The Making of a Damn Good Villain.
There are no villains. The villain is the hero of his own story. No one is born a villain. No one wakes up and thinks, “I’m going to be a villain.” Villains are people who believe what they are doing what is just and right. They have the same human goals and values of the hero. Their methods of attaining the goals may be different. I once watched a talk show (pre-Oprah era) on which a character actor named Lee Marvin said he had never played a villain. From the roles I’d seen him play, in my eyes he was always a villain. But he said he was a hero. Then he went on to explain what he was after and his motivation for believing that. This was long before I began to write and I realized that even as a villain he was the hero of his story.
While Lee Marvin was a villain that never evoked any likable traits, there are villains we “love to hate?” Millions of TV watchers love the soaps and are endeared to the heroes and heroines, but they also love the villains. All My Children recently went off the air, but even people who never watched it know the character of Erica Kane (Susan Lucci). She was a villain, always manipulating the situation. Inside her and all villains is the belief that they are doing what is right, even heroic, yet their methods might be questioned by the viewer. Television, however, is a visual medium and when you can physically see something, it is easier to understand the emotions behind it. Writing makes it a little more difficult.
The more you know about your characters, the better the book will be. A friend told me that years ago and I believe it. As writers we tend to know more about our heroes and heroines. The other characters are minor players so we don’t delve as far into their psyche as we do for the major players. Now it’s time.
Generally, the school of thought on villains is to conceal their identity, give him/her only enough space and/or point of view to keep the reader guessing and of course turning the pages. Mary Higgins Clark did this in her first book, Where Are the Children? Throughout that book the reader is trying to figure out “who” the villain is and “why” he has a vendetta against the heroine. In recent years, we’ve seen villains as computer programs. Eagle Eye and I, Robot being two. In the Terminator franchise, the villain is a cyborg from the future. It has no motivation, only a program for which it will complete no matter what.
The villain is important to these stories and villains are becoming more and more important to the motivations surrounding the plot. Why is he, she or it doing this? We need to know the reason. Even if the villains aren’t human, we want to know their motivation. I still want to know why the birds, in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, The Birds, went haywire.
Villains are no longer concealed, but have come out of the closet so to speak. Bringing them into the forefront of the story, however, adds the need to supply character development for this person. Who is the villain? What is his/her background and how did he/she get to this point in life? The same questions we ask of our heroes and heroines, we must ask of our villains and our answers must be just as compelling as they are for the heroes and heroines. Here are some things to think about as you craft your characters.
The hero and heroine have flaws that make them human; does the villain have a compassionate side to his nature that makes him/her human? In the sweeping sagas of the Godfather-type movies, the villains have a deep love for family, especially children. We can all relate to the love for a child. In a Mark Walberg film called The Shooter, he’s a sniper pursued by villains who want to kill the president of the United States. It isn’t until he finds out that the villains killed his dog that his mission becomes a crusade.
The hero and heroine and the villain all reached the fork in the road of life at the same time. What made the hero and heroine travel one road and the villain take the other? What is the inciting incident in the villain’s past that led him/her to this point in the book? Keep in mind that the villain believes he is doing nothing wrong. Was his childhood abused and he’s acting out what he’s learned from a parent or other loved one? Has his sense of right and wrong been corrupted?
Steven Coonts’ book, Under Siege, takes us into the head of the villain. Henry Charon has grown up in a lifestyle involving killing, first animals, then people. For him to accept the job of assassinating the president of the United States along with several key government officials is completely believable to the reader. It’s also within the realm of possibility that he might actually do it.
Once you’ve characterized the villain, look to see who that person is. Have you made him/her the anti-hero? Is he/she the opposite or more evil side of the hero/heroine?
Some villains are truly vicious, mentally unbalanced people as in the case of the Rat-Man character in Dean Koontz’s Tick-Tock. Or the intentionally engineered evil creature in The Watchers. Some villains are well balanced people with a score to settle, such as Gerard Butler in Law Abiding Citizen. In this case the man was avenging the death of a family member after the legal system set his killer free. Some villains are driven by power. Think of the Lex Luther in the Superman franchise or Gordon in the children’s classic Thomas the Tank Engine.
Villains come in all sizes and shapes and from all walks of life. By revealing so much of the villain’s character have we given up the ability to keep him/her concealed from the reader? Skillful writing can keep the villain concealed. In fact, by revealing detailed character traits of the villain and still keeping the identity a secret until the climax will add both depth and emotion to the story. Sandra Brown in her book The Alibi does this with such precision it’s a true work of art.
There are times when you don’t need or want to keep the villain’s identity hidden. Your goal is to reveal the internal motivations, sometimes the struggles the villain had in accomplishing his/her goals in the story. We can feel sympathy for the villain, even while we want to blast him/her off the face of the earth. These kinds of villains have strong character traits with motivations that are equal, although opposite, to the motivations of the hero/heroine.
The final kind of villain discussed here is the hero-villain. This is the most difficult to write, yet it makes a very good read. A masterful presentation of this kind of villain is Jason Bourne in Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity. The character portrayed by Matt Damon (or even the Richard Chamberlain version) struggles with his instincts, his internal nature and his ability to distinguish right from wrong, while he is forced to kill. This kind of villain does more than just defend himself, he initiates actions which call for villainous behavior and he completes that behavior pattern, then repents. These kinds of villains must be redeemable or the reader will reject them. Mark Walberg in The Shooter mentioned above is another hero-villain with redemption qualities as if the David Baldacci character Oliver Stone in several of his books.
There are other kinds of villains I haven’t touched on; the villain who needs to correct a wrong situation, Nora Roberts presented this in Hidden Riches when an antique is misdirected; villains who do it for the thrill, Pierce Bronson in the Thomas Crown Affair; mercenary villains, Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) from the film Speed (he’s also righting a wrong in his mind); and supernatural villains, the Terminator or any of Stephen King’s villains.
Writing a hero and heroine who are sympathetic and connect with the reader is difficult, adding a villain with almost the same characteristics, who elicits all the emotions felt by that person, can push a writer to the limits, but it can also make for a good book and a damn good villain.
Shirley Hailstock is the past president of both NJRW and RWA. She writes contemporary romance for Kensington and Harlequin and is the author of 29 novels and novella. Her latest e-book released this month is Legacy in which there is a damn good villain.
Find Shirley on her website at: http://www.shirleyhailstock.net
Erika St. James has seen both the best of life and the worst of it. Losing the only parent who loved her unconditionally when she was twelve, she fled to a man who became a dear friend and one who taught her to run a multinational corporation. However, he didn’t teach her to how to find good relationships — especially the man-woman kind. One his death-bed he tells her a secret, one that brings Michael Lawrence in to again upset her life.
Michael Lawrence, a traumatized attorney, has turned his back on the law and escaped to a solitary life in the Maryland mountains. Discovering he is heir to a fortune, he can only claim it if he returns to the city and works with Erika St. James, the beautiful new president of a multinational corporation. While his thoughts of her stray from the boardroom to the bedroom, someone else has plans to make him pay for past deeds. And Erika is the pawn he’ll use to force Michael into his crosshairs.
If they survive, will they be able to love again?
Legacy is available at: