Painting it Black: How to create the most vile, evil, wicked, no-good, dirty villain

(I wrote this article several years ago. It first appeared in Writers Digest's annual magazine Writing Popular Fiction. And then reran in two other magazines. )

It's a shameful fact, but I encounter no difficulty in writing about evil. What that says about my psyche, I don't even want to know. But the simple truth is, I find it frighteningly easy and enjoyable to create the blackest of villains. Give me any plot and I can think of a plausible and truly menacing bad guy to go with it.

Maybe part of the reason I am adept at developing evil characters is because I think stories are more interesting if good must struggle to triumph over evil. In my mind, the blacker the evil, the brighter and shinier the triumph. When the golden moment finally arrives, when the heroine races through the field of wildflowers to embrace her conquering hero, it is all the better if she must first step over the battered and broken body of her nemesis. Golden scenes are great, so long as there is a smudge of black somewhere on the canvas.
So how do you paint it black? How can you create the most vile, evil, wicked, no-good, low-down, dirty villain, one that does more than twist his moustache or tie the heroine to train tracks? Turn on your lights, lock your doors, grab a baseball bat, and read on.

What Motivates Your Villain?

Know your villain's goals and motivations, and make them clear to the reader. Motivating your villain will make him more threatening and believable because the reader will understand what is driving him to take such horrid and drastic measures. Nothing drives a story like an antagonist hell-bent on accomplishing a goal and damn the consequences.

Gaelen Foley, author of award winning romance novels including The Duke, says, "I try to design each villain as a foil for that particular hero I am working with. The villain should have a strength that matches up wonderfully with the hero's weakness. The villain should know or learn in the course of the story exactly what the hero's Achilles heel is and use it."

Make it personal, take it to the mats.

We have all heard the saying "two dogs and one bone" to describe the tension that should exist between hero and heroine, but the same could be said of the protagonist and antagonist. A villain who desires the same object/goal as the hero/heroine is threatening.
Make the stakes large and the consequences HUGE if the protagonist fails and the antagonist succeeds, this is what gets the reader involved and has them whooping a victory cheer when the villain is finally defeated. "And remember that your protagonist will act only as vigorously as the antagonist forces him to. They should be as near equal in skill, passion as possible," says Anne Perry, the author of mystery novels including the highly popular Pitt series.

Go To The Movies

Some of the most memorable villains are contained on celluloid and a lot can be learned from watching their dastardly deeds on screen. My personal favorites include the villains in these movies: The Patriot, Rob Roy, The Count of Monte Cristo, Les Misérables with Liam Neeson, and anything starring Gary Oldman. The villain in The Patriot is Colonel William Tavington, an ambitious and evil man determined to use any means necessary to advance himself. He thinks nothing of killing women and children, or of slaughtering entire villages.

But what makes this character truly menacing? How is he able to reach off the screen and clench the chords of your heart? A number of things makes this character a believable villain, including: powerful scenes that explains his motivation for being overwhelmingly self-centered and ruthlessly ambitious, period-appropriate speech and dress that add to his menacing aura (Let's face it, the Dragoon uniform is pretty intimidating), and scenes that are gritty and fast-paced.

Now, let's take a look at the villain in Les Misérables, played expertly by Geoffrey Rush. Cinematography helped make this character menacing. If you notice, the scenes where he appears are shot in low light and appear gray and dismal. The character, Javert, is always shown wearing black. Black bi-corn hat, black cape, black breeches, black boots. The overall effect is ominous. Appearances alone do not make a villain truly evil though, for that it takes motivation. In an interview with SPE online, Geoffrey Rush explained his character's motivation for acting so reprehensible. "Javert is traditionally played as the villain of the piece, but Bille August did not want him played just as a villain, but as a man who totally believes that he is in the right in imposing the law on those who break it. He has taken this stance that the world is divided into two lots of people-law breakers and law abiders-and he has no belief that a person can reform themselves or be redeemed. This is one of his demons; because of his parentage, he lives in fear of crossing the line into criminality, from where he sees there is no way back," said Rush.
When developing a villain for your next book, study carefully the villains in movies. Notice the way the villains on screen are presented and the way their persona's are enhanced through the clever use of fast-paced scenes, strong motivations, and ominous physical appearances.

Go To The Library

If you are writing historical romance, read non-fiction and biographies from your time period. History books are full of stories of warped and twisted individuals. Evil knows no class or culture, it can be found in every time period and society. One 18th century libertine enjoyed frightening his sexual conquests by making them watch him strangle kittens.
Colonel Tavington, the villain in the movie The Patriot, was based on the real Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who was nicknamed "Bloody Ban the Butcher," for his policy on killing surrendering troops.

A fantastic book for studying the immoral and wicked behavior of monarchs through history is A Treasury of Royal Scandal by Michael Farquhar. If the following saying is true, "The monarch sets the tone for the time," then a lot could be learned from reading about these debauched rulers.

Short And To The Sharp Point

For more impact, keep the villain scenes short, but image provoking. Try to avoid long monologues, keep dialogue brief. Pacing should be fast. Events and learned knowledge must be memorable.

Opium Dens and Dead Kittens

Use setting-appropriate props to enhance your villain's wicked nature. Sometimes, taking the mundane and perverting it can be extremely powerful. For instance, rats were a tremendous problem in 18th century Paris. The villain in my novel The Queen's Folly uses the heel of his shiny red boot to viscously stomp on a rat, frightening the tar out of one of my characters. In another of my stories, it is the early 13th century and the Cathedral of Notre Dame is just being erected. Snippets of information about the great cathedral are sprinkled throughout the novel. I talk briefly about how the cathedral is the vision of the architect Maurice de Sully and is to be a tribute to all things holy. In a drunken rage, my villain violates a woman in this holiest of places. A man who violates a woman is bad, but a man who violates a woman in a newly constructed church is just plain evil.

Look around your setting. What would one expect to find there? Are opium dens, pleasure gardens, or bordellos popular with the morally corrupt? Are your streets filled with chariots, gutter leapers or stray cats? I once read about a French aristocrat who strangled kittens for sport. I have also read that Rome is infested with stray cats. If I should ever write a novel set in Rome, you better believe I will have a villain that strangles kittens! The proper setting details can add just the right splash of color to turn a gray villain black.
Gilding The BlackWant to know the best thing about creating a wretched character? Before the book is finished, you have the power to kill them or mete out some sort of diabolical justice. This is crucial. You simply cannot leave your villain running free and unscathed. . .unless you plan a sequel.
Evil Is Really Just A Click AwaySo what happens when you have watched all of the movies I have recommended and absorbed all of my advice, yet the diabolical darling of your mind still refuses to be fleshed out?

Take inspiration from these web sites:
The Bad Guys Web Site offers information about some of the most memorable villains in films.The Villains of Marvel Comics is a silly site about comic book heroes and their arch enemies.

We have all heard the term Machiavellian, but how many of us know what it truly means and where the word originated from? Read the entire manuscript of The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli online to learn more about Machiavellian behavior.

The New York University of Medicine has an Online Screening for Personality Disorders. Just reading the quiz questions can give an author some attributes of a paranoid or disturbed individual.

Read a series of interviews conducted by the BBC with Brian Walden about real life villains Hitler, Stalin, Hussein, Nero and Machiavelli.

This short personality test tells you how much Scorpio is in your personality. Scorpio is one of the most powerful signs in the zodiac. By nature, Scorpios are possessive, emotional, charismatic, and extremely driven, all traits of a good villain.

And finally, no soul was more tortured or twisted than that of the reputation of the Marquis de Sade, an 18th century French man accused of extreme sadistic behavior and imprisoned under a letter de cachet. Sade remained in prison for fourteen years, but spent his time writing erotic and inflammatory novels. He narrowly escaped the guillotine and died in an asylum. Read more about Sade's villainous life.

The Decision To Create Evil

Every story needs conflict; two forced struggling against each other, good attempting to triumph over evil, but, not every story needs a villain. So why add a dark and dastardly character? "A villain is an extremely useful character in a romance novel. The conflict between the hero and heroine changes nature as they start to get their relationship off the ground. The villain can pick up the slack so that the tension or excitement level doesn't sag," says Foley.
Creating a villain also allows the author to tap into their dark side, to explore their phobias and fears and push themselves to extremes they might not go to in the real world. In print, the author can shoot the neighbors dog or steal the Hope Diamond without fear of repercussion. "It's lifting up the rock of your own soul and seeing what vile crawlies go writhing and scuttling for cover," says Foley.

Go ahead. I dare you. Lift up that rock.

1 comment:

ParisMaddy said...

Great advice in a well written manner. Thanks!