Sunday, November 30, 2008

Deconstructing the Villain

Over the last year I have discovered something about myself. If I spend too much time blogging, I spend less time writing. I don't think this is a discovery that would surprise too many people; I've heard other people who say they have the same problem. The writing thing is a big part of the reason I have decided to put my book reviews back on this page and quit trying to post on too many blogs all at once. It's too time consuming and I'd like to get back to doing more writing. One of the things I like most about writing fiction is creating the characters-- especially the villains. Villains are fun for more than just the obvious reasons. I know I'm not the only one who gets a little bit of a vicarious thrill out of writing about people doing bad things, but the villain also gives the writer a little bit of a break from the main character. I think we all love our heroes but sometimes it can a bit dull dealing with good-guy angst. It's when the writer gets to write the bad-guy that the creativity really has a chance to come out and play. However, writing a villain isn't as easy at it sounds. Trying to write a credible bad-guy without having him rubbing his hands together while saying "mwaahahhaahah" takes subtlety and I find myself really having to think about villain archetypes while I put together a story and deciding what stereotypes to keep-- and which ones to throw out. Here's what's on the list so far: A Tragic Beginning: Like a lot of heroes it's not uncommon for a villain to be born out of childhood tragedy. I think a grim turning point is important for a villain's development for many reasons--not the least of which is relatability. I know that occasionally people do cruel things without having a horrible childhood to fall back on as an excuse but I think the reader (or viewer) prefers to have an explanation for why a person commits evil deeds. The idea of evil springing out of nothingness, while intriguing, is often too disturbing. For a villain to entertain, they also have to be able to be understood. Self Interest: I don't think a character can be a true villain if there is someone they won't betray. Bad guys need to be unpredictable but not too vulnerable. You might see a villain, like The Joker for instance, decide not to kill someone but it will be for some reason they alone understand-- not because they care about anyone. A villain isn't someone who steals a loaf of bread to feed their starving mother, they steal the bread only for themselves. The most horrifying bad-guys might seem to care about something (or someone) only to discard it/them the first time they become inconvenient. Lack of Moral Restraint: Bad guys will do things that other people just won't do without severe provocation. They murder for monetary gain or just for kicks. They steal without thought. It could be because they are sociopaths or just plain crazy. But it doesn't matter. A villain is capable of anything. A Plan: I'm sure most everyday criminals don't have a master plan when it comes to their enterprises. I'm guessing they just want to get as much stuff as they can the easy way-- by taking it from everyone else. But the most entertaining fiction has a villain with a plan. It might be someone like X-Men's Magneto, who wants to see mutants rule the world; or someone like Lex Luthor, who managed to become President of the United States-- for a short time anyway. But there has to be a plan for the hero to foil in order for a writer to tell a story. It might be as simple as a kidnapping for ransom or a plot to assassinate the President. Either way, there has to be a plan in motion. Henchmen: There are villains who work alone, but the big fish generally have help. Expendable help. Charisma: Most villains are able to generate a following, no matter how crazy their philosophy. Hitler didn't control Germany because of his looks, it was because he had an unfathomable charisma that allowed him to convince people that he had the answers. Any kind of villainous leader is bound to be charismatic. Desire for Revenge: I don't know that a villain has to have a vengeful nature, but it seems like a likely characteristic of a villain don't you think? When I think of driven villains it's the ones who think they have a cause that come to mind. Just look at the Wicked Witch of the West. She saw Dorothy as the cause of her sister's death and as a thief who stole the ruby slippers. She committed everything she had to stopping Dorothy-- even her winged monkeys. Inflated Ego: No matter how smart a hero is, the villain will always think they're smarter. This is why villains like to deliver the monologue to the hero detailing their evil plan. Even if the cliche of the monologue doesn't appear in the story, the villain will still think they're smarter than anyone else-- and heaven help anyone who tries to tell them otherwise. A Secret Lair: Like the hero the villain needs a place to hatch their plans-- and evil Batcave if you will. A creepy cabin in the woods pops up a lot in fiction; though an erudite villain like Hannibal Lecter would have a very classy, if creepy, hideout. A Physical Oddity: Not all villains have this trait, but a lot do. The Joker, no matter how he is portrayed, has a terribly disfigured face. A lot of Bond villains have physical oddities-- like Jaw's teeth. Darth Vader has a whole replacement body while Lex Luthor can't grow hair. I think these characteristics are thrown in to add to the isolated nature of the villain and to help explain why they do bad things. A Need to Rule: Most villains are bullies. Real life villains like Charles Manson and Hitler preyed on the weak minded and this same trait shows up in our fictional scoundrels more often than not because it's just too true to ignore. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes but the one thing they have in common is the need to feel superior to other people; it's just the manner in which they go about it that differs. A Mean Streak: A villain just would be a villain if they were nice. These are the guys who like to torture puppies for fun and they will always kick you when you are down. ....Oddly, I'm running out of stereotypes here. I know there are more... I think the problem is that I don't find the villain as easy to box in as the hero. A villain doesn't have to be able to fight like a ninja to be the bad-guy-- that's what henchmen are for. They don't necessarily have to have a nemesis since the bad guy will always find someone to take advantage of-- it's what they do. Anyway, I have a villain of my own that I am working on. He fits into some of the categories I have listed here though not all of them. But I would loooove to have your feedback. Who are your favorite bad guys and what do you think makes them believable? What characteristics would you add to the list? Seriously, I want to know.

14 comments: said...

The alter-ego, and the anti-ego to the hero.
Most villians have some kind of connection to the hero, Star Wars had the "I am your father," and then there is that cliche line "you and me are not so different." It allows you to compare and contrast things in the hero to their "Shadow," or opposite and evil form. Sometimes the shadow can appear the better one, like in Frankenstein (By Marry Shelley, not Hollywood).

Um... Hi!

Hm... my favorite villian was also a hero! It was Yawgmoth, he saved the city so he could rule it, but the dying and sick by cancer in like every part of his body genius twarted his plan. He came back a couple thousand years later with a thrist for revenge, and ended up in the middle of the planet's largest war, between two brothers. At that point he didn't seem like the villian I fell in love with anymore. My favorite thing was the level of deception he carried out through the whole book of "The Thran." He didn't even seem evil, and he wasn't, at first. His alter ego from the point he made the villianous turn on was flawless and it made me wish I was him... no wait...

The alter-ego, and the anti-ego to the hero.
I would also like to add, that the villian always has a personality flaw that the hero does not have. In some cases, the hero appears to be able to "cure" the behavior of a villian. I think a book where the villian is the same as the hero would be strange. Who would be entertained if superman had to fight bad-superman? ew...

RDWilliams said...

One thing I like to keep in mind when I create a villain is to try and not make a "pure evil" character. Does that mean they have a redeeming quality? Not always, but there is a reason that they do what they do, even if it is a twisted, insane reason, to them it makes sense.

I tend to lean towards liking to read about the bad guys that are doing things because they think they are the ones in the right, you can almost understand their twisted look at logic. Like in Wizard's First Rule(which I'm almost finished reading by the way, and LOVING IT!) Darken Rahl is believable because, in his mind he is the one that is right, just, etc.

That said, my favorite bad guy of all time....the imposing, the unstoppable, the cunning, Darth Vader! :) He's my favorite because he wasn't completely one dimensional(though we only saw the worst side of him in the first Star Wars). He finally made the right decision when it came down to it at the end too. Besides, let's see the Joker try and take on Lord Vader. LOL

Charles Gramlich said...

this is a great list. I was mentally going through my own villains as I read through your notes and in almost every case I'm getting a check. I do, however, like the idea of evil that comes from nowhere. As a biological psychologist, I do find that some folks just seem to be born bad, or born without something that would help keep them good. I also find myself craving that kind of villain on occassion, just because it is so rare.

I also wonder if the deformity aspect of the villain is decreasing given the rise of political correctness?

T.D. Newton said...

I'm not sure I agree 100% with the "revenge" part of your list, as that applies to both hero and villain (and affected bystander, from time to time). While some villains do take up the mace to hack away at the world that wronged them, I think "justice" in the form of revenge is a more common theme for heroes. I'm pretty sure this stems from the "divine mandate" of justice that most people carry with them through religious overtones (Superman = Savior, for example).

As far as things to add, I would expound on the "plan" item to say the villain usually has a large-scale goal (like ruling the world, enslaving the world, etc). It's not just a plan to invent the next best blender - the blender carries a mind control device that leaks into every smoothie.

Another aspect of an effective villain, I think, is deception or the ability to deceive. If they can make the hero (or the plebs) think they're doing something "not evil" then it does show that heightened intelligence that they believe they have.

It's funny that you showed the Joker; I just watched the original Tim Burton Batman and realized that Jack Nicholson's Joker was incomparable for that particular film's context.

furiousBall said...

love villains, love them. I think that your points on revenge are valid, but that's the point (TD's observation) is that villains and heroes are generally made up the same way, choice separates them

SQT said...


I didn't make the point in this post about the hero and the villain coming from similar backgrounds, but it is an important point. It's what makes the hero superior to the villain. The ability to take the punishment without becoming twisted into something evil.


I like villains that have a redeemable quality to them-- but you're always guessing whether or not they'll come around.


I am so on the fence on this point. I think that I need a hint of something that makes a person bad. Even a 'perfect' childhood can have shadows. I think a being of inexplicable evil usually ends up being demon spawn or something like that. Human evil without a trigger of some sort leaves me wanting something. I won't be able to let a character just be evil without trying to find something to explain it.


The revenge part can mean so many different things. Batman initially has revenge in mind but he goes beyond that and that's what makes him find his heroic side. But I think a villain is someone who will grind on the smallest imagined slight. They're obviously compensating for something, right? They're petty and would most likely extract revenge for just about anything.


Absolutely. There are even heroes who walk the line--like The Punisher. I think the TV show "Dexter" (based on the books by Jeff Lindsay) does a good job with this theme. Dexter is a classic serial killer but he chooses to only kill bad guys. Despite his dark side, we're still allowed to like him because he isn't an out-of-control madman-- he's an in-control madman.

T.D. Newton said...

True, but it depends on what they're seeking revenge against (as it does with the hero). But I guess the scope of the revenge ties in with the scope of the conflict and, subsequently, the narrative itself. It's just that the "big" villains tend to have a "bigger" scope of revenge... I hate to think of them as "petty."

SQT said...


I don't know... I think petty is a characteristic that goes with a lot of the bigger villains. I think the ego is the problem. It wouldn't let them not acknowledge a minor slight because they would perceive it as a lack of respect. IMHO. It's not that they would waste a lot of time on petty revenge, it's just that given the opportunity they might take some enjoyment out of it.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Rule: do not be a henchman for a villain as you are expendable!

RD Williams said...

I usually find that even people that are "born bad" even tend to have a good streak in them somewhere. Now, when it comes to writing, I've always found bad guys that I read about, that are "just bad" "just because", they tend to come dimensional, and that can kill a book quick unless you got some really good protagonist angst going hehe

Avery DeBow said...

I'm with Charles; I kept nodding along as I thought about my one Big Bad. You did a great job with deconstructing the villain. I don't think I can add much to such an extensive list.

Everyone's comments here, by the way, are great. My mind isn't working fast enough today to join in, but I'm having a great time reading.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I will comment further, but for now..the physical oddity thing..Fleming was a nut about this for the Bond series. Every single villain had an oddity. Dr. No had the missing hand, I believe. Scaramanga? The extra nipple. I can't remember the rest of the afflictions off the top of my head, but if someone wants to search for the ridiculous work Raymond Benson put into cataloging Bond minutae, it's there.

Villain....villain.... the thing that makes the villain most heinous in many instances is when the people in the story don't realize he's the villain. There is nothing that drives an audience crazier than when the villain charms those around him and gets away with all manner of foul deed, while winking at the audience and going "nanny nanny boo boo".

Fab said...

That is some list! I can imagine that writing villans is more fun cause you can let your darker side go wild.

T.D. Newton said...

True that, Fab, but what's even more fun is letting your dark side go wild writing for your hero.

Well, it CAN be fun, anyway.