BUILDING A BETTER VILLAIN
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Building a Better Villian by Miko Johnston
Miko Johnston is the author of Petals in the Wind.
She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no 'help wanted' ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon.
BUILDING A BETTER VILLAIN
Call me TINO – tolerant in name only. I recently noticed many of my odious characters share a certain trait, which would be fine if that trait related to being dislikable. However, the similarity my antagonists share is physical – they’re gross in every sense of the word.
It made me wonder if I have a deep-seated bias against those who share this physical attribute. But wait, I’ve read many books with villains who ‘look’ like mine. Does that make me biased, or just lazy?
So that got me thinking – how do you build a better villain, one who is complex and human, who doesn’t fall into the easy prejudice category? It’s one thing to make your villain a classic enemy, like a terrorist or Nazi. They’re no challenge to make despicable; we recognize them as bad from their title. You can say murderers, a staple of mysteries, are easy villains, while action/adventure genres almost demand evil characters bent on destroying the world. But that isn’t enough to create a truly memorable bad guy.
The most fascinating villains are the ones we can relate to on a certain level, no matter how vile their behavior, unconscionable their deeds, or distasteful their appearance. For villains who are pure evil there must be something about them that intrigues us beyond their horrific actions. What draws us to Robert Benchley’s shark in Jaws, or Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon, is not so much their conduct as their nature. Unlike the hero, it’s not about the villain’s vulnerability, but ours – to the likes of them.
As writers, we must build characters, not caricatures, which means we have to find some redeeming qualities in our villains. That’s not to say the nemesis has to be admirable, but like a protagonist who is purely good is boring, so is an antagonist who is one-dimensional. If we give our heroes some imperfections, we must also balance our villains with enough positive qualities to make them real without making them nice.
To build this kind of villain, think of how many real life villains are smart (Ted Kaczynski), charming and attractive (Ted Bundy), or charismatic (bin Laden). What makes them villains is the way they used those positive qualities in a negative way. This type of villain should present a genuine challenge for your hero by having the power or ability to exploit your protagonist’s weaknesses. Whether a mighty army against a ragtag bunch of freedom fighters or a devoted family man bent on annihilating one segment of society, the greater the task to defeat him the more invested we’ll be in the story.
Villains don’t have to be evil. It surprised me to learn that one synonym for ‘villain’ is ‘antihero’ – I’ve always thought of them as protagonists – flawed people you empathize with, even like, despite their badness. Whether Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, Count Dracula and Frankenstein, Moriarty from Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, or Michael Corleone in The Godfather, these antiheroes fascinate us and we often root for them. Even when their actions horrify us.
It reminds us that villains don’t have to be wicked moustache twirlers, rope in hand. Haven’t we all known good people who’ve had a momentary break and done bad things? Some, like BTK killer Dennis Rader or Susan Smith, go well beyond bad, but what shocked us most about them was their very ordinariness.
To build this kind of villain, write a character biography to create a backstory. Then seek a motivation for the deed, one that readers can relate to, with a believable trigger. That will provide a reason, which is different from an excuse. Bad can never be excused, but if we understand what provoked the bad – fear, shame, anger – we won’t view the character as a really evil person but as a real person who did evil.
It’s a subtle but important difference. It’s what makes them complex and human.