being the good guy initially before being exposed. One example is the Duke of Devonshire in The Dutchess. He didn't kill his wife after he found out about her affair. Instead, he refused to divorce her as part of her punishment amongst others. Thanks for the tip on the rage thingy as i will put that to good use. Thanks, Claudia.

  9. Hi Joanna,
    I'm glad you liked this post ;) Villains come in different shapes, colors, and "quirks" ;) It's up to us and the story, of course, to shape him/her to the fullest potential.

    Hi Rachel,
    Yes, I hated the Duke of Devonshire as well. What a nasty, chauvinistic, and conniving man :(
    I like "true" villains like Anton played by Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men" because there are no surprises. He was the ultimate villain. However, I hate villains like Mr. Ripley. Can't stand them! ;)

  10. I love creating likable villains, to the point you're almost cheering for them. There is a certain thrill in writing this kind of villain. The satisfaction that comes when a reader realizes they've been sympathizing with the bad guy all along. (Hugs)Indigo

  11. Oh No...I had a dangling participle or something...Nightshade City is not my novel. Hilary Wagner wrote it. I just finished reading it... It's a great book!

  12. I just read Christine Husom's first two Winnebago County books. I like the way her villains are thoroughly dangerous and at the same time wounded and fascinating.

  13. Hi Indigo,
    Thanks for dropping by and leaving a message. I guess you have a point. Not all villains must be 100% despicable, they could be somewhat likable, they're humans after all ;)

    Hi Sharon,
    No problem! Thanks for the correction.

    Hi Sheila,
    thanks for sharing this info.

  14. FYI, Thought you might like to know there is another Blog Jog Day scheduled for Nov 21st. If you're interested, go to http://blogjogday.blogspot.com to learn more.
    Have a great day!!!

  15. Wow, I just read this, after seeing a top ten list about unreliable narrators in the Guardian. And -- although it had some 50's trappings -- I absolutely loved it's dark, twisting angst, like Ripley was pulling his own hand down into the basement. But what a lovely basement.