Villainous Takes

Villainous Takes

Today’s Words of Wisdom goes back in August, 2008, when the Kill Zone had just begun. That month KZB devoted an entire week to villains, an evergreen topic, one worthy of being showcased. Perhaps not every novel needs a villain, but many do need a bad man or woman to make things difficult for the hero. It was a challenge to select only three posts to highlight from that week.

In the end, I went with the terror of the unremarkable, genuine motivations for villainy, and advice on how to help your villains be “pretty damn interesting.” I hope you will comment with your own thoughts on these villainous takes.

As always, the full articles are linked from the date for each. All three are well worth your time. Also, I want to thank JSB for creating the striking Words of Wisdom graphic below.

John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole, wrote that “most of the interest and part of the terror of great crime are not due to what is abnormal, but to what is normal in it; what we have in common with the criminal rather than the subtle insanity which differentiates him from us.” I couldn’t agree more – for me, it is the commonality rather than the abnormality that makes a villain truly villainous.

Take Doctor Crippen – an unremarkable man in real life, the least likely man perhaps to have poisoned and dismembered his wife or to have been pursued across the Atlantic with a young mistress in tow disguised as a boy. Part of the fascination with this case is the sheer ordinariness of the supposed murderer – and now, with DNA evidence casting doubt on whether the woman whose body was found was that of Doctor Crippen’s wife, Cora, the mystery of what actually happened may never be solved.

In fiction of course, some of the most fantastical crimes that occur in real life can never be used simply because readers would never believe them. Take for example the man who murdered his wife over an affair that happened 40 years before and then left her body as a gift beneath the Christmas tree. Writers have to walk a fine line with villains too, making them both believable as well as intriguing. Are they merely the flip side of the protagonist? Are they an ordinary person pushed to the brink? Or does some deep psychological wound create the monster within?

Clare Langley-Hawthorne—August 8, 2008


In my latest book, Boneyard, I had a particularly hard time. One of my villains came to life easily. I added some traits to him in successive drafts, but felt like I nailed him down without too much trouble.

And then there was the other guy. Man, he was a problem (serves me right for having two bad guys, I suppose). I had done voluminous research on serial killers in an attempt to make him as believable as possible, but kept encountering the same pitfalls. I felt at times like I was making villain soup, adding a pinch of Bundy and a dash of Dahmer, but he still seemed bland. Up until the final draft I cast him as a religious fanatic, quoting scripture to explain his motivation. But every time I read over his dialogue I found myself squirming. It felt very forced and contrived, never a good thing.

Someone once said, “the villain is the hero of his own story.” It’s an important thing to remember. We’ve all known people who have been able to justify terrible acts to themselves. They did it for the greater good, or they didn’t have a choice. To me, those are believable villains.

So I slashed away with my red pen, leaving far more of his motivations to the reader’s imagination. In the end, I was happy with him. But with every book the problem must be freshly confronted. I’m wrestling with a different guy now, a real slimeball who’s motivated both by greed and hatred. Yet at the moment he’s more whiny than scary, not a good thing. And he keeps pulling at his handlebar moustache and asking about the rent, which is just annoying. Ah well. Hopefully I’ll get him by the line edits…

Michelle Gagnon—August 21, 2008


A lot of first-time novelists  — and many bad Hollywood films — make the mistake of painting villains in two dimensions, with no redeeming or aspirational qualities. But if you think about your favorite bad guys, many of whom have already been mentioned in this killer blog by other authors, the villains are pretty damn interesting.

Often it’s their power. Darth Vader might be evil, but he sounds like James Earl Jones and can choke a guy from across the room, just by bringing his fingers together. Who doesn’t want that power the next time their boss (or spouse) berates them?

Sometimes it’s their charm. Think of Alan Rickman in the first Die Hard movie. Smart, funny, even likable — but still a convincing villain willing to kill scores of people just to steal some money. Now try to remember the bad guy in the second Die Hard movie, then give up immediately because it sucked. The series didn’t get back on track until they brought some personality back to the villains.

Bigger and better

It’s not only OK, it’s essential that the villain be better than your protagonist in some way — smarter, stronger, perhaps more money or charm. Or perhaps just more determined.

Lex Luthor is a lot smarter than Superman. The Joker less conflicted than Batman. Hannibal Lecter is less prone to acid reflux than Special Agent Starling.

But it’s the contrast that’s important, the juxtaposition of qualities you loathe with characteristics you wish you had. A great villain makes you hate them at a visceral level because, deep down, part of you envies them as well.

Don’t fall in love

Your antagonist is not your protagonist. Say this again like a mantra before you write another chapter.

Caveat — this isn’t about all the superb novels and films in which a flawed character follows an arc of redemption — recognizing that most great stories since The Odyssey have been about that inner quest. This is about writers who fall in love with their villains to the point that they sacrifice some of the moral repugnance needed as an essential ingredient for a memorable bad guy.

(Easy example is Hannibal Lecter in any of the titles written after Red Dragon and Silence Of The Lambs. If those books had been written first, he wouldn’t be the icon of evil he is today.)

I want to be intrigued by your villain, but I also want to feel some self-loathing or fear at my own attraction to him.

Tim Maleeny—August 24, 2008


Now it’s your chance to weigh in on villains: the cool, the bad, the evil. Below are three questions as prompts for discussion.

  1. Does an unremarkable or “normal” seeming villain interest you as a writer?
  2. How do you get a handle on your villain’s motivations?
  3. What makes a villain “pretty damn interesting” to you?

18 thoughts on “Villainous Takes

  1. For me, the two most important factors are justification and attractiveness. I write out a closing argument for the villain, as if it were his opportunity to explain to a jury why he was justified in doing what he did. You can find a chilling, real world example in the transcripts of the Nuremberg Trials, esp. Hermann Goring.

    The deadliest villains are attractive in some way–charming, intelligent, persuasive, etc. “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.”

    • “Justification and attractiveness”–those are great villain factors, Jim. I love the idea of a closing argument for the villain. Thanks for commenting. Have a wonderful Saturday.

  2. Great selection of posts from the past, Dale. Gold from the archives.

    In answer to your questions:
    1. I enjoy a “normal” villain hidden in plain sight. When the MC has to find the villain, as well as stop the threat of more crime, it adds to the suspense.
    2. I work backwards to find the villain’s motivations. I start with a concept (Larry Brooks), develop the villain, and create his motivations.
    3. What makes a villain interesting to me is the mental short circuit that makes him think he can succeed.

    Enjoy your weekend.

    • Good morning, Steve. Thanks for laying out your own take on villains. Working backwards to find his motivations is a great method. “Mental short circuit” is an apt way of putting it.

      I will indeed enjoy my weekend. I’m one of the guests of honor at our local science fiction convention, which is virtual this year. I have panels today on “research in writing” and “characters vs world building”, along with a co-interview with another guest of honor, my friend David Levine.

      Hope you have a wonderful weekend as well!

  3. Sorry for the long comment but you gave me much to mull over…

    TKZ since 2008. Thank you, TKZ contributors. Such a great place to come learn about & improve our writing—that’s what keeps us coming back day after day, year after year. That’s what makes us click on the blog link by habit at the end of the year—even though we know you are taking a much-deserved holiday break. 😎

    Does an unremarkable or “normal” seeming villain interest you as a writer?
    In the context that I don’t read/write dark, gruesome stories (I have the daily news for that), I lean toward normal seeming villains. And honestly, I don’t really see “villains” in the stories I write, just people with different goals, motivations, and plans that come into conflict. To some degree, we all seem like the ‘bad guy’ to someone else—if someone doesn’t agree with my way of thinking on a particular issue, to them, I’m a bad person and vice versa. So it’s not necessarily a ’villain’ in a story but someone who is perhaps the chief agitator. LOL!

    How do you get a handle on your villain’s motivations?
    I read the above excerpt from Michelle Gagnon with interest where she talks about leaving more of the villain’s motivations to the readers’ imagination. Even finding that balance is tricky. I have an old ms in the drawer that I’m waiting to get back to. Feedback I received on that story that I’m still mulling is that my story’s bad guy seemed 1 dimensional/not believable. I think my original draft tried to leave more of bad guy’s motivation to the readers’ imagination, but evidently I didn’t make a compelling argument. That brings up the trickiness of weaving in backstory to explain why your bad guy believes he’s right—making them convincing while trying to stay in the moment of the story. And also adding scenes that show the heart of the conflict. Still puzzling out how to resolve that one.

    What makes a villain “pretty damn interesting” to you?
    This posts reminds me that oddly, I view stories differently in reading vs. screen. When I watch a TV show or movie, there are several times where you see the villain that you “love to hate”. One of the all-time best was Khan in Star Trek II—Ricardo Montalban was outstanding in that role. I think I can quote just about every line of his from that movie. LOL!

    But in books, I don’t seem to tend to zero in on the bad guy. It’s more a question of “Did the whole story premise and its characters work for me? Did they all suck me in and not let go?” Even in my favorite novel of all time, there was definitely a bad guy, but the over-arching importance of the story wasn’t the bad guy but the protag overcoming all obstacles. So I guess for the villain/bad guy to be pretty-interesting, he has to be really great at putting obstacles in the protag’s way.

    • Insightful comments, B.K. I’m glad that today’s Words of Wisdom gave you much food for thought. It’s a good point that we can be an antagonist to someone else.

      “That brings up the trickiness of weaving in backstory to explain why your bad guy believes he’s right—making them convincing while trying to stay in the moment of the story.” That can be a challenge. For me, one of the things that makes a villain a villain is the blind spot they have for the consequences of their actions, and I keep that blind spot in mind when writing them. Steve above called it a “mental short circuit,” another useful framing device.

      I’m with you about TKZ–I didn’t start reading until several years after the site’s founding (2013 or 14 IIRC) but it’s made a huge difference to me as a writer and author. Hope you have a wonderful day.

  4. An obvious sign of a psychopath or a narcissist is charm and charisma. I grew up with a narc so I’m more amused than creeped out when someone tries that on me.

    I always wrote stand-alone suspense so I tried to do the yin and yang of the hero and the bad guy–weaknesses and strengths that varied yet they were part of a whole. I have one scene where the hero is standing above the bad guy he was forced to kill, and he realizes that he could have been this man if he hadn’t had the love of his family to keep his bad traits from taking over. That pretty well explains my choice of yin and yang.

    Newbie Hint: During the planning process of your novel, write the bad guy’s plot out explaining what led up to the novel as well as his current actions and motivation. “Because I want him to” is not good writing.

    • Thanks for commenting, Marilynn. I love that moment your hero realizes the yin and yang he and the villain represent. Your newbie hint is very handy, it’s one I use these days. Have a great day!

  5. Does an unremarkable or “normal” seeming villain interest you as a writer?
    If I were writing cozies, that’s a necessity. But the allure of creating a really nasty, OTT scoundrel is hard to ignore.

    How do you get a handle on your villain’s motivations?
    Thinking back, one is a progressing alcoholic. When in the grip of a blackout, there is nothing he isn’t capable of. One is simply jealous of the hero’s poetry and persona. One is the State, powerful, capable of anything. One is Adolf Hitler, a complex individual: mother complex, Oedipus complex, guilt complex, inferiority complex, and messiah complex. Plus a belief that the end justifies the means. My last malefactor is an evil Sorcerer, who seeks power over the entire world, just because he enjoys it.

    What makes a villain “pretty damn interesting” to you?
    His cleverness.

    • Thanks so much for your comments, JG. OTT scoundrels are so much fun, aren’t they? You’ve clearly gotten a handle on your villains. And cleverness is a great hook for the audience.

      Have a wonderful weekend.

  6. What interests me when I write is ordinary people who are missing something-that restraint, that social control that stays their hand. Missing or weakened by circumstance or relativity, they can range from ordinary people who do bad acts to Cormac McCarthy’s Moloch like villain in “No Country For Old Men” and Shakespeare’s Richard III. In between are all sorts of villains and scoundrels and scalawags, and as John Mortimer, editor of the Oxford Book Of Villains says “the supply is endless.” It’s well worth finding a copy.

  7. When one of my readers claimed she liked the villain of my mainstream literary trilogy best of the three main characters, I was delighted.

    Not that I want her to win – but a formidable opponent is crucial to the plot of my deeply psychological story. The entire story – to be about as long as GWTW when finished – stands or falls on what the villain does. Because some characters only respond to extreme provocation – and a major upgrade of the motivation comes from the actions and decisions in response/opposition to a perfectly logical opponent.

      • From thereview:
        “…All three characters are larger than life and their story is a delight to read, but in this second book, I found myself fascinated by Bianca. She is scheming, two-faced and quite ruthless, the obvious villain, and yet she is not at all two dimensional. Instead, the author has given her a past, a past that hints at why she has become the person she is…and why she believes her actions are justified. She really doesn’t see herself as the villain at all.
        Unfortunately, Bianca’s actions embroil the other two characters in a situation from which there seems to be no escape, and I kept muttering ‘don’t do it, don’t do it!’ for much of the story…”

        Fun, isn’t it?

  8. I do as much background work on my villains as I do my protagonists. There was the villain of one book who quit talking to me until I realized I hadn’t put myself in her head. I didn’t really want to since she was a psychopath, but I researched psychopaths and got a better handle on how they think.
    I learned there are a lot of psychopaths/sociopaths who are not killers. Have you ever wondered if you think like a sociopath? How would you answer this question:
    You’re at your mother’s funeral and this person hits on you and you make a date for the next week. Then the person ghosts you. So you kill your sister. Why would you kill your sister?….
    So the person would come to the funeral and you’d get to see them again. Everything is about them. What’s convenient to them, what they want, etc.

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