Saturday, October 24, 2009

Creating Fictional Villians

Great villains often make great novels. Your protagonist will be measured by the strength and cunning of her antagonist. Indeed, since the villain is often the prime mover of the plot, his motivations become crucial.

In The Silence of the Lambs, Agent Clarice Starling must figure out the motivations and thought processes of two different serial killers, Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill. Sherlock Holmes requires a Moriarty; Superman, his Lex Luthor; Batman, his Joker; Bond, his Blofeld; and Luke Skywalker, his Darth Vader. Without the villains, there would be nothing for the hero to do.

Some authors, realizing that their most creative efforts are going into devising a fascinating, complex villain, simply make their villain the protagonist, alá Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, the heyday of the anti-hero and the villain-hero. The Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, the Submariner, and Dr. Doom, Michael Moorcock’s wonderful characters, Jerry Cornelius and Elric of Melniboné, are all characters who violate traditional heroic templates or are actual villains. Alex, the evil protagonist of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, comes across as more authentic and stylish, than the hypocritical and tawdry culture that surrounds him, a lithe tiger in a culture of pigs. (Actually this contrast is emphasized more in Kubrick’s film.) Alex is heroic in a Byronic, rather than moral sense.

The “rules” for writing a great villain are much the same as writing any other complex character. Their inner motivations must be complex and a believable product of a convincing back-story. They will usually display character traits that would be admirable if their motives were pure. They might display superb self-control over their emotions, or a remarkable stamina, brilliance, focus, or determination. They often spend hard years honing their talents in the service of their ultimate goal of world domination, or overcome hurdles with heroic effort and ingenuity.

From their own perspectives, villains will often see themselves as the true hero of their own story. Ra’s al Ghul (from Batman comics, not the recent movie) sees himself as trying to save the world from ecological disaster, even if it means drastically and violently reducing the world’s human population. Ra’s al Ghul sees Batman as a misguided opponent of limited vision who thwarts R’as’ benevolent plans. William B. Davis, the actor who played the sinister Cigarette Smoking Man on the X-Files, recounts how he came to fully grasp his character only when he realized that, from his own perspective, the CSM was the hero of the series, and Agent Mulder was the one endangering humanity with his foolish quest to expose the “Truth.”

You might invite your audience to see the villain’s downfall as a tragedy. The audience will come to see the villain's fall as due to some fatal flaw in an otherwise heroic character, and pity him. Othello’s insecurity and jealousy are the only flaws in an otherwise admirable man, but unfortunately flaws which Iago can use to destroy Othello, a man in all other respects far better than himself.

In the X-Men movies, Magneto, emotionally scarred by the deaths of his parents in the Nazi concentration camps, sees his mission as a defense of Homosuperior from the hate and murderous prejudice of non-mutants. His fatal flaws consist of intolerance, arrogance, ruthless cruelty, and an unfamiliarity with the concepts of innocence and non-combatants. His ideological conflict with Charles Xavier is reflected in non-fictional history by the conflict between Menachem Begin and David Ben-Gurion during the fight for the creation of Israel. Was Menachem Begin a terrorist or a freedom fighter or both? A good writer exploits moral complexity. Realism and depth are accomplished when it’s not always clear who the real villain is and who the real hero is. The Watchmen is a near perfect exercise in such complexity as painfully flawed “heroes” successfully prevent the “villain” from saving the world.

Nothing spoils an otherwise competent piece of fiction as a weak or blasé villain. Spend the time creating a villain that readers will love to hate. Learn to see the world through your villain’s eyes. Find his flawed nobility. Explore the tortured inner conflict that drove him to his megalomaniacal quest. Can you write your story so that when the villain asks the hero to join him (perhaps a clichéd, but nonetheless powerful opportunity to explore the ideological basis of their conflict), your audience wavers as the hero does—not because the hero is weak, but because the villain is so convincing, so genuine, so admirable, so committed, so sincere.

Mark Phillips is the author of The Resqueth Revolution and co-author of the Eva Baum Detective Series. Learn more about Mark and his stories at:

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  1. You are absolutely right about finding the villain's flawed nobility... and that is a challenge. Without at least some redeeming feature, readers will not feel compelled to finish the book.

    On the other hand, veering too far in the other direction makes for a dull book with characters your reader will not care about.

    It's a tough dance... the examples you gave (especially Hannibal and Rodka/Rodion) are great. I'd love to be able to create a character even half as memorable.

    Cheers, Jill

  2. Oh, wow, this is one of the better posts about villains that I've read in a good long while. You've got some fantastic points, and great examples. :)

    Like Jill said, it's a tough dance. Finding that balance is key.

    Seriously awesome post. :)

  3. Well said, Mark. I had a terrible time with my villain in THE LAST ENEMY until he fell in love. It was both his strength, and his weakness (something good for heroes, too, IMHO).

    thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Excellent article with many wonderful examples. I always find the villains I enjoy the most are the ones I can root for in some sense. You have made many good correlations. Thanks for the insight.

  5. Thanks for this wonderful insight into creating villains. I especially liked your conclusion. I could just see Clarice wavering in the face of Hannibal Lecter.

  6. Nice post. I love creating new villains and thinking about the story from their point of view. Though I thought the heroes of The Watchmen actually failed, and the villain did "save the world".

  7. Villains dare us as writers and readers to go to some places we sometimes dare not venture...they take the dark themes from the dark but no less true underside of who and what we are...they can reveal the graces to be found even there? Even there.

    Thank you for posting. Peace and continued good things for you.


  8. Hi Adam Heine,
    It may have seemed like the villain saved the world, except for one small detail: In the final scene Rorschach's notebook is about to be published. Rorschach will win from beyond the grave.

  9. Good point, sir :-) A wonderfully ambiguous book in any case.

  10. I know what you mean about villains being heroes of their own stories. No one thinks they are the bad guy. For instance, I think I'm pretty terrific.

  11. This was a good post - thanks, Mark. I hope our readers benefit while they're planning their next NaNoWriMo projects!


  12. Most maniacs through history thought they were right also, didn't they? They truly believed in their cause. Too bad they couldn't tell it was the wrong one.

    Morgan Mandel


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