Underutilization of Villains

I am fascinated with villains. It fits in neatly with my love of psychological profiling. Villains are far more interesting on that front. I won’t say that I love them more than good heroes like my friend Katie, but I delight in a story that has a good, meaty villain. Iago. Hannibal Lecter. Darth Vader. Gollum. Lord Voldemort. Professor Moriarty. Lex Luther. These are all villains we know and recognize. We remember them. Why? Because they’re interesting. They’re complex. And with the exception of Iago, none of them started out evil (we just don’t know that much history about Iago–Master Shakespeare didn’t go into detail). We are die hard Smallville fans in our house–and I confess that apart from gratuitous scenes of shirtless Clark (hey who am I to complain), the reason I keep watching (or did prior to this season) was for Lex. I found it positively fascinating to see him evolve from Clark’s best friend to the tough, remorseless, power hungry villain popularized by comics, movies, and television. And because the writers did it well, we saw how Clark’s secretiveness pushed Lex’s existing proclivities toward distrust and suspicion–firmly helped along by Lionel, of course. It makes his transition understandable and believable and is a great example of nurture mixing with nature.

I feel like far too many authors out there take the cop out, writing about, as someone put it on a blog I read earlier today “psychopathic serial killers”. Apart from the fact that many authors spend almost no time really developing such villains, I have a number of problems with this, starting with the fact that these authors have absolutely no understanding of the proper meaning of the term psychopath and the psychology behind it. They assume that because their behavior is not “normal” that it is not rational and it is therefore “insane”. Insanity is a legal term and has absolutely no place in the realm of real psychology. Insanity implies that either a) the person is incapable of understanding the legal procedure of a trial (which is actually competency to stand trial rather than insanity), b) the person could not differentiate right from wrong at the time they committed the crime either due to some form of psychosis, such as schizophrenia (I hear voices, etc.) or because the person is of low mental capacity such as with various forms of developmental disorders. Serial killers are not normal, by any stretch of imagination. But they aren’t generally insane by the legal definition. Antisocial, immoral, and probably wired differently, but not insane.

And that makes them interesting. So many romantic suspense novels, mysteries, and thrillers could be much improved by better developed villains. I’m not saying we have to have a full series of scenes in the villain’s head so that we know exactly what he thinks and how (though if well employed, that’s great), but authors need to fully understand the evolution of their villain. They didn’t come out of the womb wielding a knife or gun or other weapon. Whether they had a proclivity toward violence (the so-called triad of behaviors that together often mean antisocial personality disorder and future killers–enuresis (bed-wetting), fire starting, and cruelty to animals) in the first place or not, something pushed them over the edge. You need to know what that is. You need to know how your killer developed. What pushed him (or her) to kill?

My villain in Ashes & Wine starts out as just a normal guy. He’s got some jealous tendencies and some insecurities. And he decides to do something to get our heroine’s attention. For a variety of reasons it sort of escalates from there–and I’m deliberately being vague because I don’t want to give it away! But the principle holds. I know how he got from being a regular guy to killing five people. I know what pushed him, how and why he escalated, why he does what he does and what it means. And whether I choose to reveal that through his actions, phone calls to the heroine (that’s a definite), or some scenes actually in his head, my book will be the richer for that knowledge.

So I’m making a charge to writers out there. If you have a villain in your book, learn him (or her)! Know him and his motivation. And use it! Use what you know about your villain, use his actions to drive the rest of your plot. If you’re writing romantic suspense, make the suspense influence and amp up the relationship. Your story will be more interesting for it.

2 thoughts on “Underutilization of Villains

  1. The principle I ran into, once upon a time, in a book on writing fiction, was this: The villain is, in his own head, the HERO of his life story. The villain does things that seem necessary and appropriate to him (however twisted his judgment may look from the outside) in pursuing his own agenda.

    In order to write a convincing villain, then, you need to be able to walk a mile in his shoes. You need to be able to identify, in some way, with his passions. If you can’t do that, your villain will be made of cardboard.

    –Jim Aikin (midiguru.wordpress.com)

  2. Midi I totally agree. Villains most often do not see themselves as villains unless they are Shakespeare characters (Much Ado about Nothing 🙂 ) but most of the time they feel that what they do is right or neccesary. They may feel empowered or entitled, or they may be a victim themselves in their own minds.

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