Bad Boy, Whatcha Gonna Do?

By Joe Moore

If I asked you to name 5 of your favorite heroes and 5 villains, which would you think of first? Which would come easier, the good guys or the bad? If you’re an action-adventure fan and you read a lot of Clive Cussler novels, Dirk Pitt would probably pop into your head right away. Now, name one arch-villain in a Dirk Pitt novel. We all know or have heard of Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne and Lara Croft. But name the bad guys they fought against. The reason it’s harder to recall specific villains is because it’s harder to write memorable bad guys. There aren’t that many Hannibal Lecters out there. But there are quite a few Clarice Starlings.

If you’re working on making your villain memorable, here are a few tips to do so.

Your villain must have multiple layers, perhaps even more that your hero. Stereotypical 2-D villains are boring. Why? Because we’ve all seen our share of non-motivated antagonists. A bunch of teens go to a cabin by a lake and start getting chopped up one by one. Seen that before? The villain is a killing machine. Why? Most of the time we have no idea. How about a good guy who turns bad. The motivational layers are all there. Just watch BREAKING BAD or DEATH WISH.

Your villain must be intelligent. Perhaps even more so than your hero. The brilliant bad guys are the ones that make the hero work really hard to solve the conflict. Their meticulous planning and concentration make them memorable. To see a brilliant villain in action, watch DIE HARD or SPEED.

Your villain had to have baggage. Preferably enough to make the reader cheer for him at least once. This usually happens near the beginning of the story where we see what motivates him. There is a hint of sympathy from the reader. But it doesn’t last long. Mr. Villain does something nasty and the sympathy shifts to the protagonist.

Your villain must face a fork in the road—a point in the story when he chooses to become a bad boy. The reader must believe the choice was voluntary. No one is born evil. They must choose to become evil somewhere along the way, for a believable reason.

Most important of all, your villain must be convinced he’s right. He needs to believe that his course of action is the correct path. Whether it’s revenge or jealousy, or some other strong motivator, he must do what he does out of commitment to being right. He must believe it and so must the reader.

As you write your villain into your manuscript, remember that he is not a throwaway character. He must be accepted by the reader for what he stands for and what he believes. For most of your story, he has to be as strong a character, if not stronger, than your protag. Make him memorable.

Now your turn. Name 5 of your favorite heroes and five villains your love to hate.

31 thoughts on “Bad Boy, Whatcha Gonna Do?

  1. Myron Bolitar is my first choice, but this character instantly brings to mind his sidekick, Win. Now there is an interesting man. I couldn’t name any of the villains in Coben’s series, they’re only there one book at a time. But I remember Win. Not enough is said about sidekicks, but I like’em. Archie Goodwin is another. Some guy named Watson.
    Odd Thomas. He had a dead dog as a sidekick for awhile. And Elvis. And Frank Sinatra. Don’t remember the names of any of the villains.
    Carter Ross. Brad Parks is a relatively new author but I enjoy his characters. More than one interesting sidekick. Can’t name a single villain. Hmm. Bit of an embarrassing trend.
    Nero Wolfe and Archie will always be in my top five. Their villains were usually very normal people.
    Stanley Hastings. An ordinary guy, a very easy guy to identify. Still no villains come to mind.
    AHA. John Corey had a repeating villain called The Panther. There, one villain I remember.

    • Excellent summary, Amanda. I like that Watson guy, too. Just watched episode 1 of Sherlock. My favorite of all the Holmes flavors out there.

  2. I tend to remember movie villains better than book ones–Darth Vader, Xander Drax from The Phantom, Mr. Glass from Unbreakable, Saruman, Smaug. The interesting, identifiable villains.

    Lets see… In recent books I’ve read, there was the Magician in Conjured, aaaand the rest escape me. I remember the hero and his plight better because I spent more time with him.

  3. Excellent and important points, Joe. Let me add one other: Charm. Some of the best villains are the ones that add a touch of charm (which is why the Good Book says the devil often appears as an “angel of light.”)

    My mind turns to film (all the time!). In Hitchcock, the villains are usually the more memorable. Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt; Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train.

    But perhaps the greatest “charming” villain of all time is Orson Wells as Harry Lime in The Third Man. He has only a couple of scenes, but they steal the movie. Lime is a complete and utter sociopath, but also completely magnetic. In fact, so popular was this character that they created a whole radio show for Wells to star in, as Lime!

    What the charming villain does is create cross-currents in the reader’s emotions, and that’s what makes for memorable fiction.

    Thanks for the reminders, Joe.

  4. I’ll second Junior Cain from From the Corner of His Eye, Diane.

    In addition to Mr. Moore’s and Mr. Bell’s insightful points, I’ll add that villains always stick out for me more when they suffer in some way. They have their own stories, and just like the heros, their efforts should include setbacks. In Cain’s case, he suffers psychosomatic responses to his own evil deeds, which is funny as well as memorable.

    I’m not usually a James Patterson fan, but I read one of his in high school–Violets Are Blue–that featured a pair of brothers as villains. I think they stood out for me because of their genuine affection for each other and for their pet tiger. They were undeniably evil, but that spark of humanity stands out.

    I love this topic! Villains don’t get nearly enough attention.

  5. This topic is so important. Because the villain is the character is is most vulnerable to stereotype. Everyone wants to one-up Hannibal Lector these days when the best villains are subtle, intelligent and as James says, even charming. Writers must work even harder to give them layers, motivation, background. Their evil must have a believable context. (Pure evil characters “I kill because I must” are booooring).

    One more point I’d add: The villain MUST be a worthy adversary. If not, the hero(ine) is diminished.

  6. Here are a few of my favs off the top, but there are too many:

    Elvis Cole
    Odd Thomas
    Hieronymous Bosch
    Raylan Givens
    Jason Bourne

    Hannibal Lecter
    Professor Moriarty
    Boyd Crowder
    Lord Voldemort

    • JUSTIFIED season 2 is off to a great start. I actually love Boyd Crowder and think he’s sexy. His odd loyalty to Raylan and his devotion to Eva make him a good anti-hero.

      Also the BBC’s SHERLOCK had me giddy. Now if only NBC’s HANNIBAL gets here on Jan 28th, I will be in writer heaven.

    • I didn’t think I would like HANNIBAL last year, Jordan, but found myself looking forward to each new show. Now I can’t wait for it to return.

  7. Sorry for my typos…have a big BandAid on left hand…typing impossible today. Which shud be a good excuse for me to procrastinate but won’t be.

  8. Heroes:
    Joe Pike
    Patrick Kenzie
    Jack Reacher
    Raylan Givens
    Avery Cates

    Hannibal Lecter
    Boyd Crowder
    Francis Dollarhyde
    Darth Vader

    • Joe,
      I think it’s not so much that I like Dollarhyde, but he was the first villain that I remember genuinely feeling sorry for after reading the bit in the middle with his childhood because of his mother and grandmother. I just remember that as a cathartic moment for me as a writer.

    • Goldfinger is a great example, Nancy. I think the character in the movie helped reinforce that villain as well. BTW, congratulations on your election as president of the Florida chapter of MWA!

  9. Heroes:
    Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, Dirk Pitt, Sherlock Holmes, Oliver Stone (from the Camel Club, not the Hollywood director).

    I think part of the reasons why we can’t name villains from the examples Joe mentioned is because they are mostly serials, and the concept of the archenemy machiavellically plotting against the hero book after book was lost with Jim Moriarty, with the probable exception of Voldemort. Thus, each entry in the serial has a different villain.
    The only reason I remember Dragon from the Dirk Pitt series is because the book was named after him!

    As for my favorite villains:
    Vito Corleone, Micky Miranda and Mrs. Pilaster from A Dangerous Fortune are quite a pair, Voldemort, Jim Moriarty and Irene Adler.

    • Excellent point, J.H. With serials, we get to know the protag over the course of the series whereas villains come and go. But a few will stick out as in the case of Francis Dollarhyde in RED DRAGON. You won’t soon forget him.

  10. I can’t remember any of their names, but the villains in James W. Hall’s “Thorn” series were memorably evil.

    Anti-heros like Tony Soprano, Walter White and Dexter can do both jobs.

    • John, I’m in the process of catching up on BREAKING BAD. Somehow I missed it all when the series originally ran. Walter White is a great example of a hero/villain as is Dexter. These are the ones everybody wishes they had written.

  11. When it comes to villains, y’all are missing one of the top predators, Stephen King’s Randall Flagg, AKA The Walking Dude.

    The TV show Criminal Minds created a brilliant story arc with The Reaper. His premise was both simple and the ultimate conundrum, “Quit hunting me and I’ll stop.”

    Another low hanging fruit, The Wicked Witch of the West. Bitch’ll kill you over shoes.

    Any villain based on Ed Gein. (Psycho, Leatherface, etc.)

    Satan. Really in just about any incarnation. One of my favs was the portrayal in Constantine with Keanu Reeves.

    Heroes” Hmm, I tend to go for the well-crafted reluctant hero. The common guy or cop faced with something way above his pay grade.

    Stu Redman in The Stand.

    Conway Sax in Steve Ulfelder’s series. In the name of right he is willing to commit acts of violence to great that those he saves often fear him.

    Jack Reacher, see above.

    Jack McCoy on Law and Order. Was there ever a more charismatic and smarmy character. Do what it takes to make the case.

    Of course Dirk Pitt, because, well, Dirk Pitt.

    Harry Bosch and all the burned-out old school cops like Lenny Brisco.

    I like these way better than the square-jawed, “Hi there, I’m a hero, point me to the bad guys” types.


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