Thursday, January 31, 2013

Creating Realistic Villains


Every mystery or thriller requires a villain.

Mention the word, and most of us automatically conjure up a character from a novel or film. Hannibal Lector leaps to mind for many—the prototype of the sociopath. Or Professor Moriarty—master criminal and arch enemy of Sherlock Holmes. The scalp-hunting Judge from Blood Meridian.

But not all villains are sociopaths, or career criminals, or however Judge Holden may truly be defined.

The term villain comes from an Old French term roughly translated as “rustic” or “boor.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable asserts our idea of wickedness associated with the word is “a result of aristocratic condescension and sense of superiority.”

Quite a different take on our interpretation of the word, isn’t it? Yet most of us do indeed look down on the villain. We may secretly admire his/her ability to transcend normal behavior in pursuit of a goal. But, would we seriously want to be him/her?

In a novel, the villain is the opposite of the hero. The main purpose of a villain is to provide conflict, which is the driving force of story. The villain must be as fully developed as the hero. The most important aspects of creating a villain are that they be realistic and properly motivated.

Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is clever and charming. But he’s not above murder. Pinkie Brown in Graham Greene’s excellent “Brighton Rock” is a selfish, teenaged thug, yet he worries about his immortal soul.

Human beings are complicated creatures. None are entirely good or evil. Not all villains are sociopaths or psychopaths. Some are simply driven into that situation by circumstance. And they come in both sexes. You didn’t really think the women were getting off unscathed, did you? There are plenty to go around: Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca;” Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” and who could forget Lady Macbeth?

Though we may not condone a villain’s actions, it is important that the reader understand and even sympathize to a degree with the motivation. For instance, we all have financial needs and can understand how a person might desire to improve his/her situation—even if we don’t condone the method. We’ve all experienced fear, jealousy, anger, sexual desire, wanting to even the score—the list goes on and on. These are all motivations a writer can utilize to create a memorable villain.

Think about it. I’ll wager you will remember more villains than heroes from the books you’ve read.

16 comments:

  1. Hi John, I often find well-developed villains more interesting than the good guys, because the author has to provide the reason behind the evil. You've hit on the major ones for me. Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Jennifer. We're in total agreement.

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  2. My first taste of villainary as a child was Darth Vader. :-)

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  3. This is a great reminder. Thanks, John. Rereading Les Miserables, I was just thinking about this. Who is Hugo's primary villain? Jean Valjean, the criminal who stole to feed his family, or Javert, the relentless policeman who hunts him as part of his job?

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    1. Excellent question,Bill. Depending on viewpoint, either can fill the role. Despite his dogging of Valjean, it's certain Javert saw himself as a man doing his job and not a villain. And Valjean wouldn't have worked so hard at redemption if he were clear on his past role.

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  4. Interesting observations. So agree your comment on Javert. He believed in black and white where the law goes, he can't see anything BUT the law and how it must be obeyed.

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  5. I enjoyed your post, John. Even the most notorious serial killers have "reasons" for the horrible things they do. Sometimes it's an abusive childhood; sometimes their motivation exists solely in their sick minds. I agree with you that the reader needs to know "why" they do what they do.

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  6. Right, Pat. Motivation is key, no matter how whacked out the killer might be.

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  7. Right, Pat. Motivation is key, no matter how whacked out the killer might be.

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  8. Looking back on some of the books I've read, sometimes it's ignorance or prejudice that creates a villain. To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example. Excellent post, and thank you.
    Marja McGraw

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    1. Great example, Marja. I think that's a book everyone should read at least once a year.

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  9. John,

    I think you really got it right. The reader needs to be able to understand and even sympathize with the villain's MOTIVATION, not the villain, him or herself. Great blog.







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  10. My questions is: just how does one develop the villian in a traditional mystery when the killer's idenity is a secret until the end? If the villian is too "bad" then the reader will figure it out too soon. So the writer wants the red herrings to be "mean" to fool the reader. The killer must be "nice" until he/she's revealed. What a dilema!

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