Monday, July 23, 2012

Villains in Fiction

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

In the aftermath of any tragedy it is human nature to seek out a rationale - a reason or some kind of motivation - for what has unfolded. It is a basic part of a psyche, I think to try and understand human behaviour, even when it seems bewildering, horrendous and evil. Real life events, such as what happened on the weekend, are incomprehensible on so many levels and as writers we face many issues and concerns when creating fictionalized evil. We often tread a fine line between entertainment and horror as well as believability and imagination.

As writers we also have to delve into the minds of all our characters to try and understand what makes them tick, and we have to move beyond mere stereotypes, particularly when forming our antagonists. 

It can often be all too easy to fall for the 'psychotic' serial killer or other sort of evil cliche without trying to provide for the reader a solid grasp of what lies behind this. Villains rarely consider themselves villains. Sometimes they feel justified (in their own perverted way) or compelled by something to do what they do. Unlike in real life, in fiction, we can often provide the reader with a rationale for someone's behaviour.

So how do you create a believable villain? How do you ensure that, when it comes to the battle between good and evil, neither side slides into caricature? I've been thinking about this a lot in my current WIP and I have some to a few conclusions (or observations, at least) as I go through this process:

1. Characters don't think they are dumb so don't make them do 'dumb' things just because they are (cue manic Dr. Evil laughter) the bad guy. 
2. Don't fall into the trap of making evil generic. For every character there needs to be a specific reason, cause or motivation for his or her behaviour. The more specific and believable this is, the more believable a character will be.
3. Give you villain a clear objective. I'm not a big fan of the psycho who just seems to do stuff because he is, well, 'psycho' - this always seems to the to dilute the power of having an antagonist. 
4. Think as much about the back story for your villain as you do for the protagonist of the story - this will ensure the character behaves consistently and with clear purpose. It also helps you avoid falling into a cliche if you have a fully realized back story.

So how do you approach the process of creating villains? Are there any 'evil doers' in novels that strike you as the 'dumb and dumber' of their kind? What about the most chilling, compelling and believable villains in fiction? 


  1. I think it helps to remember that we are all sinners, so we have the capacity to be the villain. With that in mind, I believe the basic motive for why we do the evil that we do is that we believe we have a right to something and our right is of greater importance than the rights of those around us. The pickpocket believes he has more of a right to a wallet than the person carrying it. The copkiller believes his right to live free is of more importance than the life of a cop. The adulterer believes his right to sexual gratification is of more importance than the needs of his spouse.

  2. Clare, your tips should be reviewed by all, and often. And Timothy really summed it up well. The Jason- and Michael Myers-type evil doers are cardboard cutouts and can be interchanged with hardly any impact on the stories. The antagonist must be fleshed out just as much if not more than the hero. Even thought the reader hates what the villain does, they must understand why. Otherwise, what results can be nothing more than a cartoon.

  3. Nice post, Clare. And great comments, Tim & Joe. Well said.

    It can be a struggle to create a believable villain & I love your backstory point, Clare. I've dared to add a sense of humor to my villains at times too.

    In real life, most criminals aren't complicated, but that rarely makes for good fiction. A movie that DOES do a good job of capturing "dumb & dumber" is FARGO, based on a real crime (sad to say).

    "Yah, he was a general sort of way. Yah."

  4. Well the excuse I most often hear for wrong-doing (not just crimes) is "well you don't know what it was like for me growing up". With that in mind, I can't help but look at my villains and paw through their life up to that point to see what shaped them (or what they think shaped them) to do what they do.

  5. I ask writers in my workshops to answer this question: why do I love my villain? Dean Koontz said: "The best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well as terror. Think of the pathetic aspect of the Frankenstein monster. Think of the poor werewolf, hating what he becomes in the light of the full moon, but incapable of resisting the lycanthropic tides in his own cells."

    If you create a sympathy factor it deepens the emotional tension for the reader.

  6. As Jim said, the sympathy factor is paramount. I don't read stories featuring sadistic thrill killers, because I find them unsympathetic and mostly uninteresting. In fiction, I prefer reading about misguided (but somewhat sympathetic)killers, like vengeance seekers. The Mentalist has been running for several seasons; the lead character, Patrick Jane, tells anyone who will listen that his goal is to kill the man who murdered his family. I root for him, even after he murders the wrong man in cold blood in a case of mistaken identity. (Fortunately, the victim turned out to be an evil-doer, too).

    Bottom line: unsympathetic villains are just boring.

  7. I've been blogging about creating a believable antagonist by going through Sean Mactire's book Malicious Intent: A Writer's Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists, and Other Criminal Think. (

    It's been an interesting process, and I've come to the same conclusions you have. A great antagonist will have a clear motivation that the reader can understand (not agree with, necessarily). If he's too evil, he'll come across as a mustache-twirling cartoon.


  8. I don't believe in villains, only different perspectives. The world is grey, so why should your story be any different? And that's why backstory is so critical. Someone who may be an antagonist in one situation, might be a protag in another. Let the reader decide who's evil and who isn't. Just get on with the telling.

  9. I speak only for myself, but my favorite type of antagonist is one who is not so much sympathetic as seemingly invulnerable, and shot through with a single-mindedness that is frightening to behold. With that in mind, check out Murphy in the newly published THE FEAR ARTIST by Timothy Hallinan. Whoa.

  10. Dean Koontz portrays the best villain, IMO, in Enoch Cain Jr. from his novel From the Corner of His Eye.

    What he does with this character is he shows him as a loving newly wedded husband, a doting husband at that. He shows us all this right before this guy pushes his wife off the ledge of a rotting wood rail.

    The sympathy for this character is drawn from me due to the fact that he doesn't want to kill anymore, but he is perversely compelled to do so (again) and the cop who wants to prove that his wife's death wasn't an accident is on his tail.

  11. Great tips Clare.

    Steven James writes some pretty scary villains in his Patrick Bowers Files. I like that he gives me a sideline view of what's going on with his creeps, because while I don't identify with them, I can see them better.

    Best rationale for evil deeds perpetrated - Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal Rising. Definitely no cardboard there...

    It's interesting that we writers work to rationalize the bad guys because we want the world to make sense. Things that happen like this weekend certainly don't, and never will.

  12. I do believe that there is such a thing as evil, and like Timothy said, it is based on the sinfulness of mankind. The difference between people and good people is not that they thought about being bad, all of us have had evil thoughts at some point in our lives, but that they acted on their thoughts.

    Like the others have said, villains in real life usually justify those actions regardless of how evil it is. Jeffrey Dahmer felt justified for his cannibalism. The Batman Shooter felt justified for his actions. Hitler and Stalin both felt justified for their actions.

    Thus our fictional characters should, I think, feel justified in their actions. Bad guys who are focused on completing their dastardly deed are also less likely to give up by blowing their own brains out before the deed is done therefore keeping the story moving.

  13. My villains usually have a personal motive for doing the deed. I don't deal with mass killers in my books. But I've attended workshops on creating villains, and they also suggest giving your bad guy a soft side to show he's not all evil. Like, he loves his dog or he stops to help an old lady cross the street.

  14. Great additions to the villain list and I agree, the world is full if grey areas so you antagonist should be too- complete with sympathetic elements and a sense of humor too sometimes. When I read a mystery or thriller I also want to get a strong sense of why the person is acting the way they are and that they truly believe they are justified (or indeed the hero of their own story).

  15. Nice observation, Timothy: "we believe we have a right to something." I think that goes straight to the heart of the matter: from cross-country serial-murder sprees to bad choices. "Right to it" trumps everything and everybody.

    My all-time favorite villain is Blue Duck, closely followed by the hunter-killer in No Country for Old Men. Serious bad news with those two.