Know Your Villain Like Yourself

(c) samlavi

The other day, I saw a post in a writer’s forum. The writer wanted to know what the allure of villains was. She said she didn’t particularly like any villains, let alone the one she herself was writing.

It gave me pause, because writing and reading villains is one of my favorite things to do. Although… I am a psychology nut, so perhaps my views should be taken with a giant heaping of salt. Still, I say villains help us see deep into the writer’s soul; far deeper than the heroes do. What does the author consider despicable? What does the author think the world will see as unforgivable? And also, why is the villain the way he or she is? In other words, what is the “excuse” the writer gives for the villain’s behavior?

Ask those questions as you read your next novel. I guarantee you’ll be seeing your author in a much more intimate light than before. And if you’re a writer, ask yourself those questions before you write your next novel. What is your villain’s motivation? Why is he a rapist/child killer/spoon thief? Diving deep makes for a fascinating study of the human psyche, and a much more three-dimensional book.

And just for fun, here are some of my favorite bad guys: Anthony Hopkins in the movie Hannibal (isn’t this one on everyone’s list?), the Commander in the book The Handmaid’s Tale (talk about a three-dimensional antagonist!), and Ashley in J.L. Bryan’s Jenny Pox series of books (pure evil in such a lovely form).

If you love villains as much as I do, who are some of your favorites? I’m always looking to add to my list!

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17 thoughts on “Know Your Villain Like Yourself

  1. Nadja Notariani

    You and I are quite a bit alike, Adriana. I’m a sociology nut; psychology comes in a close second, and I read about various personality types and such. I have read a few psychological workups on foreign leaders (of course long after they’ve been declassified and published! Lol). I read a study done on Hitler by the Americans, and another written on Ante Pavelic, also done by an American. I read a ‘summary’ on Yasser Arafat, and another about Ariel Sharon. ( Sharon is one interesting guy! Wow! Did you know that he once had Arafat in his gun sights when he was a young man?? Can you imagine how that affected their meeting years later?? Gah!). Perhaps most intriguing was the Soviet study done on our own president, Ronald Reagan. (Reagan is my favorite past president I’ve read about. The Soviets wrote a great deal about this man, claiming, “He is a man who sees word and deed as one. He cannot be bought.”) You see, I want to know what makes people tick.
    I’ve been a people watcher from the time I was a child, and my mother used to always say, “you could spot a zit on a tick’s a**.” I took it as a compliment. It exasperated my mother, who was trying to tell me not to be nosey. Alas…I cannot help myself. Human behavior fascinates…especially in my villains!

    1. Ooh, sociology is my other love! Those case studies sound fascinating. I’ve been meaning to read one on Hitler for ages. I’ve read bits and parts of them over the years, of course, but never one from start to finish. *Makes note to self*

      1. Nadja Notariani

        The Mind Of Adolf Hitler: The Secret Wartime Report, Walter Langer
        That’s the one I read. My sister had found it on a forgotten shelf in her local library and after reading sent me to get it straight away. My library had it also.

  2. Love this post! I’ve been trying to study what makes a good villain. Why are they so hard to write? Or are they? I think sometimes I just don’t pay as much attention to my villains and their backstories as I do my main characters, which gives me less meat when it comes to fleshing them out. One of my favorite villains is Jack Randall from the Outlander series. He was so awful, yet in the end very human. I always pictured the actor who plays Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies playing him if they ever made Outlander into a film. Very, very cold.

    1. I haven’t read the Outlander series! I’ll have to go look it up. I think it’s pretty normal to pay attention to main characters more, since we’re so vested in what happens to them. Your antagonists are so well done, though, in The Scourge!

  3. livrancourt

    I’ve been struggling with the villain of my current WIP, in part because I’m not sure who it is. One character is more-or-less the face of the bad guy, but I’m pretty sure he’s a puppet for someone further up the chain. Hmm. Got another 50k words or so to figure this one out. Good points in your post, Adriana. Thanks!

    1. I love the idea of a “face bad guy” and a real bad guy, Liv. That’s going to introduce some real depth to your story, especially if it takes your readers a while to figure that out!

  4. I love good villains. I love writing interesting bad guys. Lately my antagonist has been men who are so convinced their way is the right way. Their philosophy makes it easier for me to understand them and write about them. My problem has never been the bad guy in my novels. It’s my protagonists. They’re all similar in one way, they’re struggling at the beginning of the story. The challenge is to write their opening with enough interest that the reader is willing to know more about them before they realize how heroic s/he really is. I’m reading Donald Maass workbook, The Fire in Fiction, and I can’t recommend it enough, just for this subject alone. Great minds think alike.

    Great post, Adriana.

  5. I love writing the bad guys too. Since I write epic fantasy, the antagonist is almost always on a quest for power.
    I always think of Megamind when I think of lovable villians. Of course, he became the hero.

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