How to Create Legendary Villains
This past Saturday I held my Bullies & Baddies class and a couple of the folks posited a really good question worth talking about. How do we write great villains? One of the reasons I love holding this class is that all stories require a core antagonist (who is responsible for generating the story problem in need of resolution), but there are different types of antagonists. All villains are antagonists but not all antagonists are villains.
But since we went there, what goes into creating a truly terrifying villain?
I watch a ton of movies and television series. I also read around three novels a week. I’m always studying, breaking stories apart so that I can understand them better. I do it for my fiction, but also so I can share what I learn with you guys.
Though the series isn’t for everyone (it’s pretty gory), I particularly love FX’s American Horror Story for studying villains. AHS is one of those shows that you have to get a few episodes into before you connect, namely because it is often cast with truly despicable characters.
It isn’t until you get a few episodes in that the writers start peeling back the layers and exposing the delicate undersides of the villains…and that’s when you really begin to care for them.
I know. Seriously. AHS is some of the best writing out there.
Jessica Lang almost always plays the core antagonist in each season of AHS (though she was absent in Season Five and it was evident). Of all the seasons, though, Season Four Freak Show was my favorite and that’s what I am going to use today. Btw, there is a bit of spoiler alert, but it’s necessary. So what do we do to really make the villain POP?
Give the Villain a Sympathetic Goal
In Season Four of AHS, Lang plays Elsa Mars. Mars is a self-centered, lying, conniving, murderous woman. But she is a deeply flawed and tragic character. Her goal is two-fold. First, she wants to become a star in Hollywood. Secondly, she wants to build the best Freak Show in the world.
As a young woman, Elsa is victimized by a man who promises her the starring role in a movie. What he fails to tell Elsa is she has the starring role in a snuff film. He films another man taking a buzz saw to both of Elsa’s legs then leaves her for dead. Through the sympathy and miraculous skill of an artist-sculptor, she’s saved and given life-like prosthetics and appears “normal.”
But this tragedy creates a horrible insecurity. She starts the Freak Show because deep down, she knows she’s a freak too. This makes her feel almost a maternal duty to collect the disfigured. To gather the tragic souls the world casts away and give them a home.
The Villain is the Hero of His/Her Own Story
Elsa is a mother figure. Under the circus tent, her “children” are stars and they are a family. She knows what life outside the show is like for a freak (she’s lived it). She also appreciates that she is a very different kind of freak. She has the ability to blend into society. Her children do not.
Make the Villain Conflicted
Mars is a very troubled and conflicted character. Her goal to take care of her charges and her desire to become famous in Hollywood are always in conflict. Also what makes Elsa so good is also what makes her so bad. She is relentlessly ambitious (good), but she is relentlessly ambitious (bad).
Remember that our best self and our worst self are often opposing edges of the same blade. This is true for protagonists (heroes) as well.
I see this even in myself. I have a compulsive personality. This is good (1000+ blogs), but can be very, very bad. I latch onto something like a pit bull and don’t let go…but sometimes I’ve latched onto something I should let go of (every ex-boyfriend ever).
As I like to say…
There is a fine line between persistent and stupid.
The reason this duality makes for a layered villain is that great fiction acts as a mirror and reflects a degree of reality back to the reader. When the reader sees the duality of the villain, she is also seeing the duality in herself. That is the part that can be deeply disturbing.
Maybe we believe we are incapable of murder, but are we really? Or have we simply been blessed with the right life circumstances that have permitted us to never have to really get an answer to that question?
Give the Villain Noble Goals
To dovetail off the last point I made, Elsa does some truly detestable things…but we do see there is a not-so-evil motivation behind her actions. Thus, we sympathize and I think that is one of the ways a good villain can truly get to us.
We see the ugliness in ourselves, the great evil we might be capable of in the right situation.
Elsa is profoundly insecure. It’s part of the reason she created the Freak Show to start with. If she owns and runs the show, she can be the main attraction. But again, Elsa’s goals collide with the intensity of a tectonic plate shift.
She knows the show has to make money because she clothes and feeds and shelters her “monsters”. But, to be blunt? She’s also greedy. So when another act overshadows her own? Her greed and her insecurity collide.
Make the Villain’s End a Sad Event
For me, the best villains are the ones we almost are silently rooting for and are really bothered by that. Elsa is one of those characters that in one episode you hate her and in the next you’re rooting for her and the end of the season is beautiful and tragic.
My friend NYTBSA James Rollins says he knows he’s done his job when the reader cries for the villain at the end.
This is also why NYTBSA Allison Brennan and I have had a long-running argument that Hannibal Lecter is actually not a villain but an antihero. Allison thinks he’s a villain, but I posit that Hannibal is written SO well, he actually transcends those boundaries and becomes the antihero.
Y’all KNOW you cheered at the end of Silence of the Lambs when he said he was “having an old friend for dinner.” And what is SO EPIC about this is that the guy he is going to eat is a law abiding citizen who technically has done nothing illegal…but we still are rooting for Hannibal (a serial killer).
And that freaks us out more than a little bit.
Another great villain? The Goblin King from Labyrinth. Every woman over the age of 30 is still wondering why the hell Sarah didn’t take the deal.
Now For This Little Slice…
There is another kind of villain, a villain who deeply upsets us and who’s end is a joyous event. We cheer. We don’t want this type of villain defeated. We don’t want them dead.
We want them OBLITERATED. Salt the very earth of their soul.
Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer has the best example of this type of villain. The movie is great but the novel? O…M…G. The villain is positively terrifying.
Namely because this villain exemplifies what we fear most (and what protagonist Mickey Haller also fears).
That we won’t recognize pure evil when we see it.
At first glance, Roulet is the guy every girl would love to land. He’s smart, rich, handsome and charming. But is is a stone cold killer who exacts suffering for his own pleasure. What makes this character so disturbing is, like Haller, we believe Louis Roulet is innocent and that he’s been the victim of a terrible scam.
So when we hit that pivot point where we realize we’ve been duped? It rattles us to the core.
This type of villain will exhibit the same traits mentioned above, but they are all a deception. This villain is a venus flytrap who looks like a good guy but is only death disguised.
In The Lincoln Lawyer, Roulet has a sympathetic goal. He is an innocent man who’s been set up by a prostitute who is framing him so she can sue him for damages in civil court and use him as her ticket out of turning tricks.
Roulet is conflicted. He fails to share various pieces of vital information with his lawyer because he is “protecting his mother.” He doesn’t want to upset her and he cares deeply about her perception of him (I.e. he fails to mention he was going to Reggie Campo’s place to pay for sex).
Roulet has noble goals. For instance, he explains that the reason he carries a knife is because he discovered his mother (also a real estate agent) raped and brutalized in a home she was showing. He tells Haller that real estate agents often meet clients in homes alone and there is no real way to vet that they aren’t psychos (um irony), so he carries for protection.
Notice how Connelly hits on ALL the notes of a villain, but camouflages them as a hero.
THIS is why our world turns upside down when we realize it is all a lie. Roulet does not have a sympathetic goal at all! He’s a sado-mysogynistic killer and his only goal is to exact suffering…then destroy another man’s life by framing him for his crime.
This villain is not conflicted at all. He is very well aware of what he’s doing. He’s narcissistic and believes he is above the rules that govern society.
He does not have noble goals. His goals are as black as they come. This is why, unlike a villain like Elsa Mars, when Roulet meets his end? We cheer. In fact, regarding this, I actually prefer the ending in the movie where Roulet is badly beaten by Haller’s motorcycle gang clients before being hauled to jail.
A good way to make this kind of villain work is to create a deflection. Cast an innocent character as the “villain”. It is essentially a “bait and switch.” In the case of Roulet, the prostitute he brutalized carried the mantle of villain until Act Two.
What are your thoughts? Does this help you understand how to give depth to your villains? What are some of your favorite villains from the page or even the screen?
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