Friday, August 26, 2011

How to Write a Great Villain

Good villains aren’t born they’re created. Chilling as this sounds, it’s nice folks like you and me who are responsible for some of the most heinous characters in fiction. If you’re looking to write a story with staying power, a tome to remember, you need a great villain.

Iago from
Moby-Dick from Moby-Dick
Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca

What do these characters have in common? They’re more than mere bad boys and girls. More than the simple villain of old who tied innocent girls to the railroad tracks while twirling a long black moustache. Each of these characters is a
symbol for a force that exists inside a dominant culture.

When you are beginning to craft your villain, it’s best not to think of that character as a villain at all. In John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story, he understands the antagonist (or villain) as “opponent”. He says, “[. . .] don’t think of the opponent as someone the hero hates. He may be, or he may not be. The opponent is simply the person on the other side. He can be a nicer person than the hero, more moral, or even the hero’s lover or friend.”

Opponents aren’t trapped into being the bad guy; instead they are free to express other facets of the same issue the hero is exploring—but in a very different fashion, and for a specific reason. A good opponent is the personification of a base human state and/or a cultural system (and good protagonists, too).

Let’s look at that list of villains again:

Iago from
Othello. For centuries literary critics have pondered the slightness of Iago’s reasons for wanting to destroy Othello and everything he loves. He is a character that stalks the souls of everyone who reads or sees the play. He is honest, yet pure deceit. When I read this play, I see not a man consumed with human envy, but the personification of Lucifer standing before the throne and refusing to bend the knee. He is the pride of life that every child of Eve wrestles.

Moby-Dick from
Moby-Dick. That great white whale is so much more that a defiant fish. "The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them." Here is the story of a man made to confront his own actions when faced with a foe as large (speaking in a literary sense only) as God. He is all that is wild and unpredictable about life.

Mrs. Danvers from
Rebecca. This woman drives a young bride nearly to suicide, and is consumed by flames in the end (or is she?). She is the personification of the establishment that leave no room for the dreams of the young and that imprisons us within our own doubts and try to keep us from rising above our circumstances.

I recently saw a staging of Wicked: The True Story of the Witches of Oz. In it, we discover that the Wicked Witch (Elphaba) isn’t wicked at all. In fact, she is a brave, deeply principled young woman who is fighting the forces of the Wizard and his minions. That makes the Wizard the villain. But he’s no ordinary run of the mill bad guy whose mother didn’t love him. If he were, the story would be ho-hum, a passing distraction instead of one of the most enduring and successful musicals in modern history. The Wizard is the personification of racism. He is the force in our dominant culture that smothers voices of smaller groups within the culture. He stands for something that is as real and powerful as what Elphaba stands for. And when he falls, every member of the audience prays that this piece of hatred they carry within has died a little more too.

That’s why it isn’t enough to have a character that is mean, petty, vindictive, or murderous just for the sake of needing a bad guy. And that’s why it isn’t enough to have an excuse or reason for why your opponent is “bad”. A writer understands that ‘evil’ is a descriptive, not a character type. It can describe an action, but it is never a trait for a character. It must be more layered than simply saying, “He is evil.” The opponent must be intricately connected to a large construct that exists in the human psyche and/or the dominant culture.

Who is your favorite villain? What does she or he personify? Or what about a character you’ve created?


Anonymous said...

Ooo...Ooo!! Richard III! That Shakespeare knew how to write them!

Here's why Richard III is my favorite, he's a crafty bugger. The scene with him and Anne. He has murdered her beloved husband and she's ticked off. Big time. She calls Richard a "hedgehog". That's a good one. Anyway, within one scene he has her twisted and manipulated. And they are engaged.

So much like the "Snake" in Eden.

Laura S. said...

I don't think I have a favorite villain, but in children's literature Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling sure knew how to craft a fantastic villain! Dahl's Trunchbull and Grand High Witch, and Rowling's Voldemort, Dolores Umbridge and Bellatrix Lestrange are some of the best villains, I think.

Anonymous said...

I don't have a favorite villain. When I think of stories that were powerful to me, they certainly had villains, but that villain was not so much singled out to stand out in my mind as an individual but to represent societal problems.

BK Jackson

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: Will knew bad guys, that's for sure. And the Shakespearian patterned seemed to be "kill the dude by the end so we all might live!" Which is, for me, what makes Iago so compelling. Why couldn't Will off him as well? I admit, it's been awhile since I've sunk my teeth into Richard's iron neck. I've recently promised myself I will get back into the habit of reading plays (Starting with Ibsen), I'll have to add Rick III to the list! Thanks!

Bonnie Grove said...

Laura: Thanks for this list. Children's lit is chock-o-block with excellent villains. And while fantasy can stretch the lines of plausibility, there can be no doubt that its bad guys personify huge social issues. All writers can take a page from those books.

BK: Enduring stories are those that explore larger social issues, I agree. Fiction is one of the best ways to place unwieldy issues under the microscope in order to examine them. And it isn't just opponents who represent systemic realities inside a culture, good protagonists do too.

Cherry said...

Wow! That is a lot to chew on. Thanks for making it so clear. I think fiction is the vehicle that brings truth (and our issues) to light via a pleasing or entertaining story.

Anonymous said...

Bonnie, this is an excellent post. Naturally, a lot of villains come to mind, but this is the one that tops the list for me in response to your question. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books -- and one of the best books ever written. But the villain isn't a person, really, it's a mindset of hatred and bigotry that permeated a culture; it was oppression at its worst. That hatred, bigotry and oppression is fresh in my mind, as my book club and I saw The Help last night. What a fantastic movie! I didn't think they could do justice to the book, but they did. Anyway, that's the villain that comes to mind for me in response to your post.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

My villain has just been declared 'too dark, bringing too much sorrow too persistently." for the second time. (I am rather frightened about what this says about me.) I thought he was a bit of a no show because further into the story the hand rocking the baby's cradle turns out to be the real threat. It's the old bait and switch. Therefore I am finally listening to God's direction to make the condemned passage into short flashbacks. (I don't really like flashbacks) This should mix them with some hopeful passages, enabling my reader to persist.
My favourite villian comes from 'These Old Shades' by Georgette Heyer. Everyone hates, dreads and avoids Justin and yet he is right in the end and brings things to a conclusion that a proper 'good guy' would shy from.
In 'The Light that Failed' by Rudyard Kipling alcohol is the villain. In 'Sickheart River' by John Buchan anyone who would prevent the main character dying the way he choses, - naturally, in the wild - is the villain -even the main character himself sometimes.
I just finished reading the 'Aurelia's Threads' series by Jeffery Overstreet. His villains are monsters, inhuman spirits. Makes me think of all the alien movies where evil is brought by something beyond human recognition and therefore a little hard to identify with. We just want it dead so it won't make us dead. Makes me wonder how the devil -something so unhuman, nevermind inhumane - presents himself to us in such an identifiable way that we are taken in.
Thank you for such a rich topic!

Patti Hill said...

Funny you should ask. Just the other night I asked my husband, "Why is it that I am so drawn to stories set in the South (The Help, The Dry Grass of August, To Kill a Mockingbird) and WWII Europe, especially Germany (The Book Thief, Skeletons at the Table, Sarah's Key)?" Of course, he didn't know the answer, but I do today. The antagonists are HUGE social constructs that OPPOSED justice. Thanks for clarifying that for me, Bonnie.

Bonnie Grove said...

Cherry: I really like the way you said that! Thanks for that!

Sharon: A classic is Mockingbird, for sure. There are people all over that story that uphold the dominant culture of exclusiveness and hatred--and we so strongly align with the child who sees the hero in her underdog father.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Wow - lightbulb moment!! "And that’s why it isn’t enough to have an excuse or reason for why your opponent is 'bad'."

I love this concept. It makes so much sense. And I *never* would have thought of it myself.

I'm mulling over my antagonists and realising that the larger construct is there - I just need to illuminate it. This will really deepen my story. Thank you so much!! I'm excited!

Bonnie Grove said...

Henrietta: Thank you for Kipling. He really had something unique, dark, and subtle. Everyone of us should run off to get some Kipling.

Patti: That is key when writing a novel, if we don't have connections to the constructs that contain us all, then the story only reaches the eyes. We're aiming for the consciousness, the soul.

I'm reminded of a recent criticism I read regarding Christian fiction. It came from a film maker, who said that, in general, Christian fiction writers tell too small of stories. The themes are too small (and no, I don't mean too narrow as in the narrow road), but that they are too personal and subjective and don't tend to generalize to the culture of the reader. Food for thought.

Karen: I'm not surprised that the larger constructs are there in your opponents. Drawing them out could make a difference. Just ensure that the changes are organic to plot and character. Also, think about the symbols your opponents wields.