I’ve written previously about anti-heroes and villains and how they seem to be the characters of choice these days, at least the characters that seem to resonate most with readers searching for complexity. So, of course, growing numbers of people are attempting to cash in on that. The problem is that we are being flooded with ridiculous caricatures that are no more scary than me in the morning before I’ve brushed my hair and had some caffeine. Every James Bond villain ever may have something to answer for this.
When we examine the more successful and enduring villains, such as Dracula and Frankenstein (or his monster – depends on which of them you think was the bigger baddie), and some of the more recent but no less memorable, such as Dexter Morgan and Hannibal Lecter, we find people and creatures who scare us but who also exhibit vulnerability, meaning that in some capacity they are scared themselves. They’re at the darker end of the light and dark scale but they’re more deep grey than black. And regardless of their villainy, there’s also something attractive about them, something tempting about them, something that draws you in, even when you know you’re probably going to end up dead if you don’t resist.
If you’re planning to give it a go, here’s a few things to consider to make sure you have readers crying in terror instead of with laughter.
Appearance and Affectations
There’s no need for villains to have metal teeth or knives for fingers or wear full face makeup or masks. The best villains hide in plain sight among us regular folk, holding down jobs, contributing to society and leaving no witnesses to provide police with a description. And if they do, it’s a generic sketch that somehow ends up being ridiculously dark-browed with mere slits for eyes and thin lips that ultimately looks nothing like the villain.
Because of Hannibal Lecter’s education and appreciation for symphonies and orchestral music, it’s almost become a new cliché that villains must love classical music. However, it’s a silly association. On occasion, I listen to classical music and I haven’t killed anybody. When you give your villain an affectation or personality trait or preference, just make sure you’re doing it to make them well-rounded, not because it’s something straight from the “how-to-create-a-villain” handbook.
There’s a tendency these days for villains to be the biggest blabbermouths in the world once their evil plans are discovered. “Aha, curse you for learning the devilish details, but since you have, why don’t I explain it at length and give you time to come up with your own plan to escape and thwart me at the last minute?” All good villains, which means all smart villains, don’t let anyone in on what they’re planning. So there shouldn’t be a lot of dialogue on that topic anyway.
When there is dialogue, it should be natural. It shouldn’t contain obscure words and philosophical musings and formulaic utterances that we’ve heard from villains so many times before that they’re also in the handbook. And when someone discovers their evil plans and asks them why, it’s perfectly acceptable to kill them on the spot and save us all the hassle of hearing words like “curse you” and “devilish” and “thwart”.
There is a strong level of control shown in the violence exhibited by genuinely scary and evil villains. Don’t get me wrong, they enjoy the violence. But people who let their control slip, who let emotion overtake them, generally make mistakes and generally get caught.
Because of this, there might be a tendency for the villain to consider outsourcing the violence. But this is also a mistake. Minions or mercenaries or devotees or hired help or whatever you want to call them are almost always the path to defeat. After all, if they were smart enough not to get caught or killed, they’d probably be villains in their own right.
A genuinely scary and evil villain usually has no interest in money. The villain will have money (it really helps with executing evil plans, building an evil arsenal and escaping the clutches of law enforcement or van Helsing or whoever they are being hunted by) but generally won’t be motivated by it.
This is why people whose primary goal is to rob a bank or hold the world hostage for a large ransom never make it into the echelons of the genuinely scary and evil. There’s not all that much that is terrifying about a plan where the ultimate goal is to live out your life on a Caribbean island with no extradition treaty drinking margaritas, mojitos and frozen daiquiris. Crime for money’s sake is strictly the domain of small-time crooks.
Of course, in order to have money, villains need to have inherited it or made it themselves. Inherited wealth is more likely to be associated with selfish, snotty kids so all good villains are self-made. They’ve studied hard or worked hard and made it to a place in their lives where they are earning plenty, have invested well and are usually in a position of power or authority or respect (or all three).
Which means they have a level of intelligence that keeps them at least one step ahead of everybody else. Hannibal Lecter is a respected psychiatrist. There are some who think this is because he has first-hand insight into the mind of a serial killer but there have been plenty of stupid serial killers. Dexter Morgan is a blood spatter expert but he’s also a forensic neat freak and has an unbelievable mind.
The truth is that if Sherlock Holmes hadn’t been a good guy, he probably would have been the best villain ever. So make your villain smart, smarter than you and me, smart enough to outwit a room full of other villains while tied to a table naked and surrounded by an acid lake, the world’s most venomous snakes dangling above and only a paper clip to aid an escape.
Power is a state of mind. You don’t have to be president or a police officer or a prison warden to have it. You could be a pig farmer. It’s all about confidence. Confidence is power. Belief in yourself and your skills is power. The ability to influence others without coercing them is power. And all the best villains have it.
But power is not the ultimate goal. It’s simply a means to an end, a way of satisfying the motivation discussed in the next section.
Motivation is the most important part of a villain to develop because it’s the question everyone wants answered in relation to everything: why? Generally, there is a defining moment in the villain’s past that set them on the course they are now sailing.
For Hannibal Lecter, it was discovering that the men who killed and cannibalised his sister when he was a child also fed him the broth containing his sister’s flesh. He becomes enraged, biting off the ear of the man who tells him this, the last of his sister’s killers, and thus his journey towards evolving into Hannibal the Cannibal begins. They made him the man he becomes in a journey that turns full circle.
For Dexter Morgan, it was watching his mother being murdered and dismembered with a chainsaw when he was three years old and then spending days sitting in a shipping container full of her blood and body parts. It’s the moment his “dark passenger” jumped on board, refusing to ever disembark again. And don’t forget the influence of his adoptive father who taught him to harness his impulses and turn them into evil for the greater good.
With Frankenstein and his monster, the motivation of the author is almost as important as the motivation of the characters. Mary Shelley had lost her baby and the theme of being able to save her baby, to put a human “back together again” runs throughout the story of a doctor who creates a monster from the body parts of various dead people and runs electricity through him to bring him back to consciousness.
Whatever the motivation, it needs to be good. It needs to be devastating. It needs to be powerful enough to explain a villain’s actions, even if it can’t justify them.
If you give a bit of thought to each of the areas outlined here, you should be able to avoid the stereotypes and hopefully hit on an original villain who scares the bejesus out of every reader who comes across them.
*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing