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Create Villains People Love to Hate

creating villainsHave you ever read a story where you were more intrigued by the villain than the main character? Villains aren’t just a role in your story or a vehicle for creating conflict; they are an essential element of fiction you must never neglect.

I often judge a novel’s merits based solely on the villain. If he, she or it doesn’t truly repulse me, I’m tempted to put the book on the shelf and reach for something else.

Types of Literary Villains

Believe it or not, literary villains are much different from movie villains. On film, the make-up artist and costume designer can use every tool in their arsenals to create ugly, grotesque, slimy, squishy, insectile, anatomically-frightening villains who scare the audience simply by virtue of their looks. In a book, however, the reader doesn’t have the luxury of visual cues.

This doesn’t mean that a literary villain can’t have terrifying features; it simply means that an author must look deeper for an extended source of fear.

Human Villains. The first, and perhaps most common, type of villain in modern fiction is Homo sapien himself. As Jack Torrance taught us in THE SHINING, men and women are often far scarier than the Boogeyman, and this type of villain allows the author to explore the darker side of the human psyche.

Supernatural Villains. Ghosts, goblins, monsters under the bed—supernatural villains are those that exist only in our imaginations. This type of villain is sometimes easier to create because the author isn’t limited by reality; however, the tendency is to go for cheap thrills rather than genuine terror, which doesn’t work on the page as well as it does on screen.

Microscopic Villains. Diseases and parasites can wreak more destruction than Godzilla on occasion, and who doesn’t like a good-old-fashioned epidemic? Commonly used in medical thrillers and science-fiction horror, microscopic villains are invisible to the naked eye and therefore more elusive than other antagonists.

Emotional Villains. We see these most often in romance and dramatic literary fiction. Jealousy, rage, contempt, self-loathing—these villains are tucked away inside the minds of your characters, and it is up to you to bring them to your readers’ attention.

Natural Villains. Often paired with human villains in modern fiction, natural villains include any destructive force brought on by nature Herself. Tornados, hurricanes, floods, volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes—the list is endless. And as your characters fight for survival, they might just learn something new about themselves.

These are the villains of fiction, and although there are variations, your villain most likely fits into one of the above categories. The problem? Someone else has used your villain before, so his existence is insufficient to create a good story.

Your Villain’s Motivation

There are two types of motivation in a good story: the villain’s and the hero’s. These two characters must cross paths at some point during your story (preferably near the beginning), and their motivations must bring them to a cross-purposes.

More important, your reader must understand the source of both motivations. Otherwise, he or she will wonder what all the fuss is about.

Your villain must want something desperately, and your hero must be the one thing that stands between the villain the object of his desire. Perhaps the hero wants the same thing, or maybe he wants the opposite thing, but something must happen to place the villain and hero at odds with one another.

Many writers try to take the easy way out. The monster is bad because he likes to eat people. The disease is bad because it wants to destroy its human host. The man is bad because he enjoys wearing other people’s skin over his own.

The motivation for destruction or pain is not strong enough. A subconscious or hidden motivation must drive your villain forward in order for your reader to take the story seriously. This is often why, in stories about diseases and natural disasters, a secondary villain takes center stage.

Characterizing the Conscious Villain

A monster who likes to eat people. A woman who kills her husbands. These are what I like to call “flat villains” who don’t inspire much terror at all. Despicable though their actions might be, your reader isn’t traumatized by their existence.

A good conscious villain is characterized just as thoroughly as—if not more than—the hero. He has likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, tics and personality traits. He takes the train to work, pays his taxes, stocks up on milk and bread at the grocery store. In many cases, a seemingly normal villain is the scariest kind.

Even if your villain is a monster, he has to eat and sleep. He’s found shelter where random people are unlikely to stumble upon him, located convenient food and water sources. He has needs, but he is also unique in his personal characteristics.

One of my favorite villains of all time is Corky Laputo from Dean Koontz’s THE FACE. Corky is a seemingly innocuous fellow who frequently walks in the rain wearing a yellow slicker and teaches English during the week at a local university.

What the reader slowly discovers, however, is that he spends his walks tossing poisoned treats to dogs and sticking hate letters in residents’ mail boxes. In the spare bedroom of his nondescript suburban home, one of his colleagues is held prisoner on intravenous fluids. Corky calls him the “Cheese Man” because he smells like rotten cheddar.

What does your villain like to collect? Where does he go when he’s bored? How does he talk? Walk? Eat? Sleep? What makes him fascinating?

Characterizing the Unconscious Villain

An unconscious villain—natural disasters —are slightly more difficult to develop on the page because they lack the intent inherent in conscious villains. A tornado does not erupt with the sole purpose of destroying a village; you might compare it to an evil entity, but its true value is neutral.

In these cases, the villain is characterized by texture rather than personality. The reader must understand with startling and sometimes disturbing clarity the destruction wrought by such a force.

This type of story focuses on how the villain affects others.

As mentioned previously, you can also introduce secondary villains to fortify the first. In Robin Cook’s TOXIN, for example, the main villain is e.colli, which the main character’s daughter contracts during a routine visit to a fast-food restaurant. However, in addition to the deadly plague of bacteria, Kim Regis must battle the apathetic and neglectful meat-packing company that serves the contaminated beef.

Sometimes it pays to give readers something they could, if entrenched in the story, fight with their bare hands. A disease can be treated by physicians, but the characters are powerless against it. Creating a secondary villain adds punch to the story.

The Villain’s Rise to Power

One aspect of villainy that writers often ignore is the rise to power, the sequence of events that make a villain a true threat to the main character. This might be a killing spree that leads a detective on a wild goose chase or a plague the systematically annihilates a village.

Whatever the case, the villain’s rise to power must be both suspenseful and believable. Don’t resort to cheap clichés that will bore the reader; instead, introduce a villain whose intelligence or thirst for destruction beats all odds until the very end.

The villain must constitute a genuine threat to the hero.

Create situations in which the reader isn’t sure whether or not the hero will prevail. In a romance, for example, perhaps the hero does something unconscionable to turn his lover into the arms of his worst enemy.

The Villain’s Fall

And finally, you have the eventual fall of the villain. This is the point in the story where the hero discovers the formula to solving his problems and brings the villain down. He beats the odds and overcomes considerable obstacles to save the day, win the girl, destroy the monster.

This is the point of the story where readers should be heard cheering from mountaintops. A villain’s fall, above all things, must be satisfying, and it must be the direct result of your hero’s actions.

In some cases, the villain might not fall, or he might have a “false fall” where it is made clear to the reader that he returns. In either case, you are treading a fine line that will result in either immediate success or certain failure. Take the chance at your own risk.

The Fool-Proof Test

I’ve devised a fool-proof method of determining whether or not you’ve created a solid villain for your story:

Have someone else read the story, then ask at the end whether or not they got goose bumps at any point while reading.

Did your reader’s pulse quicken? Breath shorten? A great villain has an obvious and profound impact on the reader, so strive to engender that with every story you write.

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