Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Villains are one of the great gifts of fiction; inarguably antagonistic forces against which we can nurture a private, justified animosity safe in the knowledge that thousands of other readers hate them exactly as much as we do:
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Yet nothing grabs a reader like a villain. Someone who, as the (very accurate) cliché goes, they can ‘love to hate’. A presence who can be intriguing and exciting while still being reviled.
So what’s the secret to writing this kind of villain? Well, actually, there are two of them.
Secret 1 – The Mirror
A good villain holds up a mirror to the hero, but they are not themselves the reflection. Invent your villain as a reflection of your hero and you end up with a clearly ‘created’ character, devoid of their own drives and traits. That way lies only a gibbering mad man. Fun, but not a character who will stay with a reader. Hero and villain should instead act as critiques of each other.
To do this successfully you need to know what your hero is about, the values and actions that define them, so that you can create a villain who at least suggests the validity of opposing actions or philosophies. A two dimensional villain simply believes in the opposite philosophy to the hero, freedom fighter vs. fascist dictator, but a great villain seems like they might have a point.
One of culture’s favorite villains, Darth Vader of the Star Wars novels and movies, is so relevant because his position is so seductive. He possesses enormous power, both literally and politically, and the hero can too if they’ll just agree to join him. It’s a plot point that’s been done before, but what makes it work so well is that the power, and therefore the offer, feels real, and so the villain’s offer is tempting.
The key to pulling off a mirroring villain is to understand that they can oppose the hero either in philosophy or practicality.
Philosophy and practicality
Heroes need to have a point of connection with their villains for the villains to really get under their skin. That’s why the best villains share either the practicality or the philosophy of the hero, while offering a critique of the facet they do not share.
For example in the hero/villain pairing of Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty, the two are divided on philosophy. Holmes is moral, repulsed by Moriarty’s willingness to use and sacrifice others for his own gain:
I could not rest, Watson, I could not sit quiet in my chair, if I thought that such a man as Professor Moriarty were walking the streets of London unchallenged.
– Arthur Conan Doyle, The Final Problem
However, practically the two characters are very similar. They are geniuses, exacting and brilliant in their fields, and Holmes openly admires his adversary:
…in calling Moriarty a criminal you are uttering libel in the eyes of the law — and there lie the glory and the wonder of it! The greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations — that’s the man! But so aloof is he from general suspicion, so immune from criticism, so admirable in his management and self-effacement, that for those very words that you have uttered he could hale you to a court and emerge with your year’s pension as a solatium for his wounded character.
Is he not the celebrated author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid, a book which ascends to such rarefied heights of pure mathematics that it is said that there was no man in the scientific press capable of criticizing it? Is this a man to traduce? Foul-mouthed doctor and slandered professor — such would be your respective roles! That’s genius, Watson. But if I am spared by lesser men, our day will surely come.
– Arthur Conan Doyle, The Valley of Fear
This is their point of connection, a key facet which allows a degree of understanding and even intimacy to enter their relationship. The shared practicality of the characters, the reality of who they are and how they act, makes their differing philosophies all the more pronounced. One could feasibly be the other, although both are complete characters, and so their animosity becomes a metaphorical, internal struggle.
This is how your heroes and villains can embody the good vs. evil (or altruism vs. selfishness) paradigm that will always fascinate readers. Holmes and Moriarty are strange, unique characters and yet the differences between them stem from a central philosophical dispute. Instead of being asked to choose one character over the other, often dangerous when bad guys have so much more freedom to be enjoyable, the reader is instead asked to come down on the side of a binary disagreement. Since the author has the power to make the side of their choice seem preferable, they can persuade the reader to take the hero’s side. The reader has had their own split from the villain, their own disagreement, and suddenly it’s personal.
This method will get the reader firmly involved in the conflict between hero and villain, but for a truly great villain we still need that presence that is intriguing but not inviting. Make your villain too interesting and their way of doing things might start to seem too palatable. For this we need the second secret of a great villain.
Secret 2 – The Justified Grotesque
One sure fire way to make a villain stick in the reader’s mind is to give them a unique aesthetic. This look should be consistent with the villain’s character, which means it will usually lean towards the unattractive. Vapid but attractive villains can happen, the debonair murderer is an accepted character type, but most often inner ugliness is best communicated by a grotesque appearance. This is an effective technique, but it does create potentially serious issues.
The problem of the villainous grotesque is identified brilliantly in Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream. The book is split into two parts. The first is a classic science fiction story, in which an Aryan, male hero combats a race of ugly, sub-human monstrosities on behalf of the ‘normal’ humans. The book takes a twist in its second half, which reveals the sci-fi story was written by an alternate reality’s Adolf Hitler. A fictional book reviewer goes on to examine how Hitler’s ideals are woven into the narrative, exposing the underlying menace of a ‘pretty is good, ugly is evil’ mentality.
Grotesque villains therefore run the risk of perpetuating a more unsettling philosophy in reality than they do in fiction. Despite this, a horrifying feature is often an incredibly effective way of cementing a villain in the reader’s mind.
One way to defuse the ‘ugly is evil’ problem is to create a justified grotesque. This is when the striking aspect of a villain’s aesthetic is caused by their problematic actions or philosophy; a typical example is the mad scientist, turned into a monstrosity by their own experimentation.
A good example of the justified grotesque is President Snow, from the popular Hunger Games trilogy. A fascist dictator, Snow is followed by the scent of blood and roses (the latter to cover the former.) It is later revealed that the smell of blood is on his breath and, in the final book of the trilogy, the reader learns why:
“And now, on to our good President Coriolanus Snow,” says Finnick. “Such a young man when he rose to power. Such a clever one to keep it. How, you must ask yourself, did he do it? One word. That’s all you really need to know. Poison.” Finnick goes back to Snow’s political ascension, which I know nothing of, and works his way up to the present, pointing out case after case of the mysterious deaths of Snow’s adversaries or, even worse, his allies who had the potential to become threats. People dropping dead at a feast or slowly, inexplicably declining into shadows over a period of months. Blamed on bad shellfish, elusive viruses, or an overlooked weakness in the aorta. Snow drinking from the poisoned cup himself to deflect suspicion. But antidotes don’t always work. They say that’s why he wears the rose that reeks of perfume. They say it’s to cover the scent of the blood from the mouth sores that will never heal.
– Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
Collins gives Snow a horrifying aesthetic, but ties it to his own evil. The character is viscerally repulsive, intriguing but not inviting, and yet the value judgement the reader is being asked to make is fixed firmly on his actions.
Conversely, in The Hunger Games movies the vapid, fashion-obsessed, notably effeminate upper class are portrayed as a form of unjustified grotesques (a problem which is not present in the books). Here it could be argued that fashion and even certain forms of sexuality are critiqued as the preserve of the shallow and decadent, showing that every type of notable aesthetic can have unsettling consequences if mishandled.
The ideal villain
The ideal villain is therefore striking in a way which highlights their difference from the protagonist, a difference which is itself bound up in their similarities. Villain critiques hero, hero critiques villain, and so the two represent the opposing sides of whatever subject is at the centre of the story’s plot.
In this way you don’t just have a compelling villain, but one who supports and increases the relevance of the hero and the novel’s overarching themes.
Of course, crafting a character whose philosophy and actions seem real and (from their point of view) justified takes a lot of work. One useful technique is to spend a bit of time building your villain’s backstory. Or for the more malicious, check out our article on when to kill off characters for that moment that cements the antagonist as a real threat.
Do you have any villains that break the mould, or one that you think outshines their respective hero? If so please get in touch in the comments.