The dank night enveloped the slip of a red-haired girl as she trudged along the narrow alley way, furtively glancing behind herself. She couldn’t hear any footsteps behind her anymore, but that didn’t mean they were still following her. Or was it a he? She didn’t know how many were still after her. At least she was out in the open air now. That room had been so closed in. The walls had seemed to nearly crush her.
Have you ever tried to imagine a story – any story – without a villain? Try it just for a moment.
Wasn’t that hard? Even children’s fairytales have villains to go along with their heroes. Snow white and the evil queen. Little red riding hood and the big bad wolf. Cinderella and her stepmother.
It is the villain who provides conflict in the story. Who shows just who a character is. A villain makes the hero grow. Gives him (or her) something to fight against. Sometimes the “villain” is really just circumstances. Or a personal flaw. Most likely, though, in the novel you are writing, your villain will be an actual person as in the above example. And unless you have a believable villain, your hero will become a laughingstock and your story will fall flat. So, what makes for a good villain?
SPECTER, The White Witch, and Shere Kahn
SPECTER. The White Witch. Shere Kahn. What do they all have in common? They are all villains, of course! But they have more than that in common. They are, on the whole, believable villains. Hate-able villains. Of course, SPECTER is an obviously fictitious organization that is the overarching villain in most all of the James Bond movies with No. 1 heading it up, ordering all kind of fantastic action against the western world in general and James Bond in particular. The White Witch is evil queen in two books out of the highly popular book series The Chronicles of Narnia, and in the popular movie The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Hated and feared by all of the characters and the readers/viewers alike, she makes an excellent villain. And then of course, there is Shere Kahn, the villain in the book and both the movie adaptations of The Jungle Book. Although he is a talking tiger, he is quite a believable villain with his hatred for the “man-cub”, his ruling of the jungle, and his fear of fire.
All three of these fabulous villains inspire dislike and fear through cruelty, through violence, and even through oppression. They try to stamp out the hero and anyone else (or anything else) in their path.
Qualities Your Villain Must Have
Effective villains, though, must be more than cruel, violent, and oppressive. They must be relatable. Let me explain this shocking statement of mine. While real, live villains in the actual world we live in can be feared simply because they are cruel or violent or oppressive (think Adolf Hitler, serial killers, gangs…), that doesn’t work in fiction. Oh, sure, we might want the bad guy to be vanquished, killed, given a taste of his own medicine, etc. But we as readers won’t pationatly hate him, sit on the edge of our seat in suspense, and cheer at the villains demise unless we can relate to them.
One way we can relate to a villain is if the fictitious villain is modeled on a very real fear. At the time that SPECTER was created for James Bond to fight against, the cold war was anything but cold. People feared that any day the USSR would mount attacks exactly like SPECTER did. Shere Kahn is an effective villain because deep inside everyone is the fear of one wild animal or the other.
The White Witch is an excellent example of another way in which relatability makes for a good villain. She is beautiful. She can make herself very likable in order to ensnare an unwitting victim. Charisma and beauty are two things that we can definitely relate to. We want to see those qualities in ourselves. And we all have had a run-in with someone who used those qualities selfishly. If you can see a bit of yourself or someone you know in a fictitious villain, then they come alive on the page.
An Example: Ella Fitzsimmons
Let’s create a fictitious villain using the above criteria and see how she turns out:
Ella is a beautiful high-powered attorney. She has put in her time and risen to the top. (We all want that, right? This helps make her relatable.) In fact, she even has her own firm now. We meet her in a low lit piano lounge, sipping a sparkling gin-and-tonic and contemplating her lonely life, a life devoid of love and companionship. Bending her shapely neck back, she rolls her head back and forth massaging her shoulders as she tries to get the ache out of them. She is in the middle of a major murder trial right now. Not just working for the defense, she IS the defense. “It’s just a job,” she reminds herself.
The next scene we see her in is a far cry from the uptown piano lounge. It is the private visiting room in her client’s prison. And as we listen in on the conversation, we realize that she is the mastermind behind a drug and human trafficking ring. Her client was one of the bottom feeders in her employ. And she is threatening to let him fry if he doesn’t give up some information that is vital to her vendetta against the New York City police detective who has been demolishing her crime ring. After all, her client is a dirty cop himself…
Now, what do you think of our imaginary villain? Would you like to see her in one of the next books you read? I thought so! It’s now time for you to go and whip up your own fictitious villain who will capture readers’ imaginations and provide the perfect foil for your fascinating main character.
I would love to know what captures your imagination in a villain, the backstories of your own fictitious bad guys, or just generally your thoughts on this post. Please, please, please leave me a comment below! I would love to start a conversation with you.