Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Villains Are People Too, My Friend

To borrow from a famous politician, changing one word, Villains are people too, my friend. Yes, they are, and they need to be written with the same care that you give your main characters. They need to be full-bodied, three-dimensional people with a backstory that, though you might hate them, you see why they developed as they did. We want to know what made them who they are, and if you fail to do this, you might be writing a cardboard villain. It doesn’t take much finesse to write totally evil characters, sneering and plotting the most dastardly crimes, but that doesn’t make them whole, and it doesn’t make them memorable or believable.

The best villains are pitted against the noble hero/heroine: Lex Luthor vs Superman, Hannibal Lecter vs Clarice Starling.
I remember reading Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, and Lecter was the epitome of evil. A sociopath, he had no moral compass, no reason he turned out the way he does. So why is he so compelling as a character? I believe in the movie, Anthony Hopkins’ brilliant portrayal gives Lecter an added dimension. Lecter first appears in Harris’s Red Dragon. In that movie, Lecter was portrayed by Brian Cox, and the hero was played by William Petersen, who would later become the first star of the original CSI.

In contrast, we have DC Comics and The Joker in the Batman films. Evil, yes, but because of his history as a tortured and abused child, we can muster some compassion for the way he turned out. That doesn’t give him a pass, but we better understand the pathology.

Villains are not always killers. Some are manipulators such as big business moguls, like Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Totally amoral in his business dealings and quest for riches, he doesn’t care who he steps on to reach his goal. The screenplay was written by Oliver Stone, known for pushing the envelope. Gekko is a great character, a composite, Stone said, of many real life corporate raiders, many of whom went to prison for insider trading and/or fraud.

Shakespeare created some great villains -- murderous, duplicitous, and evil: Lady Macbeth, Iago, Richard III, etc.
Conan Doyle’s Moriarty, though appearing in only two books but mentioned in others, will always be remembered as the villain, taunting Sherlock Holmes in a battle of wits. I love Ian Fleming’s villains. Goldfinger, Dr. No, Ernst Blofeld, et al. So over the top and so much fun because they are over the top. Other literary villains might include, Anton Chigurh, the psychopathic villain in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men played in the movie by Javier Bardem, the shark in Jaws (I kind of felt sorry for him because he was just doing what killer sharks do), the Corleones in Mario Puzo’s Godfather books/movies, Darth Vader, and don’t forget Grimm fairytales.
The wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel, the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, and Disney’s evil stepmothers in Snow White and Cinderella, Cruella DeVille, and Scar from the Lion King. There are so many more, scaring children since the beginning of storytelling time. Some are downright frightening.

I’ve written my share of villains. The most evil is Stephen Baltraine in my book Threads.
He has no redeeming qualities, which goes against everything I said above, but he just took over, and I couldn’t stop him. Allowed and enabled by his parents to get and do anything he wants, he turns into a monster. Threads was the very first book I wrote, though I didn’t publish it until thirteen years later. Harley Macon, the villain in Mind Games is similar to The Joker in many ways. Twisted as a child by adults, he knows nothing but evil. But my favorite is my latest villain, Grady Parker, in we are but WARRIORS. He’s a killer for hire but with a skewed moral code that doesn’t always fit who you think he is.

We give heroes all the accolades, but it’s the villains who make our books interesting, as long as we make them compelling. I’ve wondered in the past if there was something inherently wrong with me that I could get into their heads and write them. Then I decided the villain was one of the most important elements of a good thriller, and if I had to become one for the time it took to write the book, so be it, as long as it didn't turn me into a schizophrenic.

Just as an aside, Hopkins, Bardem, Douglas, and Brando all won Academy Awards for playing villains, along with Louise Fletcher for playing Nurse Ratched for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Kathy Bates playing Annie Wilkes in Misery. Who wants to play the hero with those stats?
Polly Iyer is the author of ten novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, Indiscretion, and her newest, we are but WARRIORS. Also, four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. We all have a love for strong villains. They stay in our memories too, long after the story is done. I still remember Grady Parker too!

    1. You do a great villain too, Maggie. A great villain makes the hero/ine stronger.

  2. Bwahahaha. There, I feel better giving you a taste of my cardboard villain. Very interesting blog, and you've addressed some memorable villains, Polly. Cannot wait to meet Grady Parker.

    1. I don't remember you writing a cardboard villain, Donnell, and I don't think I missed one.

  3. Polly, couldn't agree with you more! Not sure what it says about me that I often have more fun writing villains than heroines/heroes. I also believe in equal opportunity--women can make great villains.

    1. Definitely more fun, Linda, because villains are usually more complicated than the hero/ines. And I did write a female villain in InSight. She was one of my nastier ones.

    2. Oops, have one in The Scent of Murder and Hooked too, so I am an equal opportunity villain writer.


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