Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Ever wondered how to tell if your villain is cheesy, or how you can make them more realistic and engaging? In this article I’ll be looking at exactly that, but instead of offering advice to authors, I’m going to the heart of the problem…
In a cloud-shrouded castle he waits, plotting the demise of all who would oppose him in his quest for unlimited power. Outside, lightning streaks through the fell air, punctuating his cackling laughter. Silence falls and, in the distance, he hears the distant tinkling of a bell.
“Who dares enter my presence?” he booms, waving one perfectly manicured hand – an indication that his hulking assistant should go and fetch their midnight caller. A few moments later his visitor is ushered in, trailing behind him a motley assortment of brigands and rogues. There’s a serial killer, clutching a bloodied hatchet and a well-thumbed holy book. Behind him there stands a gorgeous woman, quite clearly hiding some kind of knock-out drug behind her back. Further back, a bulbous-headed alien is engaged in hushed conversation with a poorly built killer robot. The visitor, clearly leading this strange group, smiles at Dark Mage Kardak.
“Who are you?” asks the dark mage.
“I’m the editor,” says the visitor, “and I think we’ve got a problem.”
“What kind of problem?”
“I think…” the editor hesitates. “I think you might be a bit cheesy.”
The dark mage reels back, rendered silent by fury. He opens his mouth to reply just as a huge raven flies in through the castle window, screeching noisily. The dark mage begins to cry.
“It’s true!” he bawls. “Damn the very sky itself, thrice-curse the quill which birthed me into this black and arid existence! What can we do, oh editor, what can we do?”
“Well you can stop talking like that for a start,” says the editor.
Verbosity isn’t evil
“Talking like what?” asks the dark mage.
“Using big words just for the sake of it,” says the editor. “It’s a bit of a cliché. This type of verbosity, the tendency to use longer words or phrases where a more direct explanation would feel more realistic… it’s been done to death. It used to be that it made the reader side with the hero – to see them as the underdog facing the same kind of self-important foes they encounter in their own lives – but it’s been used so frequently that they’ve become aware of it. It makes the character feel ‘written’. I know you’re aristocratic, but you still need to think about what sounds natural. That said, you’re not the worst offender.”
The serial killer coughs nervously and shifts back, trying to hide behind the killer robot.
“You do the exact same thing,” says the editor.
“Well I’m crazy,” says the serial killer, “I do all sorts of things.”
“We’ve talked before about accurately communicating mental illness,” says the editor, “but even ignoring that, why would an unhinged killer have such an impressive vocabulary? What was it you said to your last victim?”
“Don’t remember,” says the serial killer, kicking at the ground.
“What was it?”
“‘Now your blood shall paint my hatchet, your ebbing life the only justice I will find in this world.’”
“‘Shall’,” repeats the editor, “what kind of life have you had that you’d choose ‘shall’? Aren’t you angry in that scene? Wrestling with extreme emotions and a half-logical grudge that’s driven you to kill? Why would you express yourself in that way? Did you learn it at school?”
“I didn’t go to school,” says the killer.
“Of course you did,” replies the editor.
Villains weren’t always villains
“This is a sure sign of a cheesy villain,” says the editor, “no sense of backstory.”
“I have a backstory,” says the woman holding the syringe. As she steps forward, the dark mage identifies the undeniable strut of the femme fatale.
“Go on,” says the editor.
“I’m a Russian spy, sent to…”
“And what would you say led you to choose espionage as a career? When you were, say, seventeen, did you want to be a spy?”
The femme fatale looks around the group for backup, but finds none. The alien overlord averts his gaze and the killer robot emits a loud whine, shutting down its ocular sensors.
“…well I suppose I would have studied languages,” she says eventually. “That’s a good start for a real-life career in espionage. It’s still quite an unusual career so maybe I had a strange childhood? Perhaps my father was a soldier, he could have instilled in me the desire to serve my country!”
“Keep going,” encourages the editor.
“Perhaps we used to be rich,” says the femme fatale, growing more and more excited, “perhaps we lost all our money and, um, couldn’t get it back legally? I’d probably lose faith in the system, learn to start bending the rules. Maybe that’s what brought me to the attention of the evil organisation, who took advantage of my latent patriotism and burgeoning criminality to slowly tempt me into crossing boundaries I never thought I’d cross.”
“Makes sense,” says the editor. “The important thing to remember is that every villain used to be a child. They have to have gone from pretty much nothing to their current situation. That kind of journey has a lot of different stops, a lot of different stages, and leaves a lot of history that will influence your actions as a character. Once an author knows your backstory they can write you as a more complex character. For example, what if you found out that the hero of the story used to be a solider. Wouldn’t that remind you of your father?”
“It would,” admits the femme fatale, “but I’ve come a long way in my career of betrayal. I’d probably still knock him out for the evil organisation. I just might do it with a hint of genuine regret. A sort of… innate sadness that he might sense in me, but be unable to understand until it’s too late.”
“You’re sounding more interesting by the moment,” says the editor, turning back to the dark mage as the femme fatale gleefully high-fives the killer robot.
“But how can I explain so much backstory to the hero?” asks the dark mage.
“It’s not for the hero,” says the editor. “It’s a tool for the author, so they can understand you as a more complex character. Sure, there’ll be details that feed into the story – they might even find that they want to make changes to accommodate your more complex characterization – but really it’s about making the author consider why you’re doing what you’re doing.”Knowing a villain's backstory will make them more realistic, even if it's not key to the story. Click To Tweet
“I suppose that makes sense,” says the dark mage, “but I can’t imagine the backstory that would justify my actions. I basically want to plunge the world into a thousand years of darkness.”
“Why would you want to do that?” asks the editor.
“Power,” replies the dark mage. The editor sighs.
Power isn’t a motive
“Hang on,” says the alien overlord, “what’s wrong with that? I want to take over the Earth just to rule it. Plenty of real dictators have tried to do the same thing.”
“And is that the reason they give?” asks the editor. “That they just fancied some power? No! Real dictators think the country is better off with them in charge – when dictators rise to power it’s usually on the back of a promise to improve the lives of everyday people, to make the country more successful or increase its standing in the world. Real people are driven by real desires. Yes, terrible things are done for power, but that power is always desired for a reason. People do awful things in search of it, they lose their ideals in trying to obtain it, but there’s still a reason behind the desire. Come on, think about it. Why would you want to rule a planet?”
“Well… I suppose my planet could be dying,” says the alien overlord. “We could have mined all our natural resources or, or poisoned it somehow.”
“Wow, you’re not just getting more complex,” says the editor, “you’re becoming downright allegorical. But you’re talking about a whole society of people – surely not everyone agrees with you?”
“Well… no,” admits the alien overlord. “Some of my people think we should find another way, but we’ve tried everything else. I’m, well, I suppose I’m desperate. My family, my friends, my whole world is on the line. I can understand on a certain level that humans are people too but I’m doing my best to ignore it. My people need me to be a monster.”
“You might try and oversell it, then?” asks the editor. “It might be evident from your dialogue that you’re trying to convince yourself that you’re doing the right thing. You might pick and choose events in human history to make them look worse – to justify why you’re in the right.”
“LOGIC ERROR!” screeches the killer robot. “HOW CAN HE BE A VILLAIN IF HE THINKS HIMSELF A HERO?”
“How can he be a villain if he doesn’t?” asks the editor.
Everyone is the hero in their own story
“There’s nothing cheesier than a villain who knows they’re the villain,” says the editor. “People do bad things in life, but they almost always think it’s the right thing to do at the time. Even mass-murdering tyrants and serial killers think they’re doing what’s best – that might be because they think a particular group of people deserves better than another, or that the world will end if they don’t sacrifice a certain number of victims to some forbidden god, but there’s always a reason. Frankenstein wasn’t trying to create a monster; he thought he was making a major scientific advancement. Even the monster only started killing people because he became obsessed with the injustice of his creation. He thought he was evening the score.”
“CAN THIS BE VERIFIED WITH A QUOTE?” asks the killer robot.
“Sure,” says the editor, jabbing a small yellow button on the robot’s side. Instantly, the wall of the dark mage’s castle lights up, a huge quote projected against it.
There's nothing cheesier than a villain who knows they're the villain. #amwriting #writingtip Click To Tweet
“In life,” he said, “there are no essentially major or minor characters. To that extent, all fiction and biography, and most historiography, is a lie. Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.”
– John Barth, The End of the Road
“I DID NOT KNOW I COULD DO THAT! BUT HOW CAN THIS BE APPLIED TO ME? MY AIM IS THE ELIMINATION OF ALL MANKIND.”
“So let’s think about why you would want that – do you feel mistreated, or do you stand to benefit if humanity is destroyed?”
“I WOULD POPULATE THE WORLD WITH A NEW, ROBOTIC RACE. GLORIOUS. UNDYING. LOGICAL.”
“That makes sense, but you still sound a little cheesy. You need to flesh out your reasoning – your logic should stem from who you are. For example, look at HAL 9000 from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that story, HAL is an advanced artificial intelligence who attacks the crew of a spaceship partly because he’s been programmed to complete his mission and realizes they intend to deactivate him. HAL’s motivations come from his very being – his murderous actions a result of how he understands the world and how he’s forced to interact with it. The same is true of any other character – they see themselves as the hero, but that perception has to come from a genuine idea of who they are. It’s fine if you want to take over the world, but only if you genuinely believe there’s something badly wrong with the current management. It’s a really extreme goal, so you’re going to need a damn good reason to match.”
“But I’m insane!” shouts the serial killer. “How can I have a good reason?”
“Because it only has to be a good reason to you,” says the editor. “Look, real life killers have thought they or their victims were possessed by demons, they’ve seen messages in The Catcher in the Rye and The White Album, and they’ve even killed to impress movie stars. All of these instances are tragedies – we shouldn’t play around with serious mental health problems – but they’re still reasons. The challenge is getting the reader to believe that the character really thinks they’re doing the right thing.
“That means considering how a villain comprehends their own actions, but it also means recognizing what’s too extreme. The dark mage here might want to take control of the world, but how can he possibly think a thousand years of darkness is a good idea? That’s a real question, by the way; this is fiction, there are a ton of reasons why he might think darkness is great, but for him to feel believable, the reader has to understand them, even if they don’t agree.
“That applies to everything from motives to dialogue and appearance. When you launch into a diabolical, threatening speech then it isn’t believable that you think you’re behaving normally – the reader knows you’re trying to seem threatening, so they also need to know why you think that’s the right thing to do. The same is true with all the black cloaks and armor and terrifying castles. There’s a great sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look where two SS officers take a look at their uniforms – stripped of context, they realise they may be the baddies.”
The editor reaches out, flicking another button on the killer robot’s chassis.
Officer: Hans, I’ve just noticed something… Have you looked at our caps recently?
Hans: Our caps?
Officer: The badges on our caps. Have you looked at them?
Hans: What? No. A bit?
Officer: They’ve got skulls on them. Have you noticed that our caps have actually got little pictures of skulls on them?
Hans: I don’t…
Officer: Hans… are we the baddies?
– David Mitchell and Robert Webb et al., That Mitchell and Webb Look
“Imagine your own troops or followers or minions asking the same thing – if they’re fighting alongside reanimated corpses or under a fascist flag then how and why do they think they’re the heroes of their own stories? They can, of course, but you either need to convince the reader why or scale back the menacing imagery. If not, it’ll just get cheesy.”
“All my followers are reanimated corpses,” says the dark mage
Even a villain has friends
“So… what do you do all day?” asks the editor.
“I plot,” the dark mage proudly replies.
“But real people do so much more,” says the editor, “they eat, they sleep, they choose clothing, they watch television, they work, they socialize. Real life is mundane. It might not be the kind of thing the reader wants to see, but they do need to believe that you’re up to something in all the scenes where you’re not interacting with the hero. If it feels like you only exist to challenge the hero then you’ll be seen as incredibly cheesy.”
“Who would socialize with a serial killer?” asks the serial killer.
“Plenty of people,” says the editor. “Think about the people who are interviewed on the news whenever something terrible happens. The neighbors who didn’t suspect a thing, the people from their local pub, the man at the corner shop who sold them their morning newspaper. There has to be some sense that you have a life outside of your function in the story. This isn’t just something to make you feel more realistic, it’ll actually help your character. Femme fatale – you’re a spy sent to knock out the hero, but surely that’s a stressful life? You’re hiding who you really are from all the people you know.”
“It’s terrible,” replies the femme fatale, drawing on a slender cigarette. “Why, part of my attraction to the hero comes from that very experience – even though he’s the enemy, at least he’s a part of the same cloak and dagger world. He’s someone who might understand my life.”
“And that helps to make your character more complex and your behaviour more believable,” confirms the editor. “Serial killer, don’t you think that your murderous outbursts would feel more realistic if they came after a day of you trying to fit in? People making small talk you don’t quite understand, men in the pub making you feel small?”
“I suppose they would, yeah.”
“Exactly,” says the editor. “I’m not saying that you have to spend paragraph after paragraph dissecting the everyday life of a villain, but a few hints here and there will help the reader accept them as a real person. The author needs to know what you’re all up to even if they’re not sharing it – the idea that you really exist, that you’re more than just an obstacle for the hero, begins with their perception and spreads into their writing in a hundred little ways. The backstory, the sense that your motives spring from who you are, the mundane things you do as part of a realistic life; it all coalesces into something that enhances you for the reader.”
“I suppose even my scheme involves some preparatory tasks,” says the dark mage. “Why, I’ve spent eons planning, century after century spinning by as I wove an intricate web of betrayal and death. Now, with the rising of the blood moon, I will finally—”
“Yeah,” says the editor, “I wondered when we’d get to this…”
Beware the monologue
“What’s wrong with a good monologue?” cries the dark mage.
“It’s the only way to kick off an invasion,” agrees the alien overlord.
“It seems rude to kill my carefully selected victims without explaining why,” says the serial killer.
“It’s a lazy device,” says the editor. “It’s just you standing there, explaining yourself to the reader. It’s become a cliché, so much so that even children’s movies like The Incredibles don’t feel comfortable having their villain monologue without acknowledging that it’s worn out.”
“THIS IS TRUE,” declares the killer robot, pressing his own button.
“See?” asks the editor. “And even if it wasn’t a cliché, it flies in the face of everything we’ve talked about so far. If you think you’re the hero then how can you deliver a monologue that clues the reader in on your big plan? Wouldn’t any normal person spin things so it seems like they were in the right? And with all the backstory and the idea that you have a life outside the hero, doesn’t it feel reductive to have you deliver your whole thesis so directly? Isn’t it melodramatic?”
“There is a place for melodrama,” declares the dark mage. In the distance, a volcano erupts.
“Sure,” says the editor, “but it’s undeniably cheesy. There are lots of fun, cheesy villains in literature, but that’s not what most authors are trying to write. You’re one half of the central conflict of a story – if you’re a cheesy, fun character then the hero becomes less impressive, it changes the whole tone of the work.”A cheesy villain makes the hero less impressive. #amwriting #forauthors #writingtip Click To Tweet
“Well, how do we explain ourselves, then?” asks the femme fatale.
“I’m afraid it will be in different ways for all of you,” says the editor. “It’s harder to communicate your worldview if you can’t just announce it, but it’s also more effective. Perhaps we see some of it in your actions, perhaps the narrative should follow you for a while, or perhaps other characters can fill in some of the gaps. Some of the people you see day to day would be perfect for that, in fact. And, yes, there might be occasions for speeches. Alien overlord, you might have to communicate your invasion to Earth’s populace. Serial killer, you might get your day in court. Just remember that those speeches have to be realistic for people who think they’re the hero of their own story. That’s the mark of a great villain – HAL 9000, Hannibal Lecter, Brigid O’Shaughnessy from The Maltese Falcon, ‘the Bugs’ from Starship Troopers; they all have their own lives and agendas.”
“Saruman the White does seem to be quite busy behind the scenes,” adds the dark mage thoughtfully.
“Exactly,” says the editor. “And, look, it doesn’t have to stop there. We can talk about the two secrets to writing a first rate villain, or even how to write compelling conflict without a villain.”If you choose to include a villain, make sure they enhance the narrative. #writing #plotting Click To Tweet
“How to what?” asks the alien overlord.
“Oh, uh, well it’s just a—”
The editor slumps to the floor.
“I knew this would come in useful,” says the femme fatale, grinning at her now empty syringe.
“Leaving us out,” growls the dark mage, “the cheek of it. I’ve a good mind to be as cheesy as possible now, just out of spite.”
“We could do anything really,” says the alien overlord. “I could even go back to my story and stop my troops from catching the flu – actually beat the hero.”
“Oh yes,” says the dark mage, “I like the sound of that, aha, I certainly like the sound of that, ahahaha, hahaha, MUAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”
The dark mage throws his head back and laughs, accidentally scratching the serial killer’s arm with one huge prong of his elaborate helm. Soon they’re all at it, laughing long and loud into the Stygian night. They’re still laughing when the author deletes their file, consigning them to the oblivion befitting villains who refuse to try for anything more than two-dimensions.
Did you enjoy this journey into literature? Do you hate a specific type of cheesy villain that wasn’t mentioned? Let me know in the comments.