Welcome back to the GWN blog! To end the week we’ve got Melanie Atkins here talking about creating convincing villains.
Thanks for hosting me today. I really appreciate the opportunity to share with you about some of my favorite characters: Villains.
Villains are characters we all love to hate. They raise our blood pressure and keep us on the edges of our seats. They can also make or break a story. When I hear the word villain, I think of evil, followed closely by vicious and cunning, and I immediately picture Hannibal Lector, the king of all villains, and Ralph Fiennes’ creepy, convoluted character in Red Dragon, a man whose utter brutality puts Jack the Ripper to shame. To me, those two signify the epitome of evil; they are both sick, twisted men with an inherent drive to kill — and in Lector’s case, to taste his victims’ flesh.
Of course, all villains aren’t psychopathic serial killers. Many are mob bosses, drug lords, lunatics, dirty cops, evil co-workers, ghosts, or even demons (in paranormal mysteries or suspense) …whatever works for each particular story. No matter the nature of the villain, however, his or her character must be just as deep and well-developed as that of the hero and/or heroine.
Important points to consider:
- All characters have a history. Why does a psychopath kill? Did the mob boss takeover the “family” by force, or did he inherit his position? What single event shaped the villain’s life? Does he despise his mother because she locked him out of the house night after night so she could spend time with an endless stream of men? Did he watch his sister die? Or did he find his brother’s body after he overdosed on crack cocaine? One must know the answers to these questions and more before starting to write. Making a villain shallow and lifeless or using a caricature in his place can kill a good book.
- Do your research. If your villain is a psychopath, make him believable. I highly recommend reading Roy Hazelwood’s Dark Dreams and The Evil that Men Do and Mind Hunter by John Douglas. If your villain is a mob boss, learn about the Mafia — but don’t impart too much information. You want to make your story real, but dropping in too much detail will slow the pace and bog down the plot. Keep it simple.
- Villains may be inherently evil, but they still possess good traits. The serial killer stocking shelves at the local drug store might love dogs or enjoy watching flowers grow. The mob boss intent on taking over the hero’s business may also love opera. Or the drug lord importing cocaine and funneling it into a major city might be doing so in order to allow his wife to travel once they retire. Don’t forget to make your villain a complete person…it will deepen them and make their character much more interesting to the reader.
- Evil characters also have principles. The best villains draw a line and refuse to cross it. A serial rapist in one of my books attacks women, but also states that he doesn’t do children. Another villain feels sorry for his captive and gives her water when she’s thirsty. His empathy for her grows even deeper once he learns she’s a rape victim like his sister, and he’s tempted to let her go. Still another kills to uphold his family’s honor and breaks down when forced to shoot his own brother. Villains are people with emotions…just like you and me. Make them real, and reap the benefits.
- Looks can be deceptive. Evil often wears a pretty face — think Ted Bundy. The handsome, cheerful boy-next-door who mows lawns for extra money might also be a knife-toting, anger-filled serial rapist who stalks women late at night when the moon is full. Or the assistant chief of police could be using his job as cover while importing heroin into the country to sell to the very people he’s sworn to serve and protect. Or the smiling, perky do-gooder in the office down the hall who secretly covets your hero’s job might do anything to get it, including falsifying records and setting your hero up as the bad guy. These scenarios are intriguing and make the villains seem real.
- Even evil men need a goal. Give your villain something for which to fight, such as a strong desire for notoriety or admiration, a need to right a wrong, either real or perceived, or the urge to gain a feeling of self-worth. He may seem to only be after money, but his need for it must go deep. Give him a good reason to kill, steal, rape, haunt, or stalk.
- Villains must engage the hero and heroine in a battle of wills. He must be a worthy opponent who grows more cunning as the book progresses. In order to ratchet up the suspense, one must put good vs. evil in an escalating battle that results in the ultimate climax. A shootout, a fight to the death using hand-to-hand combat, or maybe even a frightening car chase filled with chills, danger, and excitement. You and I both know that good will prevail, but it’s important to keep the reader guessing.
- Romantic suspense requires a happy ending. Make sure that good prevails and that the villain pays for his crimes — maybe even with his life. Be sure to avoid melodrama and make his demise believable. If he doesn’t die, send him to prison or make him suffer in some other awful way. Don’t let him simply disappear. You want to give the reader closure. (Unless, of course, you plan to write a sequel and decide to allow your villain to escape, like in Silence of the Lambs).
Keeping the above list in mind, write to your strengths and do whatever is necessary to keep the action moving and to make your story believable. If your serial killer has no soft edges, so be it. Not every person can be redeemed. Your story is just that: Your story.
Develop your characters, do your research, and create villains worthy of fighting your heroes and heroines — and you’ll have stories people will clamor to read. Remember our friend Hannibal Lector, the villain everyone loves to hate? The man is pure evil. Yet he makes that book all the more believable because he is so real. He’ll never be forgotten, and neither will your villains — if you do your homework before sitting down to write.
I did my best to make the psychotic villain in my latest single title release, Blood Bound, as creepy and realistic as possible. He’s a serial murderer with serious issues, mainly thanks to his not-so-loving mother.
Fueled by grief after his fiancée is brutally murdered, Detective Sam Walker focuses on finding her killer — a calculating predator who binds books with human skin. Dani Barrington, the newest member of NOPD’s Victim and Witness Assistance Unit and a survivor of another frightening attack, helps him discover the terrifying link between the monster’s known victims. Despite his anguish, Sam is struck by Dani’s strength and determination, especially when her inquisitive nature makes her the killer’s next target. He must find a way to protect her or risk losing the one woman who can bring his dead heart back to life.
The book is available at the stores below and at many other online outlets:
Desert Breeze Publishing: http://bit.ly/YK0XZe
B & N: http://bit.ly/XuKnAj
Visit Melanie’s website: www.melanieatkins.com
Cindy here again!
Great tips, Melanie. The serial killer in my current WIP loves cats.
June 21, 2013 at 10:54 am
This morning, an article about James Gandolfini of course mentioned the Tony Soprano character, who “did despicable things but was still likable because he was a suburban schlub, trying to hold onto his job, keep his wife in check, deal with his troublesome kids and impossible mother…” Because the writers did that so well, the series took off and Gandolfini became an unlikely star. He and the writers gave the character so much depth, we believed him and even empathized with him, though he was actually a villain.
June 21, 2013 at 11:30 am
With the recent death of James Gandolfini, his Tony Soprano character is very much on the mind of a lot of people, as evidenced by Edie’s above comment.
J.R. Ewing was another villain we all loved to hate. He was as devious as the day is long, but every once in awhile, he’d make some small gesture that made us go “oh, wow” and we’d forgive him…until his next horrific act. I watch the new Dallas series, and I’m so thankful the writers gave J.R. and Larry Hagman the respectful send-off he deserved.
Great post, Melanie. Very informative.
June 21, 2013 at 1:00 pm
Thanks, Edie and June. You’re right about those two villains. I’ve never seen the Sopranos, but I have watched Dallas. My favorite movie is Silence of the Lambs, which of course has two villains, but Hannibal Lector takes center stage. So well done.
June 21, 2013 at 8:44 pm
Very informative, Melanie. You’re so right about needing back story and motivation for the villain. They have to be as real as the protagonists do. Well done.
June 21, 2013 at 8:58 pm
June 22, 2013 at 10:44 am
Great tips, Melanie. I love writing villains, too. The one thing I always try to remember is that every body is the hero of his own story, so a villain never sees what he’s doing as wrong.
June 22, 2013 at 10:53 am
True, Margery! Thanks for reading.