How to Build a Better Villain

The first thing writers should know about villains is that the best villains are such likeable guys. Anakin Skywalker, a good guy who was tricked by Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. Hans Landa, a charming, circumspect, polite SS officer who hunts and kills Jews, even women and children. The Joker, a pitiable character who could have been anyone’s brother.

Loki. Hannibal Lecter. Tyler Durden. Norman Bates. Magneto. All charming people. Thor loves his foster brother. Hannibal was a brilliant man, and ever so helpful to Clarice. (smile) Tyler was the most clever, inventive anarchist ever. Norman Bates was a charming, boyish innkeeper. Professor X treasured his decades-long friendship with Magneto.

One problem: they were all psychos. (Note to Hitchcock: Psycho would be a lovely title for a movie.)

The Old Guard is a Netfix movie about three men and a woman who have lived for centuries because they instantly regenerate wounded tissue. Think Highlander remake. Two immortals are captured by Copley and taken to Stephen Merrick, a psycho drug company CEO who plans to experiment on the prisoners. He stabs one of the two prisoners in the back. The wounds visibly heal before everyone’s eyes.

STEVEN MERRICK: How do we push the scientific frontiers whilst also turning a little profit? We brought a cancer drug to the market last quarter. It’s already saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Yet, in development, it killed a quarter of a million mice. Now, I didn’t ask for their little permissions. I’m not going to ask for yours. There is a genetic code inside each of you that could help every human being on earth. We are morally obligated to take it.

COPLEY: Mr. Merrick, this is about science, not profit, or sadism.

MERRICK: You owe me two more (prisoners).

But blaming all your villain because he’s a psycho is a freshman mistake. Writers can easily make the opposite of the “all-good protagonist” mistake, James Scott Bell wrote. “They make their bad guy all bad. Worse, they make him all bad because he’s crazy.” The best villains are good guys with violent, destructive tendencies. The most interesting confrontations come from a villain who justifies what he does because, in his own mind, the villain does the right thing. The bad guy has logical arguments for his actions, he engenders sympathy, he creates emotional crosscurrents in readers. He should be someone who would disturb you in real life.

Give your antagonist just as rich a backstory as your hero, Bell suggested. What hopes and dreams does he have? How were they dashed? What life-altering wound did he suffer? Who betrayed him? How did this affect him? Now you’ve got a three-dimensional hero and a 3-D villain.

In the latest Detective Roy Grace novel, much of author Peter James’ narrative is from the point of view of antagonist Jodie Bentley, a psychopathic Black Widow who marries and, yep, kills rich men. James posted 5 Ways to Get Into the Mind of a Psychopath on WritersDigest.com:

1. Meet your monster:

James had always wanted to write about a black widow. He spoke at a women’s prison and met a well-spoken, middle-aged woman in the audience. She was fascinating, well educated, and asked smart questions about literature. As an icebreaker, James asked, ‘How much longer do you have to serve?’

She replied, ‘Nine and a half more bloody years – and it’s just not fair!  A woman did exactly what I did, in London, and she’s only got six more years to go.’

‘So, what brought you in here?’  James asked.

‘I poisoned my mother-in-law, the old bag! The thing was, she went into hospital to die, so I embezzled her bank account. Then the bloody woman didn’t die – she came home. I realized she would find out, so I had to poison her. Then I realized my husband would find out, so I had to poison him, too!’

Later, a prison guard told the writer: ‘Her husband was three months on life support, and he has permanent brain damage.” So James made her the villain in Love You Dead!

2. Make your monster lovable or pathetic: 

Frankenstein’s monster turns to his creator, Dr. Frankenstein and says he never wanted to be born. 

The emperor told Anakin Skywalker he could save his wife from dying, if Anakin would turn to the dark side of the Force. Ironically, Anakin was responsible for Amadala’s death.

3. Be the best psycho you can be: 

The reason most serial killers get away with it so long is that they are bright and cunning. 

Ted Bundy was good-looking, charismatic, a former law student and blended into society. He raped and killed over 100 women. 

Ultimately hubris was the downfall of President Nixon and President Clinton, the anti-heroes of presidents. Because of their lack of empathy and their excessive pride and their self-confidence, they ignored every warning sign. Nixon was forced to resign; Clinton was impeached. 

4. Come from a broken home: 

Develop a sorrowful backstory for your psychopathic character. Was your villain born evil? Here’s a better backstory: society picked on Arthur Fleck and turned him into the schizophrenic Joker. That’s why he killed all those people.

Prison inmates are divided 50/50 into schizos and psychos, James wrote. Schizophrenia is a chemically treatable mental illness. If they took their medication, 70 percent could leave prison and live ordinary lives.

Most psychos are male, and usually show symptoms around age four. Early signs: little empathy, no code of right or wrong. This fits Scarlett O’Hara. The putative heroine of Gone with the Wind stole sister Suellen’s beau so that Frank Kennedy would pay the back taxes and save the plantation. Scarlett rebelled against polite society, was selfish, strong willed, bullheaded, deceitful, vain, opportunistic, coldly practical and short tempered. She feigned helplessness to ensnare men. She lied, stole, begged, married men she didn’t even like, killed an army deserter who tried to rob her. However, Margaret Mitchell brilliantly treated Scarlett as if she was a heroine.

5. Talk to a shrink

A new copy of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is $165 on Amazon.com, so buy an old edition for a few bucks. It lists every psychological condition known to science, describes the symptoms, and it’s invaluable to plotting a hero or villain’s illness. Homeland’s heroine, Carrie Mathison, has a CIA agent with a bipolar disorder, which is why she had a sexual relationship with her future boss, broke up his marriage, secretly began taking clozapine, and became sexually obsessed with a Marine prisoner in Iraq who turned into a spy. She’s great because she’s so uniquely flawed.

Some criminals love the ruthless, chaotic, hand-to-mouth existence they lead. 

Imprisoned for his first robbery, teenager Steve Tulley persuaded met criminal legend Reggie Kray to teach everything he knew. Tulley became a self-confessed psychopath. He once got away with £50,000. What did he do with the money? Rented a suite in Brighton’s Metropole Hotel and, in his words, “Larged it for six months until it was all gone.” If he had the chance to live his life over, what would Kray have done differently? “I’d do it all again. It’s the adrenaline, you see!”

In a police video, Dennis Rader – the BTK Strangler– confessed frankly about why he bound, tortured and killed.  “It was erotic; I got a buzz from it.”

These are the irrational thoughts a writer wants a villain to think.

WRITING EXERCISE 1

On the left side of the page, name your hero. Think of people you know. Write down their best qualities.

On the right side, name your villain. Humanize him with someone you know. Write down his worst qualities. Name one he can’t help, like mental illness.

Now, remember that the villain is the shadow of the hero. Some should be the same; some should be the mirror opposite. 

The antagonist’s checklist

The villain is convinced he’s the good guy, even if he’s doing horrible things. 

The villain is certain that the hero is the real villain.

The villain shares admirable characteristics with the hero, but they’re misdirected.

The villain often has illusions of a perfect society. Think Thanos, who only wanted to save the world from overpopulation, so he killed half the people. The Joker believes in anarchy. The rulers of China, Russia and North Korea believe in a better society.

The villain is a worthy man, worthy enough to make the hero look good. However, unlike the hero, the villain is jealous, especially of the hero. The villain will stop at nothing to get what he wants. 

The villain is proud. He’s deceitful. He’s vengeful. He’s clever. He’s accomplished. People grudgingly respect him.

The villain is kind, and not just for show. House of Cards led its first episode with the screech of tires in Washington, D.C. Majority Leader Frank Underwood went outside. A dog had been hit by a car. 

UNDERWOOD: There are two types of pain, the sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain, the sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no use for useless things. (Frank strangles the dog.) Moments like this require someone who will act.

Frank is merciless, even to the innocent. He’s persuasive. For a moment, the audience almost thanks him for putting the dog out of its misery. Then they remember: Frank could have called a vet and tried to save the dog. 

Anti-heroes aren’t villains

Don’t confuse the antagonist with an anti-hero, who is usually the protagonist. The anti-hero lacks a conventional noble mind, and his values are not universally admirable. 

Rambo and Rocky were anti-heroes: Rocky was mob enforcer; Rambo was an antisocial Green Beret. In Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood played William Munny as a reformed villain, a paid killer who regrets his past. Most Eastwood movies were about anti-heroes: Grand Torino, A Fistful of Dollars, The Outlaw Josey Wales …

In Creating the Perfect Villain, Jacob Krueger pointed out that a villain’s profound wants and desires are as important to him as the hero’s. 

Heroes and villains should be equally flawed. Luke becomes harder after sacrificing his hand in The Empire Strikes Back: less idealistic, less emotional, less of a boy, more artificial, more like his father. So, as your hero fights, take something away from him. Make him more anti-hero than hero.

This happens to soldiers who come home from the war. One reason why they get screwed up is that they have trouble distinguishing themselves and their buddies from the enemies they were killing.

In the Art of Creative Writing, Lajos Egri wrote that humans are complex. Therefore, heroes and villains should be good and evil, charitable and greedy, sacrificing and bloodthirsty. The difference between the Batman and the Joker is that Batman is more good than bad; Joker is more bad than good. Batman works for the rule of society; Joker is an anarchist who wants to blow up society.

One key to heroes and villains is physical or emotional conflict. Egri said Ibsen made Hedda Gabler and Miss Tesman humiliate and embarrass each other. They are neglectful and cruel. 

Sometimes, it’s enough if the villain merely reminds us of someone we dislike, Egri wrote: “If the unfortunate stranger even reminds us, consciously or unconsciously, of someone who behaved badly to us in the past, our hostility will be immediate. A trace of resentment against the stranger may linger for years.”

Emotion has a fatal power over our lives. Hate, love, treachery and loyalty spring from insecurity, Egri wrote. 

WRITING EXERCISE 2

Start with a simple plan: Engage the hero with his villain. Then write their resolution at the end.

Here’s Shakespeare’s plan: Claudius kills King Hamlet, Claudius marries Prince Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude. The resolution: Prince Hamlet must kill his uncle and retake the kingdom.

“The right way to start any story is to engage your central character in conflict,” Egri wrote. “Any character will, in conflict, reveal himself in the shortest possible time.

Have opposites face off quickly. Establish conflict from the very beginning.

Heroes and villains come in pairs 

Think opposite stereotypes: moral Christian and militant atheist. A realist and a dreamer. A hawk and a dove. Adam and Eve. Cain and Able. God and Lucifer. Darth Vader and Princess Leia. 

Now think against type: the villain is a pimp, but he cares about his women. He protects his prostitutes against unscrupulous johns who would hijack them.

The heroine is a panhandler, but she gives money to homeless men and women who are too crippled or too unsavory to beg.

The hero usually enters the story first. He’s in the Ordinary World, Step 1 of the hero’s journey. However, the hero’s journey can be used out of order. In Inglorious Basterds, SS Col. Hans Landa mercilessly hunts Jews in France. The hero team, headed by Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo “The Apache” Raine, enters the picture after the villain is established.

Quinten Tarrentino thinks in shades of gray. His Jew hunter, Col. Hans Landa, is a charming guy. He’s the sort of guy you would hope would invite you to lunch. You’d want to be his best friend. Make your villain likeable, and you’ll have a complex antagonist, and therefore you’ll have lots of inherent conflict.

Remember, if your story is about unicorns and light and babbling brooks, readers actually want conflict. Even bedtime stories have Dorothy confronting the Wicked Witch of the West. The Wizard of Oz is all about villains and conflict and bad things happening to Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion.

WRITING EXERCISE 3

In The Keys to Romantic and Family Conflict, writer Jennifer Lawler advised writers to create one main conflict, then a believable series of conflicts that will sustain the length of the novel. 

Here’s how George Lucas did it: Princess Leia receives the stolen plans of the Death Star. Darth Vader chases her across the galaxy and boards her ship. Leia sends a message with R2D2, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” Luke receives the message and finds old Ben Kenobi. They find allies, but Han Solo kills Gredo, and Jabba the Hutt puts a price on Han’s head. Han and Luke rescue Leia, but Darth Vader kills Obi-Wan in the first act. However, Leia gets away with the plans to destroy the Death Star. Which leads to all the conflict in the second and third acts.

So, sit down, write the main conflict, then write a dozen secondary conflicts that make your readers care what will happen next.

Professor Joseph Campbell wrote about the shadow archetype. That is, the hero and the villain are, figuratively, images of each other. 

In novel The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah sets up shadow opposites: the older, married sister is Vianne Mauriac. She’s a reluctant, naïve heroine. She doesn’t believe the Nazis can invade France. 

Isabelle, her rebellious 18-year-old sister, who leaves Paris after the invasion, is the anti-hero. Both are heroes, and as sisters, both are shadows of each other.

Their conflict: during the World War II invasion of France, should they should cooperate with Nazis? Vianne instructs Isabelle to follow orders when the Germans arrive. Isabelle can’t.

The first German quartered in their home is nice and helpful, but he learns too much, so Vianne kills him. The German soldiers assume their commanding officer went AWOL, so a captain is quartered in Vianne’s home. He’s the opposite of the good German. They’ve traded a good villain for a genuinely evil villain.

One of the most chilling moments in the story is when Captain Beck pressures Vianne to provide a list: Write down the names of all the Jews she knows. Communists. Homosexuals. Freemasons. Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

It’s great conflict, because the heroine must do something that will be used for evil. But   Vianne has good reasons to provide that list: her husband, a French soldier, is a POW in a German prison. If she’s nice to the evil German captain staying in her home, she can send care packages to her husband. Plus, Vianne must feed her daughter, and the evil captain can provide food or money.

As a mother and an older sister, Vianne makes one terrible choice after another, while Isabelle makes opposite choices and wonders whether her sister is a traitor. More family conflict, and it’s all natural to the story. 

One characteristic of a living planet is a north pole and a south pole. The best stories also have polar opposites: heroes and villains. 

But here’s a clever trick: give the hero bad judgment, and the villain good judgment. George Lucas did that with all his Jedi heroes and Sith villains. In Star Wars I, the Palpatine and his minions, Darth Vader, Count Dukoo, Darth Maul, were smarter. Qui-Gon Jinn continually makes assumptions and errors that lead to his death. Obi-Wan insists on training of Anakin Skywalker, who is initially a good kid but eventually turns into Darth Vader and leads to the Jedi’s downfall. 

Step 5 in the hero’s journey is about the road of trials, so it’s an opportunity to use another clever trick: set up tests that the hero will fail. Keep Qui-Gon and Vianne in mind. Make your heroes fail at least three times before they succeed. Make failure part of their character arc. After all, it’s the character arc of any human.

Longing to be loved is another natural conflict. Both Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara yearned for acceptance, yet they found none. That’s what made Scarlett such an unlikeable character, and it led to her rejection of Rhett. He tried too hard to earn her love, while she kept pining for Ashley Wilkes. Rhett tolerated that for years, but eventually it stuck in his craw. But by then, Scarlett had changed her mind.

Rhett: I’m leaving you, my dear. All you need now is a divorce and your dreams of Ashley can come true.

Scarlett: Oh, no! No, you’re wrong, terribly wrong! I don’t want a divorce. Oh Rhett, but I knew tonight, I ran home to tell you, darling! I… I never really loved Ashley.

Rhett Butler: You certainly gave a good imitation of it, up till this morning.

Scarlett: Rhett! Rhett, where are you going?

Rhett Butler: I’m going back to Charleston, back where I belong.

Scarlett: No! I only know that I love you.

Rhett Butler: That’s your misfortune.

Scarlett: If you go, where shall I go, what shall I do?

Rhett Butler: Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

[Rhett walks into the fog]

WRITING EXERCISE 4

As you write, set thresholds and tests for the hero to fail. List five thresholds your hero must cross, or tests he or she will fail.

Published by garybob309yahoocom

Gary Robert Pinnell is a career journalist who retired in 2017. He has written a novel, To Daddy, Who I Never Loved, about 1967, when he ran away from Duncan, Oklahoma, hitchhiked to California, and lived in a communal restaurant in Palo Alto until he found his father. He is now working on The Women of Oklahoma!, a true story of the behind-the-stage women who helped make the history with the 1943 musical.

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