Villain Survey

by Debbie Burke


Readers love a good, juicy, memorable villain.

Villains come in more flavors than Baskin-Robbins features: sinister, seductive, calculating, bumbling, scary, funny, tortured, etc.

Who can forget Danny DeVito as the Penguin; the bunny-boiling “Alex” played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction; The Wicked Witch of the West who frightened generations of children with her threat, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too.”

As writers, we’d love to create a character who endures for years, like Professor Moriarty, Nurse Ratched, Darth Vader, Cruella de Vil, Hannibal Lecter. 

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey-Mythic Structure for Writers examines the hero.

Riffing on that structure, I’m working on a writing craft book that follows a similar theme but instead takes readers on The Villain’s Journey.

I deconstruct various villains by asking questions. What are their origin stories? What are their needs and desires? Are they psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists? What drives them to do antisocial acts? Are they forced by circumstances to step over the moral line from ordinary to evil? How far will they go to achieve their goals?

What are qualities that make a villain memorable? Here is a partial list:

1. Powerful – They are in control of their situation and the people around them. They are stronger than the hero, at least initially.

President Snow in The Hunger Games keeps his districts impoverished, desperate, and fearful to the point that people accept the cruel practice of children murdering each other for rewards.

2. Cunning – They use intelligence, guile, and manipulation to achieve what they want.

In several Arthur Conan Doyle stories, detective Sherlock Holmes dubs  Professor James Moriarty “the Napoleon of crime.” Moriarty is the only person who can match wits with the brilliant Holmes and best him.

3. Ruthless – They are willing, sometimes even eager, to harm others and cause destruction to achieve their goals.

In The Godfather I, the climactic baptism scene shows Michael Corleone becoming the godfather to his sister’s son at the same time his henchmen kill the leaders of all the rival families. That clean sweep elevates Michael to reign as the undisputed Godfather of crime. 

4. Terrifying – They exploit deep human fears like helplessness, pain, and death to overwhelm their victims with physical, psychological, or emotional threats.

Agatha Trunchbull is the sadistic, bullying headmistress in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The 1996 film was rated R because of scary (although absurd) violence like the pigtail hammer throw scene.

5. Ordinary – On the surface, villains can seem like regular people. They blend in with normal society and don’t attract attention to themselves. That’s how they get away with immoral acts. Their invisibility makes them chilling.

In Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Nothing Man, the murderer of Eve Black’s family is a supermarket security guard living an inconspicuous life until Eve writes a true crime book that taunts him with threats to reveal his identity.

6. Reluctant – circumstances may force a law-abiding person into committing crimes. Their reasons may be justifiable but the acts are evil. 

In Death Wish, Charles Bronson plays a grieving widower whose wife was killed by thugs. He takes justice into his own hands, becoming a vigilante. 

7.  Persistent – They may appear to be vanquished but they don’t give up. Remember the Terminator’s immortal line, “I’ll be back.”

Now I’d like to ask readers of TKZ to participate in a survey for The Villain’s Journey.

Who is your favorite fictional villain?

Why is s/he compelling and memorable to you?

Please answer in the comments. Your response could be included in the book (with permission).

Thanks for your help!!!



Please check out the manipulative, seductive, ruthless, cunning, ordinary, persistent villains in the Tawny Lindholm Thriller series

56 thoughts on “Villain Survey

  1. My favorite villain is Noah Cross, played by the great actor and director John Huston. In Chinatown he preyed on his own daughter besides using his government position to make himself rich. In the end, he beats our hero J.J. Gittes. “Forget it Jake, it’s just Chinatown”

  2. Green Goblin, willing to murder his business partners, attack Aunt May, kidnap MJ, and then want to kill Peter and all who love him played so well by Defoe.

  3. The character of “Khan”–played by Ricardo Montalban in the outstanding Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and whose character first made an appearance in the original series episode “Space Seed”. He was indeed the type of villain you love to hate but he was so sure he had a cause for what he, did he was compelling.

    Khan checked off almost all the points you mention:
    1. He was powerful–not only physically (lifting Chekhov off the ground with one hand!), but mentally, and by his ability to sway others.
    2. Cunning: The whole success of this movie is him matching wits against Kirk–coming after Kirk for what he perceived as a wrong done to him years ago when they first encountered each other. And he was willing to manipulate every person and circumstance to have his revenge.
    3. Ruthless: He was willing to take out those who stood in his way. Or use creepy creatures to implant in the bodies of enemies to gain control over them.
    4. Terrifying: The above mentioned scene when he implants the creepy creature in Chekhov’s ear is the thing nightmares are made of. But to Khan, it was just a means of getting what he wanted.
    5. Ordinary: He seemed perfectly ordinary when the Enterprise made first contact. Little did they know what lay beneath the surface.
    6. Reluctant: This is the one trait that I see least in Khan. He was always power hungry, not reluctant.
    7. Persistent: Even when Kirk had disabled Khan’s ship and demanded he surrender, Khan had yet one more devastating trick up his sleeve. Even in his last moments he is quoting Melville’s Capt. Ahab from Moby Dick “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” When you hear Khan forcefully utter these words, you NEVER forget it (and end up quoting it every time you think of the movie). For me, this is one of the most quotable movies of all time.

  4. I’d add “charming” and “seductive” to the list. Hitchcock was a master at this. Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, Ray Milland in Dial M For Murder, Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, etc.

  5. Terrific post, Debbie! Can’t want to read the book.

    One of my favorite cinematic villains is Hans Gruber from Die Hard. Witty, urbane, with a love of culture, he’s highly organized, and determined to get his goal, despite the best efforts of the “fly in the anointment” to stop him. He’s also ruthless, yet flummoxed when told by Holly that one of his hostages is pregnant. Beneath the disciplined Teutonic exterior is a typical man at sea in the face of potential childbirth, and hugely relieved when Holly says she’s not due yet.

    In short, he has a flawed humanity in him, like we all do, while also being an epic villain.

    • Thanks for your interest, Dale. The list of fascinating villains keeps growing–the finished book may become a doorstop!

      “Flawed humanity”–yes! Humans are fascinated by villains b/c we all have the potential to do evil. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

  6. Wonderful post, Debbie. I can’t wait to read your book!

    Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins) creeped me out more than any other movie I had watched. I still cringe, thinking of the movie.

    Thanks for the list of qualities that make a villain memorable.

    Have a wonderful week!

  7. I’ll start by saying that I don’t like evil villains. I want them to have a chance to redeem themselves and to take it. (Or perhaps I should say I don’t like pure good guys. Give me all types of shades of gray, please.) The only exception for me are politicians. Make them as evil as you want, they deserve it.

    That said, I do have a favorite. Davy Jones from the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean. He’s driven by rage. He’s ruthless but not cod, not a psychopath like Joker. He feels everything, and chooses not to heed it. And he plays killer music!

    • “Shades of gray” is exactly right, Azali. That not only applies to villains but all characters fi we writers want to lift them above cartoonish stereotypes.

      To me, the most memorable characters are ones who struggle with right and wrong. Was the idealist young war hero Michael Corleone wrong to defend his family against enemies? No. But a righteous act to protect his father started his slide down the slippery slope.

      Thanks for adding Davy Jones to the list.

  8. What a wonderful idea to write a craft book about villains! I’m looking forward to reading it.

    JSB mentioned Ray Milland, and I thought his performance as the sophisticated and debonair former tennis champion in “Dial M for Murder” was perfect. The scene where he convinces a small-time crook to come to the apartment and persuades him to murder his wife (Grace Kelly in the movie) is delectably chilling. When things don’t go according to plan, Milland continues to scheme and almost gets away with it.

  9. “Bunny boiler” has become part of the lexicon of terms used in anecdotal stories of crazy exes and toxic women on places like Reddit. I doubt many know where the term comes from.

    As a resident nerd, I’ll mention AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. Lots of people had real trouble understanding why Thanos won by killed half of the universe’s populations. Then, they figured out that the movie had been about Thanos’ “hero” journey, not the Avengers saving the day, once again. Thanos is scary in his deluded beliefs because he’s incredibly powerful with a sense of his own inevitability.

    • Marilynn, you’re the one who originally posed the question, asking if there was a Villain’s Journey. Thanks for a killer idea for a book!

      I have to research more about Thanos. Is he like Hitler, who murdered millions in his quest to build a reich that would last 1000 years?

      • He sees himself as the savior of the universe. He believes that the only way to keep people from starving and overpopulating is to kill half of each population in the universe. But he also wipes out half of all animals and flora, aka the food sources. Yes, sheer brilliance.

        If you do research him, the movie Thanos and the comics Thanos have different backstories and motives although both are bat-crap crazy megalomaniacs. I am available for questions.

  10. Great post, Debbie! The book sounds wonderful.

    I’m choosing Gollum, formerly Smeagol, from LOTR. His character arc from The Hobbit to LOTR is sweeping. He starts out a good boy, becomes infatuated with the Ring, lusted after it, killing for it, and finally falling into the fires of Mt. Doom with it clutched in his hand. He even had several chances to escape the influence of the Ring, but he succumbed to his greed every time.

    Tolkien, of course, was a master storyteller, and Gollum is one of his villain masterpieces-IMHO.

    Keep us posted about the book! 🙂

  11. I love this topic, Debbie. I once wrote a paper on villains. If you use a search engine, there are so many “top 100” lists for villains. I’ll try to come up with some less common ones for you. How about The Grinch? Tis the season. We all remember this delightful villain from our childhood. Like all good villains, the Grinch has a reason for his meanness. He was born with a heart that was two sizes too small!

    I’ll be back later, no doubt, with a few more.

    Happy writing!

    • Joanne, with your passion for research, I knew you’d be a rich source of villains. Thanks for the numerous examples.

      Villains we read about in our childhoods make esp. strong impressions. Perhaps that’s b/c they were, in many cases, the first encounter with not-nice people doing rotten things.

  12. I hate to be predictable, but Hannibal Lecter is my all-time favorite. And going wa—aay back Eric Braeden played the German captain, Hans Dietrich, on The Rat Patrol, searching for escaped Allied prisoners.

  13. Another good villain is the vampire named Victoria from the Twilight series. Victoria was after Bella to avenge the death of her vampire mate, James. However, she was a pretty cruel vampire, terrorizing her victims, even before Bella was her target.

  14. Also, anyone who watched The Mentalist series will remember the Red John character that tormented our protagonist. If you haven’t seen watched this series, it is great for binge watching. Make lots of popcorn.

  15. Also, we mustn’t forget the Jack Hyde character from 50 Shades of Grey. The best villains are inextricably connected to one of the main characters. Jack Hyde was a character from Christian’s past. They were both orphaned children, and Jack resented the fact that Christian lucked out and was adopted by wonderful and wealthy parents.

    I’m trying to come up with some less “common” examples for you. I hope these help.

  16. Let’s not forget Ebenezer Scrooge. Characters that change over the course of a story can still be considered villains, as long as they have a long enough stint as a villain.

  17. SPOILER ALERT. I nominate for inclusion one “Boyd Crowder,” played by Walton Goggins in Justified. Boyd is a nasty piece of work, ruthless, violent, hateful, incorrigible, kind only to his wife, Ava (Joelle Carter), but she puts herself in jeopardy when she cooperates with lawman Raylan Givens (Timothy Oliphant). When we’re not worrying about Raylan, we worry what’s to become of Boyd. I often found myself on the edge of my couch, afraid that Boyd will be killed by another villain. Once, Raylan has him in his sights, literally, and lets him get away. There’s a love/hate dynamic between the two, summed up in the finale when they agree on an explanation: “We dug coal together.”

    • J, what a great tribute to a villain that you worried about Boyd as much as Raylan.

      The bond between them may sound simplistic on the surface but it speaks volumes.

      • Justified proves that a great protagonist v a great villian creates great tension that carries on from scene to scene. Great show and worth a re-watcj

  18. Debbie, my mind just won’t rest.

    Another of my very favorite villains is the “Marko” character from the movie Taken. When Liam Neeson’s character (Brian) says: “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”

    And then after a slight hesitation, the Marko character says: “Good luck.”

    We all remember that villain and those two words. That scene made the movie.

  19. For variety’s sake, how about Julia Roberts’ character in My Best Friend’s Wedding? Here she does everything she can to wreck her best friend’s relationship, rather than simply telling him that she loves him. In the end, she comes around and even attends the wedding and offers a toast. Julia Roberts gives such a great performance that you don’t know whether to love her or hate her.

    Indeed, there are many different kinds of villains.

  20. Some excellent choices listed. I do like the Terminator. The original. “You still don’t get it, do you? He’ll find her! That’s what he does! That’s ALL he does! You can’t stop him! He’ll wade through you…”

  21. A big THANK YOU to everyone who took time to respond and offer excellent examples that covered the spectrum of villains! TKZ’s readers are smart, literate, and generous!!!

    • Thanks, Garry. I’m partway through watching the Bulletproof Screenwriting podcast with Truby and Ferrari you recommended but keep getting interrupted, darn it.

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