We talked about antagonists last week. How about a true villain, the actual bad guy? Let’s again distinguish antagonists from villains, because the former doesn’t necessarily
include the latter. The Writer and Proud blog talks about villains who aren’t antagonists, but they are rare; some of them are villainous and then come back to redeem themselves. I’d ask who the villains are in your books, but that would raise the spoiler alert flag, so I won’t.
So, Wickeds, let’s talk about the elements of a good villain. We obviously need bad guys (which includes gals, of course). What makes him or her somebody our readers want to keep reading about, even if reluctantly? How does the villain play off the protagonist, and how do we make them real people, not just cardboard cutouts? Do you create villains who are not also antagonists? Go!
Barb: I’m not crazy about traditional villains and don’t tend to include them in my books. The motives for my murders have been (in no particular order) fear, jealousy, madness, obsession, resentment, greed, desperation, and not-very-bright-people-making-terrible-decisions. It took six published books for me to create a truly psychopathic character. I don’t think any of my villains (so far) have been antagonists. Aside from the fact that it’s way too obvious as a puzzle if a character who opposes the sleuth at every turn is the killer, I’m much more interested in what moves ordinary people to murder.
Edith: That’s what interests me, too, Barb. I just wrote a reflective scene between Robbie Jordan and her Aunt Adele (in Country Store Mystery #4), at about a fifth of the way through the book, where they are musing on just that. What pushes people over that line that most of us would never cross, no matter how mad we are at someone, to actually kill them? And at a library talk on Saturday I mentioned making sure the villain is a real person, who not only kills but also likes cats and folk dancing. That’s a toss-off comment, of course, and it got a laugh, but I meant that almost nobody is simply a bad guy. So the intriguing part is what got them there.
Sherry: Creating a villain that is a full character that as an author you play fair with is a challenge. And by play fair, I mean it isn’t some who strolls onto the page at the end of the book and confesses. I always seem to write one line in my book that to me screams, “That’s who did it.” I also try to mix it up by having Sarah sometimes figure out correctly who did it but then has to convince others and other time allow her to be wrong. Studying people and reading about criminals helps me to create rounded villains.
Liz: I’ve always been afraid of creating cardboard villains, so I work extra hard at coming up with a motive that humanizes them in a way. Like Barb, my villains have run the gamut of grief-stricken, greedy, fearful, proud, and broken. If they’re just crazy, what’s the fun in that? And if my characters (and reader!) can find a tiny bit of empathy for that person despite what they’ve done, then I’ll be satisfied.
Jessie: I agree with Liz that building empathy is key to making villains more complex. I find that I prefer to write villains I feel that for myself or at least write ones that I can find reasons to respect in some way. I like to think about how I would appeal to a jury if I were the villain’s defense attorney. What evidence could I present to give them pause when hearing my client’s case?
Julie: Actor friends of mine talk about playing the role of a villain. They can’t think of them as a villain–they need to believe that they are completely normal human beings. I think about that when I create my villains. They don’t think they are terrible people, they are just doing what needs to be done. I also try and make my villains blend in, as they frequently do in life.
Readers: Who is your favorite fully drawn villain? Writers: how do you come up with the bad guy?