Writing Villains

I'm in the middle of this fantastic sci-fi/fantasy kick-butt love story, and I've really been enjoying writing it! Things have been flowing really well, the story just coming out the way I hope it to and surprising me at the same time. And then I get to writing *the bad guy*. And I'm hung up!

Her dialogue is cheesy.
Her actions are dumb.
She's not threatening enough. Or real enough. 

In short, I just don't like her! Not in the way you're not supposed to like villains, but she's not what I want. She's what Donald Maass calls a "Mwoo-ha-ha" villain in his book, The Fire in Fiction.


Like the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Now, don't get me wrong, it's a great, classic story. I love it! But you've got to admit--she's cheesy, right? Being bad just for the sake of being bad? Maass calls these "cardboard villains," because instead of frightening us, they "strike us as being unrealistic and therefore silly."

I  keep thinking about mega-awesome villains who are so real they disgust us and yet we can sympathize with them. Like the Joker from The Dark Knight. Now that is a villain! He's so evil, and yet SO likeable. He's despicable, does these horrible things without any kind of remorse, but we understand him. He holds a strange appeal while at the same time we just want him to be taken down!

So what does it take to write villains like that? Is it knowing their backstory, like Voldemort's? We knew he was horrible before we found out about his parents, his unfortunate childhood. But that only added to our understanding of him, and how important it was for Harry to take him down.

Maass clarifies that certain types of stories don't necessarily call for the classic wrongdoer. But even in those stories, the protagonist needs to meet strong resistance. In my case, my story definitely needs a strong wrongdoer! But it's good to make readers *feel* the villain's motives, to make them as fleshed-out as the main character is. The reader needs to fear for the protagonist. And giving them some sympathy toward the villain as well doesn't hurt either.

"That is the power of a three-dimensional antagonist:  the power to sway our hearts in directions we would not expect them to be swayed" (Maass, The Fire in Fiction, pg. 50).

Do you have a favorite villain, from either a book or a movie? And what are your thoughts on writing them effectively?



Tiana Smith said...

I'm awful at villains too! I think I need to give them more motivation to act the way they do. With the idea I'm currently brainstorming, that's something I've been struggling with. I need her to be bad, but WHY is she doing it? I think I just need to really get in her head and think about what she's thinking in order to portray that. I think it's hard, mostly because the villain gets so little "screen time" usually, so you feel like you have to dump everything in there for it to make sense. Sigh.

Unknown said...

I find that when I'm not quite liking my characters, and they feel really contrived, is when they're not ready to tell me about themselves. They put on this mask, and they're a little afraid...so you just have to wait on them. Which is frustrating, especially if everything has been going so well! I think villains need to catch your sympathy. If a reader can have sympathy with the bad guy, they get confused. Truman Capote is my best example of this because that's what he did with the murderers of The Clutter Family.

Erin L. Funk said...

This is such a great post and a topic that's been on my mind a lot while I'm drafting. When I think about villains, my mind always goes straight to Voldemort and what a great job JK Rowling did in setting up his back story so readers understood how he became evil. I've heard that a good way to make your villain believable is to give him/her some quality of yourself. I think there's a lot of truth in that, because to write a complex villain you have to be able to thoroughly understand that character and perhaps face your own shortcomings in the process. Thanks for bringing this topic up! It's given me a lot of food for thought!

Sheena-kay Graham said...

I actually love The Wicked Witch, sometimes all you need is magic, evil and green skin. Yes I get that deeply developed villains like The Joker and Voldermort with back stories and a log book are in vogue but I still enjoy those who are just evil. If a guy jumps out the bush and steals your purse do you know his back story. No you just know the ass face has stolen your purse. And that doesn't make him any less of a thief.

Best of luck with your villain and thanks for a thought provoking post Courtney.

Jaime Morrow said...

On the topic of the Wicked Witch of the West, I think this is why WICKED has been so popular. It takes this villain we've always known and given her a backstory, made her more sympathetic. The Wicked Witch done right, you could say. I think one of my favourite villains ever is Loki from Thor and The Avengers. I feel like I have a good idea what turned him bad because of the info we're given about him. In my mind, this makes him sympathetic. Well, and it doesn't hurt that Tom Hiddleston plays him either. ;-) Creating the perfect villain is so, so hard to do, but it's definitely doable. It just takes some great planning. Thanks for this reminder, Cortney! :-)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've not written an all out villain yet. I imagine they are difficult since they have to be just as strong as the hero in order to be effective. Just keep working on your villain's motivation.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh Villians!!!!
I have a hard time with villians too.
The best villain and also my personal favorite has to be....Scar.

Yes. Scar from The Lion King. He is very evil!!! I think Scar could be a great example of what a villain is like Voldemort.

Even though we don't know much about Scar. We know his main goal, and that he is someone willing to do whatever it takes. But yet (to me) he's still so likeable. Hope it helps

Emily R. King said...

Cheesy bad guys are a dime a dozen. My pet peeve is diabolical monologues. If by the climax the readers doesn't know why the bad guy is being bad, that's not that time for him to spill his soul... and then tell them what he's going to do next. But I see it all the time in published works! Drives me nuts.

Jen Conroy said...

Hi Courtney!
A character that has always loitered around in my mind was from a book I read years ago. It was a quick read book, about two friends and one was, well, not so much evil, but a darker influence. I won't give away anything in case you haven't read it (Judas child) but I quite liked the make up of that character. I wonder though, if I read the book again now would I feel the same about it. :)
Great blog. :)

Mason T. Matchak said...

I don't know if I have a favorite villain, but I think the best ones are the ones who think they're doing the right thing. The ones who don't see themselves as villains. The Operative from the movie "Serenity" comes to mind - he knows he's a monster, but he utterly and completely believes he's doing what's best.

I've no idea if I could ever write someone like that, but it would be really interesting to get into that kind of character's head. ^_^

Kelley Lynn said...

Have you ever seen the musical Wicked? It makes us understand the Wicked Witch better :)

I totally had this issue with a book Jessica Salyer and I worked on together. We had a villian who was just bad. Both in being 'just bad' and also in being bad as in poorly written. Through our edits we made sure to understand her backstory and sprinkle that in throughout.

Bad guys are people too :)

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