Thursday, February 26, 2009


Great points, Vicki! Since we’re doing this workshop together, I’ll approach this topic from another angle.

As Vicki points out, sometimes works (thriller novels, some movies) give you the villain right away, and you, as the reader, have plenty of time to grow to hate this person. Think Voldemort, the Terminator, Captain Bligh, the Joker. Often, these characters encapsulate very little good, or are so twisted by whatever past sufferings have visited them that they’re irredeemable. The author presents us with a monster, often both psychologically and visually. For example, the shark in Jaws? Or the alien in The Alien? Any redeeming characteristics there?

But wait, sharks and the Alien are wild creatures, driven by nature. They’re acting to fill a need for survival. Except that these beasts were enormous and stalked with calculating intelligence. They struck terror when the movie’s characters merely spoke of them. The Voldemort of space and the oceans, perhaps.

But what about a villain that evolves before our eyes? Something like Jack Torrance in The Shining, who started out with problems and then proceeded to unravel in a thrilling and terrifying deterioration that kept us riveted to Stephen King’s page.

The evolving baddie is one of my favorite types of villain, and his or her transformation can keep us glued to the book or screen in fascinated terror. Who could turn off the light at night and try to sleep after watching Linda Blair in The Exorcist? Regan MacNeil, Blair’s character (from the 1971 novel by William Peter Blaty), started out as a nice little girl, maybe a bit preoccupied with her parents’ divorce, but that’s a common occurrence, isn’t it?

So is Jack Torrance’s struggle to overcome his alcoholism. We’ve either brushed up against those demons ourselves or been close to others who have. Hannibal Lecter’s fetishes are less common—I hope—but he, despite his cold, insightful intelligence and cannibalistic murders, isn’t the worst character in Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs. No, Jame Gumb is even more deranged, and the tension escalates because Gumb is out there hunting. And we, along with Clarice Starling, don’t know who Gumb is for a long time, though Lecter does. Whew, I forgot how good those bad guys were. No positive qualities in them, either—except for the tiny spark between Starling and Lecter, or was that just an intellectual outlet for Lecter?

Which brings me to a final thought in today’s little discussion. If your villain is really, really bad? Your hero has got to be really, really good. There needs to be a balance for the plot to satisfy. If your bad guy is desperate, your good guy needs to be more desperate. If the rogue is brilliant, your heroine must be even more gifted. If Voldemort has magic, Harry Potter’s has to be better. Most of the time, anyway.


Theresa de Valence said...

I read your and Vicki's posts about villains with interest —

Theresa de Valence
Authors need Better Software To Write

Rob said...

Excellent post on villianous types; enjoyed it very much. You asked on DL for any advice to help out on your panel in Hawaii -- first, enjoy yourselves. On the panel time is going to go by as in a blink, so preparing as you are doing is the right way to go. About villains, your villain should b given as much "air" time as possible and not short-changed on time in the novel or story. That is, he or she, should be given as much effort and work on the author's part as the hero/heroine. The bad bad bad person ought to be as fully-developed and as fully reaized as any major character in the book. This is especially true of the multiple viewpoint novel but in my opinion important in any novel. There ought to be a weighing up, a balance. If the entire book is developing the hero/heroine alone, the antagonist quickly becomes a card-board character.

Rob Walker

Anonymous said...


Beverle Graves Myers said...

Count me among those who likes to read, and write, a conflicted villain. I just finished a thriller with a thoroughly evil, unrepentant bad guy. No explanation for his behavior and lack of human empathy, just a killing machine. Gets kinda boring!

Bev Myers

Ann Parker said...

I have to agree with Bev. Villains who are just plain (vanilla plain?) BAD w/out complexity are boring. A character who is battling the internal forces of dark and light, and lands on the side of dark after much struggling, is far more interesting.
My two cents.

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