Writing: Creating Memorable Villains

            You don’t necessarily have to have a  traditional villain in your story. Sometimes the antagonist is a force of nature, or even something within the protagonist himself. (I don’t mean literally, although – have you seen Alien?)

            But if you’re going to have a villain, make him a great one. What makes a memorable villain?

            Darn good question. Although a one-dimensional villain can work (Terminator),  you usually want to avoid the trap of a cackling, mindlessly cruel, cookie-cutter bad guy (unless you have a specific reason for that – there are always exceptions). In The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West was a fun villain, but she didn’t quite reach the great category because she was all evil. We know she wants her sister’s slippers because they hold great power, but she doesn’t seem all that upset about her sister being killed. How did she come to be in charge in the Winkie country? In the book version, how did she lose her eye?

            She becomes more interesting – although no longer quite the villain – in Wicked, the love it or hate it reimagining in which we learn how she came to be in that castle in the first place.

            So the first lesson of creating villains is to make them real people. Give them a reason for what they’re doing, a background, and more qualities than just a desire to blow up London. Speaking of London, an example can be found in Ernst Blofeld, from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

            Blofeld is the leader of an international criminal organization but also, we learn, an economist and political history buff, former stockbroker, and turncoat war hero. He also doesn’t smoke, drink, or have sex, which perhaps explains his general bad attitude. There’s something going on in his brain beyond “Must get richer” and “Don’t tell Bond your plans next time”.

            So, your bad guy has to be well rounded, and it might be good to give him a sense of humor: Hannibal Lector was scariest when he was being witty.

In addition to that, if you want to take your villain from good to great, remember this one rule: Bad guys don’t think they’re bad.

            The really interesting villain in The Wizard of Oz is the Wizard himself, a feared and fearful legend who never leaves the palace and is never seen. Despite the fact that he’s a dictator who committed fraud against an entire nation, not to mention (according to later books) plotted to kidnap and hide the true ruler of Oz, he insists he’s not a bad man at all – just a bad Wizard.

            The moment that curtain is knocked over, and the Wizard is revealed to be a timid little circus performer from Omaha, he becomes a character so interesting that fans eventually convinced L. Frank Baum to bring him back to Oz in a sequel.

            Which brings us to Darth Vader.

            Like the Wizard, Darth Vader is mysterious, powerful, and scary. That voice, the outfit, choking a guy with his frakking mind … wow. But, like the Wizard throughout most of Baum’s first book, he’s strictly one dimensional. At the end of the first Star Wars movie most fans were probably thinking more about the neat ships, lightsabers, and whether Leia would ultimately go for the good guy or the bad boy, than about what went on in Vader’s brain.

            Aren’t we glad Leia chose the bad boy?

            In the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, something seems off. Granted, Vader must be upset about losing the Death Star, but why is he so intent on capturing Luke alive? How did he even find out Luke was involved in that battle? Why put so many resources into chasing down one guy and his arguable unimportant band of allies? Vader’s still two dimensional, but getting interesting. We knew he’d killed Luke’s father, and was once the student of Luke’s Jedi Knight hero. There was a history. What was it?

            You see, it wasn’t Vader’s villainy that was fascinating, it was those unanswered questions. How the heck did he end up in that cool black mask, anyway?

            Then – spoiler alert, for those three people in Dubai who don’t know – everything changed. At the end of Empire, Vader said one line that turned him instantly from a memorable bad guy to one of the greatest movie villains of all time:

            “Luke … I am your father.”

            I was fortunate enough to be in the theater at an early showing, before everyone got spoiled. Talk about a communal gasp. In the words of Professor Farnsworth from Futurama: “Whaaaaa?????”

            By the end of the third movie we saw an entirely different Vader: Still strong, skillful and ruthless, certain he’s in the right (“together we can bring order …”) but now conflicted, and with a past that showed he used to be one of the good guys, but got turned around. Whether you liked or hated the later prequels, all Star Wars fans were looking forward to finding out what happened along his journey.

            That’s a well-rounded character.

            Of course, your character will be on the page instead of the screen (unless you’re writing a screenplay), so the black suit won’t be nearly as effective. A better example might be Severus Snape, from the Harry Potter books.

            Talk about a rotten person. He’s an egotistical teacher who bullies his students and plays favorites, he absolutely despises little twelve year old Harry Potter for no good reason, and he kills one of the main good guys!

            Ah … but (spoiler alert!) as time goes by we get suspicious, and at the end comes one of the greatest twists of any book series ever: Throughout it all, the evil Snape has been protecting our hero, despite working for the enemy and despising Harry’s father. Why?

            Because as a boy Snape loved and lost the girl who married James Potter … and Harry has his mother’s eyes.

            Just like that, Snape become a flawed, haunted human being, dedicated to protecting the child who reminded him all too much of his past.

             You could argue that in the end Snape was a hero, rather than villain. Still, the rules apply:

            Give your villain a reason for doing what he does, so he’s not just some random maniac. (On the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spike loves killing, but is also on a mission to restore the health of the woman he loves.)

            Give some insights into the bad guy’s past. If he’s stalking teenage coeds, maybe he was bullied in high school. If he’s ruthlessly trying to get rich, maybe he grew up poor and hungry. If he’s just plain crazy, explain how he got to be that way – but insert your back story in little bites, and don’t overdo it. Nobody said it was easy.

            If he has a good side (most people do), show it. On the TV show Glee, the vicious cheerleader coach suddenly lets a girl with Down’s syndrome onto the squad. Everyone assumes she’s up to some evil plan – until she’s revealed tenderly caring for her own Down’s stricken sister. She didn’t get less nasty, but she did become more human.

            And that made a great villain.

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About markrhunter

My debut novel, Storm Chaser, a contemporary romantic comedy set in rural Indiana, was released by Whiskey Creek Press in June, 2011. Since then I've also published its sequel, "The Notorious Ian Grant"; a related collection of short stories, "Storm Chaser Shorts"; a YA humor-adventure, "The No-Campfire Girls"; and two local history books, "Smoky Days and Sleepless Nights" and "Images of America: Albion and Noble County". My humor column, “Slightly Off the Mark,” has been published for over twenty years. I live in a small northeast Indiana town with my wife, our dog Bae, and a cowardly ball python named Lucius. I have two daughters and twin two-year-old grandsons, and I'm employed as a dispatcher for the Noble County Sheriff’s Department—a day job that I ironically work at night. I'm safety officer, instructor, and public information officer for the Albion Volunteer Fire Department, and when not writing I laugh hysterically at the notion of having spare time.

22 thoughts on “Writing: Creating Memorable Villains

  1. Very good post!

    Since I’m writing in the genre entirely appropriate for villains, I’ve made a point of always giving the villain depth, some kind of human connection that we can understand and relate to.

    With the exception of an Ayatollah, who’s basically just a crabby old boy….

    • I’ve been thinking about people like the Ayatollah and our old friend from Libya … and let’s face it, some villains just don’t have any redeeming qualities at all. Although Hitler did like dogs!

      • Great post – it gave me some things to think about. I watched a film about Hitler called ‘Downfall’ if you haven’t seen it, watch it. It was written by Hitler’s young secretary. She was in that bunker before he off’d himself. Adolf was a master at convincing people on a one to one basis. When you watch the film you will see how he was able to manipulate people with his two-faced personality. According to the secretary, the actor that played Hitler got it exactly right. This post has made me re-examine the degrees of badness on the antagonists side. Hmm.

      • I’ll track that film down and check it out, thanks. My fiancee will be especially interested — she’s fascinated with Hitler, and did a college paper about him.

  2. Villains are indeed tricky. I liked the Left Behind series–but even so, I thought the Nicolae Carpathia character was one of the most one-note villains I’ve ever seen. Yes, he is the Antichrist, but still….

    I think William handles developing the villain better than anyone I know.

    • I suppose they figured Nicolae Carpathia had to be just plain evil, Norma — ’cause yeah, AntiChrist and all … but sometimes, when you make the villain more three dimensional, they end up being *more* scary.

  3. I have some bad guys in my manuscript and I think of them as Joe Pesci types who just don’t have a clue that they are wrong…about everything. Love this post and I agree it is probably a good idea to give a back story and a reason for why they are bad. Still, you did make it clear that we have no real idea why the wicked witch of the west was evil and how she got to have so much influence over her minions. She was bad to the bone–plain and simple and maybe no back story is necessary for someone who obviously used her powers to get wherever she wanted to fly. She is definitely memorable but those questions you ask make the reader dream for more….

    • I love the idea of imaging your villain as Joe Pesci! I suppose you could divide most villains up into the clueless and the smart; both could be very interesting, in their own way.
      There have been attempts by writers who came after Baum to give the Wicked Witch more backstory, but I don’t recall that Baum himself ever gave much thought to it. Of course, that was in the days when people didn’t think about it so much; and as much as I love Baum, he didn’t worry about such issues when writing what he thought were “just” children’s books.

  4. Great post. What I always have to remind myself is the bad guys don’t think of themselves as bad guys. Even Hitler did everything he did thinking it was right, good, for the best, even blessed for the glory of the fatherland and the sake of the German people… Go figure.

    • Right … plus Hitler liked dogs! But Hitler really is a great example of villains who don’t think they are villains.

  5. As far as the villain is concerened, he [or she] is the hero. Wants to win, come out on top. Probably absolutely convinced they are right.

    Look at the character of Cobb in ‘Inception’. At best, he’s a flawed hero. At worst, he carries on; submerging his hidden tortured past to gain his own ends. Or Dr Parnassus, running from the deal he made all those years ago [and it still comes back to bite him]. That’s an interesting character.

    Best villain I can think of = The Operative in ‘Serenity’. He knows he won’t live in a better world. He even knows he’s a monster. He’s just calmly, dispassionately and ruthlessly dealing with anything and anyone who might spoil that perfect world.

    • Oh yes, the Operative — great example of a memorable villain! Doing very bad things for what he thinks are good reasons, on a skill level equal with the heroes, and with a few personality quirks thrown in.

  6. Great post, Mark. Villains are my hardest characters to write. Because … I’m nice — and they’re not! But I got the villain in my first book just right. Everyone hated him. I cried when he died because I just knew he could have been good and chose not to be.

    This time around I have a bad guy who is completely mixed up and went bad because he didn’t know he could be good. I think he’s beginning to get a clue but don’t know exactly where he’s going, whether he’ll continue to slide downhill or start making the trek back to the Light Side. His choice. I just have to write what he does. I’m rooting for him, as his creator, because I know he has potential.

  7. Very good post Mark. Some of the most famous characters out there are villains, or they at least start out as villains. “Wicked” is also a very good example of revisiting a “villain” with a twist.

  8. Mark,

    Great post! I really liked your choices of villains to discuss. Yeah…sometimes they are more interesting! And yes, the best villains are those we see a human side to. One of the scarest I can remember is from Dean Koontz’s “The Face.” That guy was really wicked! Thanks, Mark.

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