Hannibal, Nurse Ratched, the Shark? Creating Your Villain
by James Thayer
Readers just love to hate Nurse Ratched and Lord Voldemort. And Iago, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and Bill Sikes. These villains lie, cheat, bully, swagger, and connive, and we love it. And then they chisel, goad, cackle, and leer, and we love that, too.
Few things in fiction are as fun as a vile villain, both to read about and to write about. We—at least, most of us—can’t be outrageous, sordid, and corrupt, but our reading and writing can be filled with such folks. Aren’t we relieved when Aslan finally destroys the beautiful, haughty, evil White Witch in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? But aren’t we glad to have met her?
Here are some thoughts on creating villains for our stories.
Not all novels have villains. Yes, these stories have conflict and tension, but not a villain. Novels where a natural disaster is the key ingredient are an example. Or it can be a character’s wrong decision: she’s not a bad person, she’s just mistaken about the big issue. Or it may be a singular personality flaw in an otherwise normal character.
A famous example is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Count Vronsky and Anna, the sympathetic lovers, aren’t villains. Neither is Anna’s husband, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, who is spiritless and stuffy, but not evil. The story’s conflict arises from Vronsky and Anna’s own choices and their society’s pressures.
Another example: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. There’s no villain. The bluecoat who comes to Tara and tries to force himself on Scarlett is a bad guy—and gets gut shot for his trouble—but he’s a bit player, come and gone. Same with the carpetbagger who raises taxes on Tara. The conflict comes from Scarlett’s willfulness.
But most stories feature a villain. The reason: villains often provide the conflict that is essential to a novel. Conflict, in all stories? David Morrell says: “Without conflict, no plot can be interesting. Without conflict, you don’t have a plot.” Conflict in a novel, Albert Zuckerman says, must be “the main issue that drives and unites its myriad scenes.”
It doesn’t matter what genre you write in, even comedy. The creator of Garfield, Jim Davis, says, “In order to have humor, you have to have conflict. If everybody agreed, if they all got along, there’d be no humor whatsoever.” Same with romance. “The conflict,’ says Charis Calhoon of the Romance Writers, ‘is the struggle to make your love work.” Every novel in every genre is about conflict.
Jack Bickham says, “Most popular novels, for example, are basically the record of a prolonged struggle.” Successful novels could be subtitled The Record of a Prolonged Struggle: The Godfather; the Record of a Prolonged Struggle. Lord of the Rings; The Record of a Prolonged Struggle. Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock: A Record of a Prolonged Struggle. Peter Rabbit: The Record of a Prolonged Struggle. The struggle comes from the protagonist resisting the villain.
The villain has many roles.
1. Adds tension. Often a story’s central question is: will the protagonist overcome the villain? This answer is saved for the climax of the story, just a few pages before the novel’s last page. But a villain can also supply a constant source of tension throughout the novel, keeping things ramped up. Croup and Vandemar from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere chase the Lady Door throughout the novel, popping up whenever things might otherwise lag. Croup (with his orange hair) and Vandemar (with his ring made of ravens’ skulls) might always be around the next corner. Lady Door and the reader can never relax.
Another example is Robert Louis Stephenson’s Mr. Hyde, in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When the reader witnesses Mr. Hyde stomp a little girl in the street, we know Hyde will do anything, anytime, and it’ll be bad. His presence is a constant threat.
2. Offers contrast. Raymond Obsfelt says, “Putting contrasting elements next to each other tends to emphasize each work; putting similar elements next to each other tends to blend them together.” A villain sets off the protagonist, and the hero and villain shine brighter when compared to each other. In Treasure Island, Stephenson’s Long John Silver is cynical, cunning, and dangerous. The young hero, Jim Hawkins, is loyal, honest and impressionable. Each character is made more vivid by contrast with the other character.
3. Adds interest. Sure, interest is generated by the main story question: who will prevail, the hero or the villain? But villains often bring new things for the reader to marvel at, to be disgusted with, and to wonder about. Hannibal Lecter’s favorite dish is human kidney with fava beans. In John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Ferdinand is weirdly fond of his twin sister. Mr. Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness prefers to be surrounded by human heads mounted on poles.
Some techniques for creating villains. Your protagonist isn’t the only person in the novel who should be fleshed out. A one-dimensional villain is little more interesting than Popeye’s nemesis Bluto. Some villains are notoriously complicated; Hannibal Lecter, the Phantom of the Opera, Count Dracula. Some less so: Nurse Ratched, Auric Goldfinger, the shark. But almost all effective villains share these traits: they are tough, they are clear in their goals, they are odd, and they ration their evil-doing.
A. Make him tough, which doesn’t necessarily mean physical strength and endurance. It can also mean cunning, intelligence, or doggedness. Tough means daunting.
Novels present a duel: the hero versus the villain. The hero is often courageous and wise, and sometimes possesses a remarkable talent. There wouldn’t be much of a novel if the villain were soft and easy. The hero would shoo away the scoundrel in the second chapter, and it’d be a short novel.
In the late 1930s, Superman’s first foes were bank robbers, muggers, and Nazi spies. The writers soon realized they were no match for Superman, so they invented the evil genius Lex Luther, Live-wire (a woman who could control electricity), and Metalla (a cyborg whose heart was kryptonite). So then Superman had tense duels.
The villain should be a match for the hero (rather, almost a match). He should be worthy of the protagonist and of the novel, and sufficiently tough to last the first 345 pages of a 350 page novel.
B. Make him understandable. Literary agent Donald Maass asks, “Don’t you find the most interesting villains are the ones whose motives we can understand?” And novelist Alice Orr says the difference between a cartoonish adversary and a credible villain “is that we know and understand on a mentally engaging level, the reasons for an effective villain’s behavior. We don’t have to sympathize with that behavior, as some writing texts claim, but we must understand it.”
What drives your villain? Greed, revenge, misplaced loyalty, a terrible misunderstanding, depraved lust? Make it clear to the reader. The dentist in William Goldman’s Marathon Man simply wants to know, “Is it safe?” Mrs. Coulter in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy seeks only to amputate children’s souls. Samuel Whiskers, the giant rat in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, just wants to make a roly-poly pudding out of Tom Kitten. Milo Minderbinder in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is so greedy he sells medical kit morphine on the black market. The shark in Peter Benchley’s Jaws wants something to eat. For the reader, these villains’ motives are clear and they are enough.
C. Make him odd. Our lives are filled with normal people, and normal is bland in fiction. Readers want characters who are ramped up, particularly villains. And this means more than making the villain bad. Give your villain a quirk, something for the reader to remember. Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is entirely hairless; none on his head, none of the rest of his body. Ian Fleming’s Blofeld—who insists on being called Count Blofeld—wears green contact lenses to reduce snow glare.
Long John Silver walks on a peg leg. In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Alec d’Urberville smokes rank cigars and carries a pitchfork. Pinkie Brown in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is revolted by sex because he once espied his parents engaged in the same. Half of Cruella de Vil’s hair is white and half is black, in Dodie Smith’s A Hundred and One Dalmatians. Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Croup likes to eat—not admire or covet, but eat—precious Tang Dynasty ceramics. Sherlock Holmes' arch rival, the brilliant Professor Moriarity, has written a treatise titled Binomial Theorem.
D. Ration the badness. Fans (and who isn’t?) of teen slasher movies go to the theater to laugh, not to be revolted or horrified by gore. The violence in these movies is melodramatic (exaggerated theatricality) rather than dramatic. When Jason (or Freddie or Mr. Creepy) skulks toward the prom (or sorority or sleepover), chainsaw (or flamethrower or pneumatic jackhammer) in hand, the boys in the theater—the few girls have already left—grin in anticipation of boffo laughs. They know nothing will be credible, and it’s all good clean evisceration fun.
So your villain shouldn’t be Snidely Whiplash; unrelentingly loathsome at every opportunity, because he will become unintentionally comical. The monster behind the door is scarier than the monster revealed, and that’s true of villainy. Build the tension by rationing his badness, and saving his über-badness for critical moments.
Drenched in wickedness, Max Cady, Cujo, Norman Bates, Captain Hook, and Anton Chigurh escaped from their creators’ minds, and aren’t we grateful? Maybe we can let one loose, too.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com)