Writing the Villain

Before I wander off down the dark paths of villainy, I want to thank those of you who joined me at my signing last weekend at Page One Books.  I really enjoyed myself.  If you had to miss – or didn’t get quite enough – I hope you’ll join me 7:00 p.m. this Thursday at UNM where I’ll be giving a talk entitled “The Mythic Impulse: Why Fantasy Speaks to Our Souls” followed by a Q&A.  It’s in the Honors Center and open to the public.  More details are available on my Facebook page and under Appearances on my website.

Not Just Heroes

Not Just Heroes

Now for villains…  Last week I wandered on about why I don’t enjoy reading a book (or watching a show) in which a major protagonist is a villain.   This week, I’d like to talk about how I go about writing villains.  A complex, convincing villain can make or break a book.  Having that villain’s point of view is also important, especially in a certain type of story.

Just because I want to make sure we’re talking about the same thing, let me define a couple of terms, okay?

Last week I offered a definition of villain that left out abstractions like “evil” and focused on specific qualities. Villains care more about their own gain than what will happen to anyone else around them.  They do serious harm, not to be abstractly “evil,” but because the end result will benefit themselves.  They have allies and associates, but rarely friends (because a friend is someone whose benefit or happiness is important).  Even when his or her acts may seem virtuous,  a villain’s acts ultimately benefit the doer, not those  ostensibly done for.

An antagonist is somewhat different.  If the protagonist is the character who represents the main thrust of the action in the book, the antagonist is the character who opposes those actions.  An antagonist may not be nearly as nasty as a villain.  He or she (or they) may have many admirable qualities and just be on the “wrong” side.  The Comments last week addressed the difference between an antagonist and a villain in some depth, so I’m going to restrain myself from wandering down that path and get to the point several  people have asked me since last week:  How do you write such great villains?

I know I write good villains.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t get e-mails from readers yelling  at me for doing such horrible things to my characters.  One memorable e-mail informed me that I couldn’t put off onto Lady Melina from “The Wolf Books” what she did to young Citrine because I created Melina and so it was me who did it…

Wow!  By that logic, I also eat raw rabbit guts and walk around in public without my clothes on, as my “heroic” (or at least anti-heroic) Firekeeper does.


However, this leads nicely to the first trick to writing good villains.  Accept that, although various people are going to wonder how you manage to come up with such twisted and ugly material, the characters who perform those acts are not you.  You’ll have to accept that some readers are going to wonder just what perversities you practice in your spare time, but letting the dark side out is part of the cost of being a writer.

(Aside: Some of the nicest people I’ve met write Horror.  Ellen Datlow, one of the finest editors in the Horror field, is an intelligent and eloquent lady.  Maybe there’s something to be said about coming to terms with the dark.)

Another element in writing good villains is accepting that they don’t think they are villains.  In their version of the story, they’re – if not heroes – simply people with the good sense to do what is necessary to achieve their goals.  As Steve (S.M.) Stirling frequently puts it: “No one wakes up in the morning and says ‘I think I’m going to be evil today.’”  Even Hitler convinced himself he was doing what he was doing for the greater good.

Recently, Jim and I have been re-watching a bunch of classic animated Disney movies.  To me, the reason the Lady Tremaine in Cinderella is so much more terrifying than Malificent in Sleeping Beauty is because Lady Tremaine is intelligently malicious when pursuing those actions that serve her goals.   (In this case, promoting the welfare of her two daughters over that of her stepdaughter.)  Malificent, by contrast, lightly talks of “evil” and uses a minor social slight as an excuse to pursue this nebulous abstract.  She may turn into a dragon and have orc-like henchmen, but she’s much less frightening.

(Aside: It’s particularly interesting to contrast these two characters because they were voiced by the same actress.  She also provided the physical type on which both were modeled.)

Happily, we’re not likely to meet a Malificent in our lives. I find myself terrified of Lady Tremaine because I’ve already met variations on her – and am likely to do so again.  Because this is the type of villain who scares me, it’s also the type I write, even if I find immersing myself into that point of view highly distasteful.

There’s a scene in my novel Changer in which the Changer has an eye extracted while he is awake and completely conscious of what is going on.  That scene had to be in the book and from his point of view.  I hated writing it – I wrote around it for as long as possible – but in the end, I dove in.  In Five Odd Honors, the third “Breaking the Wall” book, young Flying Claw is methodically tortured.  Again, I hated writing this scene, but it had to be there.  To write it well, I had to go into the twisted insanity of those for whom this was a sensible and reasonable approach to their goals.  I had to get across that, to them, Flying Claw was the unreasonable one.

Scary stuff.

So why write from the villain’s point of view or with an understanding of why they do what they do?  Why go into those places?  Isn’t the end result enough?

Once upon a time, I thought this was the case.  I enjoy classic mystery novels.  In those, you rarely know who did the murder or why the murder was done until the end of the book.   When I wrote my first several published novels – the first two of which were from a first person point of view – the mystery approach was my model.

After my second novel, Marks of Our Brothers, came out, author Mike (Michael A.) Stackpole said to me something along these lines: “I liked it, but I think it would have been stronger if you also provided something of the other side’s point of view.”

My initial reaction was to disagree.  The novel was told from a first person point of view.  How could I introduce someone else’s without that introduction seeming forced?  Also – thinking about those mysteries again – wouldn’t knowing what “the bad guys” were up to “give away” the plot?

Since then, I’ve come to understand what Mike was saying.  I’ve noticed how tense I get when a read a novel that provides what the “bad guys” are thinking  and planning.  David Weber is very good at using this technique.  I remember being on the edge of my seat as I read an Honor Harrington novel wherein we the reader knew that the enemy had developed a new surveillance technology that invalidated a bunch of the tactics that Honor and her associates were going to use.  How many ships would be destroyed, how many lives lost, before they discovered this and took countermeasures?

Would I write Marks of Our Brothers differently today?  Probably so.

You don’t need to make a villain a point of view character to use their perspective effectively.  What’s important is making certain that the reader understands that the villain thinks of himself or herself as following a reasonable, intelligent, and sensible course of action.  However, sometimes, dipping into how the other side thinks is valuable, even compelling.

So, what sorts of villains scare you?  Which do you like to write about?  To read about?  Are they the same or different?  Do you find a Minion of Evil fascinating or clichéd?  Where do you wander when darkness is needed?


8 Responses to “Writing the Villain”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Great ideas! I’ll admit, as I sat back to think about this, two questions popped into my head:
    1. Would The Lord of the Rings have been better if we’d gotten inside Sauron’s head? Or even Saruman’s head?
    2. What are the sales stats for different genres, on the highly questionable assumption that different genres always use different types of villains?

    The second one I can answered by googling, for example here. I’m not going to derail the thread by trying to parse what it means in terms of villains.

    One thing I will tackle is the question of what evil is. This is always an uncomfortable subject, because it inevitably leads to me looking in the mirror and asking how evil I am, but there’s a nice general definition I like, courtesy Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games. His general idea is that life (in the sense of all life on the planet or in the universe) is a game, but it’s a game without end that you play to keep the game going with as many players as possible. After all, for someone to win a game, the game must be finite, and must end so a winner can be declared. That’s not life. In his definition, evil is treating the infinite game of life as a finite game, and evil people play to erase others’ infinite play in an unheard silence (not a heard silence, but one where their very existence is lost).

    In story terms, it also points out the great trap that can make a hero no different from a villain. That trap occurs when both sides play to win, period. What’s the difference between them, tactics? That’s not much to distinguish. It’s rather more interesting when the protagonists are playing to get on with their lives, while the villain is playing to win by erasing the heroes and all they stand for. That’s also the point of the epilogue. If the heroes aren’t evil, life goes on after the contest is over whether they survive or not, and that was their goal in the first place.

    • janelindskold Says:

      1) Yes and no. I think we get a pretty good idea of what’s going on in Saruman’s head from his speeches to Gandalf. An author can present a villain’s POV without making him/her a POV character.

      Sauron? That’s a hard call… As he stands, he’s a devil figure, his motivations less clear than even Satan’s in the bible. On some levels he’s almost an animal, simply interested in survival. His minions are controlled by fear of his power. Would POV change this? When there’s that much power involved, I don’t thing so.

      2) I don’t think Sales Figures are a way to judge quality or effectiveness. Nor do I think comparing genres really works. I bet more chocolate sells than tofu, but does that mean chocolate is better? (For the record, I like both.)

  2. Paul Says:

    As for writing, and this isn’t particularly flattering, I can find at least the potential for evil in myself sufficiently to be able to make a villain believe s/he is doing the “right thing” even if the reader (I would hope) disagrees. In general writing (this applies particularly to mysteries), I’m a little tired of the villain who is so omnipotent that h/she can plan a crime in such meticulous detail that the hero is invariably left floundering. Even Agatha Christie would sometimes have such crime planners. In life, plans never work out so flawlessly that you can plan them like a series of chess moves. The more intricate the plan, the more that can go wrong. But the villains to whom I’m referring never stumble in the execution of their crimes (super serial killers seem to be the most common manifestations of this). If the hero does triumph, it is often more by accident than skill or superior sleuthing.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Yes… The Master Criminal is a tempting and dangerous character type. In her novel _The Big Four_ Agatha Christie toyed with the concept but even within the novel her characters were aware of the improbability of the concept.

  3. paulgenesse Says:

    Thanks for this post, Jane. Well done and this topic really gets me thinking.

    To address your question about which villains scare me . . . The villains that scare me are the ones that are quite unpredictable. The ones that might be super nice to you, and then a switch flips and they decide to torture and kill you after dinner because you don’t like the same kind of music as they do. The villain in the movie, American Psycho scared me, as do most of the complex serial killers. Ted Bundy scares me.

    Non-rational villains scare me. I guess the scariest kind of villain for me is the non-logical kind. When I can’t predict their actions, that really throws me off. Also, when they are sadistic.

    There’s a show on TV called Most Evil (it was on the Discovery Channel), where evil is ranked by an expert in a scale he developed, levels 1-22. It’s a chilling scale. The most evil person (level 22) is classified as a “psychopathic torture-murderer, where torture is the primary motive. In most cases, the crime has a sexual motivating factor.” Here’s the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Most_Evil

    I’ve used this scale in my writing when designing villains. I don’t really want to get in their head, but when I write scenes from the point of view, I have to and it actually very difficult for me. I don’t like having those feelings, but sometimes you just have to do it. The character becomes so much more believable when you do justice to their twisted point of view. The character of Medusa, in my unpublished novel Medusa’s Daughter (as of 2013) had a narcissistic personality disorder and was a sociopath. She also enjoyed torturing her family and enemies. Her POV was disturbing to write, but I think it made the book a lot better. I didn’t have any chapters from her POV until late in the book writing process. I find that many people don’t write the villain POV until later. We hesitate to do so, as you did Jane with Marks of Our Brothers.

    I would have liked to read something from Sauron’s POV in an appendix of Lord of the Rings, or something in the Silmarillion, but Tolkien probably knew it would be tough to pull off, and decided against it. Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter books was a pretty good villain, but a little cliched.

    Minions of Evil are often cliched. I try to write them as sympathetic characters, most of the time, and make them real, just trying to do their jobs.

    At this point in my writing career I’m very into writing something from the POV of the antagonist and/or villain. I feel like it makes the story more real, and accomplishes what David Weber did in that Honor Harrington novel you mentioned. The tension was raised because we the reader knew the protagonist’s plan was not going to work.

    Wandering the paths of darkness is fraught with uncomfortable thoughts and ideas, and torturing characters figuratively, literally and metaphorically is often a huge challenge, but I think it must be done. We writers just have to have the courage to do it.

    Paul Genesse

    • janelindskold Says:

      Interesting technique… I think that it could be used in reverse, too. What I mean is the writer could have a strong feeling about what the character would do in certain circumstances, then go to this table to see how that type of person would be classified. It could give some thoughts as to what else that sort of person would do.

  4. Other Jane Says:

    I think that when you get into the heads of villains – whether from POV or just understanding their motivations, they are just more intriguing and scarier than one dimensional bad guys.

    Different villains work for different genres too. When Heteromeles said “Would The Lord of the Rings have been better if we’d gotten inside Sauron’s head?” – I had an odd reaction to that. Sauron is just evil incarnate. That works well for a high fantasy story. But that kind of villain doesn’t work for something like Breaking the Wall.

    The villains that scare me the most are the ones that seem like they make sense – or at least they can rationalize their actions. They aren’t evil for the sake of evil. A good example of that is Walter White from Breaking Bad. He didn’t start as the “evil bad guy”. He started out trying to do good for his family…then made bad decisions, then got dug in deeper until he really lost control. It was hard to point to a specific time where he became evil, yet he was undeniably evil. (He never thought he was evil..he stuck to his rationalization.)

    What’s scary about this sort of villain is there’s no black and white. If you met someone like this on the street – is he a villain or not? Not knowing is scarier than knowing.

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