Show Your Baddie R-E-S-P-E-C-T to Make Them Memorable

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

By Hasaw öztürk – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58145267

It’s easy to focus on the main protagonists of our stories. Heroes and heroines usually pop up in our heads from the start, but have you ever been taken over by your bad guy or your femme fatale? In my latest series, Mercer’s War with Mr. January book 1, I’m obsessed with Keiko Kayakova. She is the devil personified, a remorseless killer, yet she constantly surprises me with her contradictions and what she truly cares about.

A great character is complicated and it can take time to develop them. Why not explore your antagonist with as much zeal as you would for your protagonists? You need to hear them in your head, maybe especially when they are their nastiest, or if they niggle your ear in the middle of the night. Flesh them out.

Questions to ask about your current work-in-progress:
1. What’s your villain’s back story?
2. Why did they turn out the way they did?
3. What motivates them in the present? What are their goals?
4. Have you explored gender for your antagonist? Would your bad guy be more frightening and unexpected as a woman?
5. Have you given them a chance at redemption in your story? Do they take it?
6. What makes them vulnerable? What are their flaws?
7. Have you created a bad guy or gal’s bible, like you did for your good guys and gals?
8. Does your bad guy/gal have virtues the reader might find it hard to argue against, like an extreme respect for the law or a need to establish order in a society he or she controls for the greater good?
9. Do they have an unexpected hobby?
10. In the vast sea of literary villains, what makes your antagonist stand out?

Villains want top billing and for their name to be first on the marquee. Have you shown them enough R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Even if you’ve already got a first draft, it’s never too late to add depth or bone chilling traits to your characters. A flat character on the page is never satisfying.

Don’t waste good villain potential by making your character a two dimensional cardboard cutout or a mere roadblock to your good guys. Dare to give them humor or a peculiar hobby or a back story that explains their motivation. Develop a conflict between your antagonist and protagonist that is deliciously enticing that makes it harder for the reader to choose sides.

Here are a few tips on how to get started:
1. The best villains are the heroes in their own stories. Make them real and worthy of their own story line. Develop them with the same care and don’t resort to making them obstacles in the way of your main characters. Even if they’re a train wreck, make the reader interested in what drives them or make them so diabolical that the reader will fear more for your good guys. Do they have a journey in your book? If they have a chance at redemption, do they take it? These types of questions can add depth.

2. Dare to make your villain an anti-hero in his or her own story, giving him or her solid motivation to perpetrate their crimes or cover their backsides. If your antagonist and protagonist are both thwarted by the same bad weather, for example, how do they each deal with it? Do their minds work the same? Of course not. Their reactions can shed light on how their mind works. Bend the norm. Think out of the box to surprise the reader, but that plot twist comes from knowing each of them as their creator.

3. Match or counter the skills between your antagonist and your protag. Where one might have an intellect, make the other one have a diabolical brute force that can overpower your hero in confrontations that showcase their strengths. Make them worthy of each other.

4. Escalate the tension between your antagonist and protagonist by making them have a relationship that used to mean something. Imagine your adversary is your own father or someone in a foreign country with the same ideals as you (except they are your enemy). If under normal circumstances, your two characters might be friends, what horrible situation will keep them apart and what makes things worse between them?

5. Give your villain a face. Don’t hide behind a secret organization or an evil entity? The Hunger Games would not be the same without President Snow. Silence of the Lambs would be FBI’s Clarise hunting serial killer Buffalo Bill except for the memorable diversion of Hannibal Lecter, her white knight.

DISCUSSION:
1. Who are some of your most memorable villains from your own work? Tell us how you made them memorable.

2. What literary villains have stood out in your reading and have those books influenced your writing?

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18 thoughts on “Show Your Baddie R-E-S-P-E-C-T to Make Them Memorable

  1. Jordan, you’re in agreement with others (eg, authors in Writer’s Digest’s _Creating Characters_) who tell us to make our antagonists/villains real characters, real humans, someone we can sympathize with even if we don’t, most of the time, approve of them.

    But the advice doesn’t always fit crime and mystery stories, where you often don’t even know who the villain is until the end. I just finished _A Climate of Fear_ by Fred Vargas (Commissaire Adamsberg of the Paris police–a great series, by the way). In the end, Adamsberg and his team ID and stymie the villain, but we never see the villain, we never get any sense of his humanity, only the evil he does. We never even find out exactly why he does the things.

    More generally, it seems that the usual “rules” about character and plot that apply to romances, thrillers, and other genres don’t always apply to mysteries and certain other crime stories.

    • I agree, Eric. Not all stories have specific “villains” on the page. I don’t know how much anyone knew about Moriarty in the Holmes stories. To me, the difference between mystery and suspense plays a big part. In mystery, the reader can’t know anything until the protagonist does, so they’re following behind. In suspense, the reader is privy to things the protagonist might not know yet.

      I happen to prefer the mystery approach, and don’t like the villain’s POV, and don’t think you always need a specific “on-the-page” villain to engage readers.

      However, if you ARE writing a book with a bad guy on the page, all of Jordan’s points are well taken.

      • I can see how Moriarity would be so diabolical, his presence becomes more like a figment in Sherlock’s mental state, which could be interesting.

    • I agree there are all types of villain portrayals but for my post where a different kind of villain is more fully fleshed out & not faceless, I would encourage the effort to give him or her depth. I love the complexity it brings & the challenge to create an antagonist this way. Thanks for your comment, Eric & Terry. The dimension of your input is appreciated.

      • Totally agree; I was just agreeing with Eric that a ‘villain’ isn’t obligatory. I struggled with this a lot when I was starting out and people would say, “but who’s your villain?” and I wouldn’t really have a single entity. My characters were being pursued for something they didn’t know they had, and there wasn’t anyone they could point at as “the bad guy” per se. The people who wanted the item only showed up briefly at the end, and they were just henchmen, nobody worthy of ‘villain’ status.

  2. Great tips, Jordan. Koontz once made a statement that the best villains evoke both pity and horror. Those are good cross-currents of emotion for a reader!

    I advise my workshop students to give the villain a closing argument, as if standing in front of a jury to justify all that he does.

    Hitchcock often made his villains charming, which makes them scarier. Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train; Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt; Claude Raines in Notorious, etc.

  3. Great post, Jordan. (Sharing it tomorrow on Story Empire’s curated content post.)

    I love tip number one and share it often. I think it really makes a villain realistic more than anything else a writer can do. Number four also makes for memorable pairings. (Superman/Clark Kent and Lex Luthor come to mind—they’re a great example of hero/villain with history.)

    • Hey there, Staci. I appreciate the cross post. I love conflict between 2 characters that puts them at odds with each other, yet provokes the reader into thinking who to root for, if the story is told right. A good example is 2 men on opposite side of a war, who have similar values yet are fighting for their country. The question of war & violence might be the theme but it would be hard to say which man might be the protag. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Comprehensive post – very helpful! I’m working on new book and this is a good reminder as I get started flushing out my antagonists. It’s all too easy to make them plot pawns. Thanks for this.

  5. Thanks, Sheri. Glad you found this interesting. I need reminders, too. Not every story calls for the depth of portrayal, but it’s a fun challenge when it does. Thank you.

  6. I’m developing an unexpected “villain” in my series – the Department of Justice and FBI. They were part of the big betrayal in book 1 and I’ve brought them back for book 2. My main characters’ actions in book 1 derailed a lot of careers and some are looking for revenge. The story is an immediate crime, but DOJ is brooding in the background.

    I’m also discovering that law enforcement and the criminal justice system in general are turning out to be the heavies in this series. Crooked cops, heartless prosecutors, ambitious government climbers. Newp, nothing Freudian there.

    • Very nuanced from traditional plots & characterization. I like it. Sounds like real people with flaws & ripped from the headlines. Nice. Thanks, Terri.

  7. I like making my villains come to life, and even in some cases to make the reader start to empathize with them to some degree. Kind of like how most villains in real life quite often can be charming, when not in active murderer/drug dealer/terrorist persona.

  8. Marvelous post, Jordan, and so important to the task of building conflict with believable characters. I’m reminded of an exercise I learned years ago–it might have been Jim Bell, maybe Don Maass–to have your antagonist speak to you, the writer, in first person, using a candid setting, your fingertips on the keys. When I did that, when I let the guy in my story tell his story from his point of view, all sorts of things came out that I hadn’t considered.

    Your ten-point list is a great guide for such an exercise.

    I made him six-foot-seven, a Palo Alto wunderkind now one of the wealthiest men in the world. Yet, in speaking to me, he did not boast of his money or power (*surprise*). He confessed his teenage dilemma in being the tallest boy in the room, hating basketball, his trouble getting dates when most girls could rest their chin on his belt buckle, and so forth. He had carried these issues into adulthood and lived a conflicted life as a result. A ton of problems came out, as well as his rationale for coping and suppression. It was hard to stop.

    As I wrote and “listened” the monologue revealed rich possibilities–nuances of thought and behavior that resonated for me. True, he was vicious, conniving, deceitful, a thoroughly corrupt villain. But his “private” interlude with me molded an individual ready for every season.

    That monologue approach is but one technique, but I turn to it with every story, regardless of genre, because the experience gives me greater confidence I’ll portray authentic behavior the reader can believe and accept.

  9. Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is one of my favorite villains. It constantly amazes me how she can make me sympathize with a sociopath. From her I learned that you have to have something special or appealing about your villain. I also like when a villain is smart but not infallible. No evil geniuses!

    Great, detailed check list, Jordan. Thanks!

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