VILLAINS – THEY MAKE OR BREAK YOUR STORY
“Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others—or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf.”
—Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect
Think back to you middle school English classes and you may remember there are many kinds of conflict. There’s hero against nature, hero against God, hero against society, hero against himself, and hero against someone else. Antagonistic forces like storms or totalitarian governments can destroy your protagonist’s world. If these kind of antagonistic forces are powerful in your story, you may not need a villain. Plenty of stories don’t have one.
In The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, there is no villain. The antagonistic forces are the protagonist’s overwhelming grief and guilt tied up in the death of her friend, the divorce of her parents, and her own inability to connect, possibly because of an undiagnosed neural diversity.
In Neil Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, 15 year old Caleb Bosch is losing his mind, caught between a dream world of a voyage to the Marianas Trench, and the increasing menace of his own real world paranoia and disorganized thoughts. The captain of the voyage at first seems like a mentor character, and slowly transforms into something darker as the story progresses. Here the author has chosen to personify the main character’s dilemma, creating a kind of villain, but through most of the story, the hero’s mental illness is the main antagonistic force.
The human mind finds it easy to externalize evil, and as writers we gain many advantages by putting a human face on our antagonistic forces; by creating villains. Want to rail against what you hate? Want to show what’s wrong with a certain philosophy of life? Give it a human (or alien, or unicorn, or dragon, or Ewok) face.
Javert, Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, Voldemort, President Snow, the Wicked Witch of the West, Professor Moriarty, Joseph Stalin, and Hitler—all vital to the stories in which they appear. Try to imagine Harry Potter without Voldemort (he’d be a boring little kid, and his lack of specificity as a character would be more glaring than it already is). Who would Clarice Starling be without Hannibal Lecter? (Just an FBI trainee—would she even be in the story if Jack Crawford hadn’t needed to dangle her like bait in front of Lecter, the real crime fighting master sleuth of Silence of the Lambs?)
QUICK SELF-QUIZ ON VILLAINS
Write down your top five villains. It may be someone who rubs you the wrong way, or someone who just personifies evil.
What makes the villains you listed memorable?
WHAT A STRONG VILLAIN CAN DO FOR YOUR STORY
- Drive the plot
- Push the hero to the breaking point
- Keep the muddle in the middle from getting too mucky, e.g., to fight Act II sag by getting busy doing bad things.
- Keep your tension rising
- Provide a foil for your hero’s life philosophy
- Provide a dark mirror for the hero’s dilemma
HERO AND VILLAIN – A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN, OR HELL?
Sometimes heroes and villains are exact opposites, and sometimes, often in Noir stories, they are dark and light mirror twins. One could argue that Harry Potter’s closest relationship, especially in the later books, is with Voldemort. There’s a lot to be made of what is different and what is the same between hero and villain.
To go deep on this vital relationship, do some side writing:
- Pretend your hero and villain are in couples counseling. You be the therapist and see what happens – write down what everyone says.
- Write a scene in which your hero and villain meet before the villain has gone bad. What if the one guy helps the other out of a bad situation, and they end up taking a road trip to Vegas? (not possible with the unreasoning relentless kind of villain or the Satan trope, which is just pure evil).
KINDS OF VILLAINS
The Extreme Philosopher – Great theory, taken too far – Javert, who loves the law and rationalism so much it blinds him to compassion and complexity. Javert realizes that he’s made himself a villain and jumps in the river. Tommy Lee Jones in the The Fugitive, who becomes the ally.
The Anti-Villain – this guy or gal helps the hero solve the crime or right the injustice. Lecter is also this guy. Godzilla, who in the sequels kills worse monsters to save humanity.
The Unreasoning Beast/Machine/Monster/Zombie/Alien/Supernatural Whatever – This character represents the urge to destroy, is utterly irredeemable and unstoppable. He just keeps on coming. She never sleeps. Nosferatu, Jekyll, Yul Brynner in the film Westworld, The Terminator in (not uncoincidentally) The Terminator, the girl in the well in The Ring/Ringu. All those Walking Dead gray guys. The Martians in War of the Worlds.
Doctor Evil – Basically he has a nefarious plan to take over the world and he will monologue about it. Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects. If you’re going to use this trope, you may want to give it a comic edge, or find ways to go for more depth (see below), or spin it in a surprising way, because it has been done to death, to the point at which it begs to be lampooned with great relish. See Doofenshmirz in Phineas and Ferb, see Brain in Pinky and the Brain. See, of course, Dr. Evil in all the Austin Powers films.
The Charming Sociopath – Hannibal Lecter is a variant of this form. So is Moriarty. So is the Frank Langella or Gary Oldman Dracula, not the Bram Stoker variety. This guy you often don’t see coming because his social skills go to eleven.
The Social Darwinist – Anyone so sure of his own superiority that he is bent on genocide. Dr. Mengele in Boys From Brazil, Sir Lawrence Olivier in Marathon Man.
The Wounded Villain – Roy Batty in Blade Runner. (Until the last scene he seems to be the Machine.) The Phantom of the Opera.
The Petty Bureaucrat/Flunky/Minion/Thug – Agent Smith in The Matrix, Gil Lumbergh in Office Space. They love to torture others with the rules. They enjoy just following orders.
The Bully – Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, All the Heathers in Heathers. Nurse Ratched, Ace in Stand By Me. This is a type we all meet in life, so their easy to hate.
The Stealth Villain – Thought your best friend was on your side? Surprise! He’s been plotting your downfall all along. The best friend character in The Truman Show. Norman Bates is this for a little while. Tommy Lee Jones in Laura Mars. Oops – Dissociative Identity Disorder.
The Corrupted – Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Gordon Gecko in Wall Street, Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. These guys used to be idealists, dreamers, but not any more. Often they serve as a warning to the protagonist by showing the results of bad choices.
The Disturbed – Annie Wilkes in Misery, Norman Bates in Psycho. Major Axis I Diagnosis.
The Ultra-Hot Villain – The hero should be terrified, but instead, he’s hot and bothered. The Darkling in Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, any femme fatale in any Noir, Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction
Pure Evil. Satan, Sauron, Lucifer and variations. The personification of Evil. The Wicked Witch of the West. Max Cady in Cape Fear.
Villain as Protagonist Dexter in Dexter – a psychopath who fights crime. Humbert Humbert, American Psycho, Alex in A Clockwork Orange
Unintentional Villain – Frankenstein’s Monster, King Kong, Claude Rains’ Invisible Man.
MY VILLAIN IS FLAT AND BORING. WHAT DO I DO?
- Give them higher stakes. Why ruin one person’s life when you can destroy the world?
- Give them a fun backstory, a wound that they might try to heal with vengeance. A wound can make your hero and your reader empathize with the villain. This can be a wonderful complication. Check out the origin stories of comic book villains. What turned your bad guy bad? Could it have gone another way?
- Give them a heart. In The Phantom of the Opera, the disfigured Phantom falls for Christine, then starts murdering people to help her get ahead. He is a monster, but he can love and be hurt.
- Give them a contradiction. The human mind is fascinated by things that don’t fit a neat pattern. Hannibal Lecter is a vicious cannibal who can murder without his pulse going over 80 beats per minute, but he also has a great sensitivity to beauty and the highest kind of culture. (Harris is probably making a big point there.) He gets out of prison but doesn’t go after Clarice because “he would consider that rude.”
- Give them a rationale. Remember, everyone is a hero in his own life, and every great philosophy, when taken too far, can lead to horror and dystopia.
- Give them a sense of humor. Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the first Tim Burton Batman movie won moviegoers over with this bit of dialogue in which he describes his former boss, played by Jack Palance, “He was a thief, and a terrorist. On the other hand he had a tremendous singing voice.”
- Give them a secondary role in the story, like mentor, or love interest, or surprise ally.
Weapons and Furnishings. Give them an object that they always carry around. Give them a catchphrase. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” “Yippe-kiyay!”
These books and websites have some great material on Villains:
Instant Villain – Just Add Evil
- Write everything in this exercise from the POV of your villain.
- Think of someone who bugs you. Give them a new name and they will become your archvillain.
- Give your villain maybe a superpower, a magical object/weapon, and even an awesome vehicle, then have them describe all that cool stuff to you.
- If they are corrupted or wounded, what made them that way? Imagine the scene and jot down a few notes so you can write it later. Have the villain tell you about it.
- What’s in the villain’s bedroom closet on the top shelf?
- You can dialogue with your villain or write scenes from their point of view. The more you do this, the better you’ll know them, and the more they might surprise and charm your reader.