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.