Saturday, May 06, 2006


Let's talk about bad guys.

Some of my favorite books have villains that are just as memorable as the hero.

But what makes a good antagonist? Other than being in competition/conflict/opposition to the hero, what are the traits an adversary needs to have?

Here are a few things your villain should be:
  • Charismatic. The reader should be attracted to the villain in some way, even if it is a car-wreck type of attraction.
  • Powerful. The villain should be more powerful than the protagonist. Underdog stories are as old as the bible, and show no signs of losing public favor.
  • Motivated. A villain should have goals, dreams, desires, and reasons for doing what they do.
  • Cruel. Bad guys do bad things. That's what makes them bad.
  • Active. Like heroes, villains shouldn't be passive. The need to be doing things, moving the plot along, rather than simply reacting to things.
  • Realistic. If the reader doesn't believe the villain, the tension is gone.

Many crime novels don't have strong villains. Either the bad guy isn't revealed until the end, or the story dwells more on the protagonist's journey.

This is a missed opportunity to engage and excite the reader. Good vs. Evil is conflict in its purest form, and any sports fan can tell you that competition is a lot of fun.

Take a look at your WIP. Does it have a villain? Does the villain embody the traits listed above? How can your villain be improved?

Who are your favorite villains, and why?


Erica Orloff said...

My latest wip has a villain who embodies the traits you list. He's a charismatic cardinal in the Church, he believes a very specific splinter version of his faith and is very motivated to achieve his goals. But like all good villains, he has rationalized his motivations to such a degree that killing innocents to achieve his goals is simply ends justifying the means and a higher calling. Zealots frighten me more than boogeymen . . . so I like that kind of villain.

s.w. vaughn said...

Woo hoo! I love villains. I have one character who is not a villain. All the rest are bastards... but they're loveable bastards. :-)

Can't think of any book examples at the moment, but Zhekel Khan (from The Road to El Dorado) was one awesome villain. Why? Because he was an evil, vicious, bloodthirsty person--but he knew he was right. And he couldn't understand what was wrong with all these people who didn't think human sacrifice and cruelty was the way to go.

And oh -- of course -- Hannibal Lector. Everybody loves Hannibal the Cannibal. The book version as well as Anthony Hopkin's portrayal.

Adam Hurtubise said...

Great post, Joe.

I seem to remember a similar entry on your website.

In that vein, go check out James L. Swanson's book, "Manhunt: The 12-day Hunt for Lincoln's Killer."

It's non-fiction, but Swanson portrays John Wilkes Booth exactly the way you just described in your post.

I blogged about Manhunt it a couple of months ago and referred to your thoughts on great villains at the time.


Allison Brennan said...

Villains. My favorite subject. :)

I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said. As Vogler said, "The villain is the hero of his own journey." I've tried to keep that in mind as I develop my villains.

Thomas Harris has developed the scariest and most compelling villains because they're smart and they completely justify their actions. Dr. Keith Ablow also writes credible villains.

I learn alot about villains by reading true crime, both newspaper articles, books and talking to cops. I had a criticism about one of my books on a specific element of the villain that was "over-the-top" but ironically, I'd taken that element/trait from real serial killers (it's apparently a very common theme with them) . . . sometimes people don't want to see the truth about the bad guys.

Villains must be worthy for the hero . . . if the reader doesn't believe that the villain can/will get away with his crime, then there is no suspense.

Naomi said...

I'm a fan of anti-heroes myself. Those characters who occupy the dark, psychological recess between good and evil. I like the suspense of thinking I know their motivations, only to discover I was wrong - or better yet, dead right. I like being unsure whether to trust a character or not. I like the hazy boundary between right and wrong, and the character's ambivalence towards it.

The best example I can think of is Katherine Shea, from Sabina Murray's "A Carnivore's Inquiry."

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere that it's important to love your villains.

Martel said...

Two of my favorite villians are Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. If they were off the page for more than a chapter or two, I found myself wanting them back. It was strange. Once I noticed that I was wondering about where they were, it seemed I'd turn the page and they'd be back again.

I love Gaiman's description of the pair when they first come into to the story as well. I wanted to know more about them from the get go.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Lecter - THE most compelling villain of the late twentieth century (how time flies, right? The nineties are ancient history!)

How many hundreds - thousands? - of serial killer novels and movies have there been since that TIME magazine article that outlined Ressler's and Douglas's work in the then-Behavioral Sciences Unit at Quantico and defined serial killing as a new genre of crime (actually I might be making that up but having researched this subject far more that is normal or sane, that article seems to have been the watershed popular definition of serial killing...)

But quick - name one of those novels or one of the serial killers they portray - besides Lecter. I can't. Thomas Harris brilliantly depicted a serial killer as the modern monster - not a mere criminal, but an archetype. And Lecter took his rightful place beside the truly great supernatural monsters - Dracula, Frankenstein, the Werewolf, the Mummy...

I argue all the time with film execs that SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is not a thriller, but a horror novel/movie, and that Lecter is actually supernatural (what I really mean is mythic, but swear I've gotten a lot of jobs that way!)

Nobody else has done it like Harris - not even close. (But I guess, being writers, we can dream!)


Jason Pinter said...

Favorite villains: Randall Flagg, from Stephen King's THE STAND. Jimmy Marcus from MYSTIC RIVER. Not the prototypical villain, but one of the most memorable and realistic "bad guys" I've ever read.

And a great word of advice when creating memorable villains: for villains to be realistic and captivating, they need to believe 100%, for whatever reason, that what they're doing is completely justified.

Beth Ciotta said...

I have to agree about Hannibal Lector. *shudder* Not nearly as evil, but still disturbing to me was the villain in the 2003 movie 'The Cooler'. Alec Baldwin plays Shelly Kaplow, a mob-connected casino president. Disturbing because he wasn't black and white. Disturbing because he was capable of terrible violence, yet there were times that I actually liked him. That character stayed with me as much as the hero of the piece.

JA Konrath said...

Short stories are a different animal than novels. Usually one POV, and villains don't carry the same weight as they do in longer narratives.

In EPITAPH, there are two main antagonist forces: Man vs. Himself (Phin fighting his own death) and Man vs. Man (Phin fighting the gangbangers.)

Having the gang beat the shit out of Phin in the first paragraph, and the second-hand description of what they did to the girl, were the devices I used to make the reader fear them.

For the purpose of this story, however, I didn't want the gang to have motivation, charisma, or to be active. In fact, I wanted them to be faceless and reactive.

There was a thematic reason for this: The gang represents Phin's continuing loss of humanity, and ultimately his loss of Self.

In the current issue of Ellery Queen, Phin deals with similar issues, but his Man vs. Self conflict is anthropomorphized.

And you guys thought I just wrote mindless fluff. :)

Re: Kowalski. He was a character from Ice Hunt, and I regulalry badgered Jim about him, demanding he bring him back. He'll be part of Signma int he next novel (After BLACK ORDER.)

Jude Hardin said...

Never again will I accuse you of writing mindless fluff, Joe (oops. Sounds too much like a confession). :)

Hannibal Lecter is my favorite bad guy, although I thought he was a little flat in SOTL. Buffalo Bill was much more engaging in that book.

But in Tom's next book, HANNIBAL, we really get to see deep into Lecter's soul, find out what makes him tick. I think HANNIBAL is one of the best horror novels ever written, second only to Steve's THE TOMMYKNOCKERS. :)

Allison Brennan said...

Frances Dollarhyde was the villain in RED DRAGON which was an absolutely incredible book (neither movie did it justice) because the hero was so multi-dimensional and struggling. Not an anti-hero, but someone who had serious problems.

I can't remember the villains name in SOTL though I read it ages ago, though I know he skinned his victims and wore their skins.

I agree Jason . . . Randall Flagg was an incredible villain. I particularly liked King's Leland Gaunt from NEEDFUL THINGS, and that's a close second to my fave King books. The villain from Koontz's VELOCITY was fantastic and incredibly well-portrayed even though we never got into his head. If I went through my bookshelves and flipped through my books, I think I could probably remember even more great portrayals of villains, but I agree that Thomas's Lechter was definitely a trendsetter.

The report from Quantico was interesting, though it wasn't the first time law enforcement identified patterns to serial killers. I can't remember the first report, though Douglas's was the first comprehensive one. I don't necessarily agree with every point of the report, but I'm no expert.

JA Konrath said...

I think a lot of authors, and critics, tend to confuse 'what' is written with 'how' it is written.

I write in a clearly defined genre. My stories are fast-paced, the prose is lean, and I don't reinvent the wheel each time I put pen to paper. I'm making regular, normal wheels, and I'm happy with that.

But I like to think that the wheels I make are functional, a good value, dependable, asthetically pleasing, and perhaps a bit more complicated than they appear at first glance.

Some people look at all the work I put into marketing and feel compelled to criticize my prose, positing that 'better' written books would find their audience without the need to self-promote.

That's wrong on two levels. First, because all books need promotion to succeed. Second, because I don't consider my work lacking in any glaring aspect.

While I don't feel I'm creating staggering works of genius, I'm also not sneezing into a napkin and calling it Art.

The goal is to entertain, and to reach the widest possible audience. But I treat that audience with respect, not disdain.

Jeri said...

I like a villain who's sympathetic or at least understandable enough that they can be "downgraded" to antagonist. A POV character might despise them, but the reader can understand the villain well enough that part of them is genuinely sorry to read about their downfall.

An example might be Trashcan Man from The Stand.

I also like when someone is set up to be a villain, and then they get knocked off by an even bigger villain.

Anonymous said...

Our number one villain?

That's easy: J.A. Konrath!

Jude Hardin said...

I think your prose is fine, Joe. And, your villains are creepy as hell, your heroes credible and likeable, your research sound. Hope you know I was just teasing in my previous post.

Allison: Jame Gumb was the villain in SOTL.

I think Lecter is largely misunderstood. He "only ate the rude," you know. In Starling, he found the humanity he searched for in art, the humanity that had eluded him since he was a child.

Mark Pettus said...

I like villains who aren't villains - bad guys who are really just good guys on the wrong side of a very grey line.

I love to make you fall in love with the antagonist, or at least feel a little ambivalent about defeating him. What if he's right? What if HE's the good guy?

History is written by the victors, isn't it?

Allison Brennan said...

Thanks Jeri! Now that you say his name, I totally remember him. I read the book ages ago, and then of course saw the movie. RED DRAGON I read more recently.