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What makes a great villain?

I suppose you all who have been following along with these articles have noticed by now that I haven’t yet done a dedicated post on character – hero/ine, villain, supporting, or otherwise.

That’s probably because while I feel comfortable expounding on how to create and structure a story, I am not so clear about how to explain how to create character. To be perfectly honest, it’s not a very explicable process, for me. I think what I do is create a space for them – a situation, a theme, the beginnings of a story – and pray that the characters will show up to inhabit it. Which, thank God, they always do. And then from there they do most of the work.

In other words, it’s magic – or possibly my author friend Dusty Rhoades is right, it’s mental illness – and I don’t know how to explain magic OR mental illness. Quite possibly I don’t WANT to know.

But I think – I’m pretty sure – most writers have characters in their heads from a very early age. Maybe ALL people do – because that’s what fantasy is, and we all daydream being other people, or superfantastic versions of ourselves. So in a way we’re all creating character all the time.

I do think there are things that are teachable about creating character. My best advice is always – take an acting class. Take a lot of them. Read books on acting and creating character – Michael Shurtleff’s AUDITION, Stanislavski’s acting series, Michael Chekov. Learn how to develop and play characters yourself, and it will translate to writing.

All that being disclaimed, I want to talk today with great villains and how one might – MIGHT – go about creating them.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a villain will just come to you whole, right? I’ve dreamed a few. I love that, when your subconscious does the work for you.

Sometimes you have a real, heinous person in mind, either a criminal you’ve read about who sparks such an outrage in your soul that you have to create him on paper just to destroy him the way he needs to be destroyed. Sometimes it’s a heinous person you really know – in the novella I recently finished I took great pleasure in detailing all the banal viciousness of a producer I know and then bashing his brainless head in.

But other villains I’ve written have been more conscious creations, have grown out of the specific situation of a story. So, while allowing for the pure magic of it – it’s not purely magic, is it?

I’d like to suggest that you can develop a great villain – or any other character you create – through the same process that I’ve been advocating for creating the structure of your story.

Make a list.

Who or what are your top ten villains? And I don’t mean make a list for the ages, or for popular consumption – I mean FOR YOU. What is it about these particular characters that makes them so delicious, or terrifying, or both? What turns YOU on in a villain? What particular qualities are you responding to?

You don’t have to think too hard about it, either, when you’re listing. It might be more useful to do it fast and see what comes up, because that non-thinking list will be more relevant to your present project, or a brewing project. These lists are never written in stone, either – you can make a whole different list tomorrow.

Breaking it down, analyzing the specifics, is like doing scales on the piano, or doing dance technique exercises at the barre. It gives you the foundation and the strength and mental coordination for the magic of art to happen.

My favorite villains, off the top of my head.

Hannibal Lecter.
Atia of the Julii in the HBO series ROME.
Mary in Lillian Hellman’s THE CHILDREN’S HOUR
Tony Perkins in PSYCHO.
“Julian” in Brad Anderson’s SESSION 9.
Stringer Bell in THE WIRE.
Al Swearengen in DEADWOOD.

Now, I can look at that list and already identify a lot of patterns going on. I like my villains sexy, perverted, bizarre, insane, diabolical, and preferably a combination of the above.

But now it’s time to go deeper. What is it about each of those villains that really works for me?

Rumpelstiltskin. The twisted dwarf is an archetype I particularly respond to. In Jungian psychology, the dwarf, or perverted little old man, is a strong recurring archetypal figure for women who have been sexually abused or have sexual trauma issues. I haven’t been, but with all my near-misses with predators, I can relate to that analysis. And studying Jungian and other world archetypes is great fodder for brainstorming interesting villains.

Dracula. The sex thing, obviously. Vampires are supposedly about addiction issues. I can relate to that, too. Marion Woodman has some hugely intriguing books about these archetypes.

Hannibal Lecter. The devil archetype, my absolute favorite. Thomas Harris created a monster for the ages by turning a serial killer into a mythic archetype (although for my money he should have stopped with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). But what really does me about Lecter is the magician/mentor aspect of him. Here’s this evil, psychotic genius – who sees something in Clarice that makes at least part of him want to mentor her, even protect her. More than that, he UNDERSTANDS her – better than any other living soul. That to me is the ultimate seductiveness of the devil – that he GETS you – right down to your very soul. There’s no greater intimacy – and that’s a lot of what I was exploring when I wrote THE PRICE.

Atia of the Julii in the HBO series ROME. Gorgeous, sensual, ruthless schemer, played by one of my favorite British actresses, Polly Walker. Her relationships with her son and daughter are completely perverted and I love it. I understand her, because living in such a patriarchal society would twist any intelligent woman, and I love seeing her WIN.

Mary in Lillian Hellman’s THE CHILDREN’S HOUR – one of the most chilling portraits of a sociopathic child that I’ve ever seen. The final scene with the grandmother taking responsibility for her is particularly haunting. I love stories about evil children. I have to admit, I find small children frightening. They are ruthless, narcissistic and irrational; they operate according to some inexplicable set of rules that they are constantly making up as they go along. And they wield enormous power, totally out of proportion to their actual physical strength and stature. Is that not the definition of a villain?

Norman Bates in PSYCHO. The concept of multiple personality fascinates me even though it’s been done so badly so many times that I’m not sure I would ever attempt such a character myself. But you feel such poignant sympathy for Norman even as you fear “Mother” – it’s a terrible portrait of an imprisoned soul.

“Julian” in Brad Anderson’s SESSION 9. Is he a demon? A fragment of personality in a multiple personality patient which has assumed autonomy? It’s, well, mindblowing to try to wrap your brain around. And the slippery inexplicableness of evil is a theme that draws me again and again.

Bob Sugar in JERRY MAGUIRE – the blond, blandly sociopathic agent. Not hard to see why I respond to that! But I love Sugar as an example of an effective comedic villain. He’s pitch-perfect – there are hundreds just like him in Hollywood, soulless, narcissistic, casually malevolent. But he also makes a perfect foil for Jerry because he is a mirror image of Jerry – this is what Jerry is on his way to becoming before his attack of conscience in the opening scenes – Sugar is the thing we don’t want him to become. A villain’s story function is often to be the dark mirror of the protagonist, and Sugar is a stellar example.

Stringer Bell in THE WIRE. Oh, all right, that’s pure sex. No, also I love the reversal that Stringer is trying to get out of the drug lord business – that he’s taking business school classes, investing in real estate – and it’s the far greater sociopathy of the politicians and city developers that destroys him in the end. As with Atia, this is a man who has been forced toward villainy by the ruthless inequities of society.

Al Swearengen in DEADWOOD. Also pure sex – I’ve had a crush in Ian McShane forever. But there again, the devil archetype – a powerful, brilliant, sexual, violent man who has his own occasional staggering moments of morality and transcendence – the kind of man that draws women like moths to the flame. As with Lecter and Clarice, there’s a Beauty and the Beast undercurrent here – the monster that we just might be able to tame. I will never forgive creator David Milch for ending that series before Swearengen could have his way with Mrs. Garret – and she with him.

You see how that starts to work? I truly believe that taking the time to analyze what you love and respond to in a villain in the stories you love will get your subconscious working on crafting that perfect villain for YOUR story. So much of creativity is the DESIRE to get it right. Make your wishes specific, and the magic will start to happen.

Next post I’d like to talk more about villains and get into not just the story functions of single villains, but the idea of forces of antagonism, and non-human villains, since the opponent in a story can be multiple, animal, environmental, historical or societal, as well as just the classic single bad guy.

But for today – you don’t have to give me all ten, but who are some of the villains that really do it for you, and why?

– Alex


Previous articles on story structure:

Story Structure 101 – The Index Card Method

Screenwriting – The Craft

What’s Your Premise?

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

Elements of Act Three, Part 2

What Makes a Great Climax?

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Creating Suspense

Fairy Tale Structure and the List

  1. February 24th, 2009 at 08:27 | #1

    One of my favorite current villians, is Ben from LOST. I can’t really figure out his motives or reasoning, and he bounces back and forth between doing good deeds and horrid deeds that he makes my head spin!

  2. February 24th, 2009 at 08:50 | #2

    You are so right, Jenn, what a great character! As you can tell from my list, I love those villains who confuse you with their random good deeds. There’s nothing more fascinating and off-balancing.

  3. PK
    February 24th, 2009 at 11:34 | #3

    Thank you, great post. It may be of interest that JJ Abrams is bringing out some kind of book in the next couple of months that covers the back story of the new Star Trek movie, in particular the development of a “good guy” in the book who becomes the primary villain in the movie. It always gives me confidence in a movie that doesn’t have “cardboard” villains who are evil just because they’re evil. They’re so much more interesting when they can argue a point of view.

  4. March 31st, 2009 at 13:06 | #4

    I get lost with Lost and specially Ben. Can’t Love/hate him enough! I have to admit, without him the show is not the same, I am always waiting for him to show up

  5. April 12th, 2009 at 06:43 | #5

    I love Sylar from Heroes. I’m also a big fan of Ben from Lost. Both are wonderfully fun and intriguing villains.

    Lost is one of those shows that has a lot of characters who are sometimes villains and sometimes heroes. Sawyer is a good example. He doesn’t fit the classic villain mold but he spent the entire first season antagonizing the other survivors, and he certainly qualified as the villain in the flashbacks to his past, before eventually demonstrating some personal growth. The transformation from villain to hero is often what fascinates me most. Sayid is another great example. One minute he’s torturing or assassinating someone and the next minute he’s rescuing Hurley.

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