On Writing a Villain by Paul Guthrie

On Writing a Villain

By Paul Guthrie, author of The Wrong God

Readers love a good villain. So what makes a villain readably scary? To begin with, he has to be fallible. This seems obvious, since in any good-vs-evil story the good guy has to win, but it affects the writing, especially for a superhuman villain. He can’t be omniscient, for example. Godlike villains need underlings with more human scale and powers. In Lord of The Rings Sauron has the Nazgul and the orcs. In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga the Dark Lord has the Forsaken. The hero (or heroes) builds strength by facing the lesser villains before the climactic confrontation. High fantasy is a tricky business; if the villain is too powerful, the reader may ask why he doesn’t just squash the hero like a bug in the first chapter and put the book down.

Terror and horror are more effective when they are personalized. Imagine a story of genocide, in which the protagonist is a member of a group targeted for annihilation by a government. The enemy is diffuse; an army or a police force, and the hero has allies. Now imagine a story about a fugitive falsely accused of some crime and pursued by a corrupt and sadistic cop. His enemy is specific and he has no friends. The action may be similar in both stories – escape, evasion, outsmarting the foe. But the fugitive story can be tighter, with the reader more emotionally involved, because the single villain can be more intimately portrayed and, perhaps, individually defeated.

Human scale villains work best when they are cruel but emotionally identifiable – Hannibal Lecter comes to mind. The most frightening events we imagine are tortures inflicted on individuals (not groups) by other people. Things that, in a text book or news article, would make us ask how one human could do that to another human. In writing a fictional human villain the author has to give the reader enough of a hook into the mind of the villain to be able to say “Yeah, I believe he is capable of such an atrocity.”

What will happen to the villain? Will he be killed or redeemed? If the story ends in redemption it often works to show how he became evil in the first place. A pattern for this might be a man who is embittered by unrequited love, becomes brutally cruel to everyone around him, but is redeemed by the love of the heroine (I know, very nineteenth century). If the villain is to be redeemed, his villainy can’t be so terrifying that the reader can’t accept the redemption.

A common technique is to keep the identity or nature of the villain hidden from both the hero and the reader, so that they discover him together. This can be dangerous, though. How many times have you reached the great reveal in a mystery or thriller, discovered the villain, and been disappointed?

As an author, you get to decide on the nature of villainy. Is he simply someone without a conscience? A sadist? Arrogant and self-righteous? In The Wrong God the story would turn on the intersection of religion and politics, in a recognizably contemporary setting. Observing that world, I find that the common trait of the most despicable players is hypocrisy. Not just the personal hypocrisy of the ones who try to impose rules that they themselves flout, but the manipulative hypocrisy of the ones who inflame believers to violence.  So one decision was whether to allow the reader to discover that the villain is a hypocrite from the beginning, or keep it a surprise for the end.

Initially I thought surprise, but as I was creating Wendell Murchison, the villain in The Wrong God, my wife was reading the early drafts, and she kept wanting more backstory on Murchison. How did he get to be who he is at the time of the story? As she put it, nobody is born bad; they become bad. She began to believe in the character and care about him – not in the sense of rooting for him to win, but wanting to understand him. So I changed things around and added material about the backstory early in the book in flashbacks, with the idea of hooking the reader on the villain as well as on the story. A reader who is interested enough to ask how your villain got that way and wonders what will happen to him is going to finish your story. And that’s what you want, isn’t it?

Originally posted at http://elizabethbaxter.blogspot.com/ .

Visit www.thewronggod.com for a look at the book.

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6 Comments

  1. Hey, thanks for posting this — I was JUST thinking about what I need to consider to take my villains to the next level. I’ve got one story where the villain’s arrogant and self-righteous, but for future projects I want to branch out a bit.

    In one instance, I know there’s a guy who’s designed to embody the “hero of another story” concept, but…well, I still have a lot more work to do before he’s ready. In any case, this was a good read — and again, thanks for sharing.

  2. Every story is a tragedy from the villain’s perspective. Since they do not change, do not adapt, do not grow as people, they are defeated in the end. The more human interest invested in them the better.

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