Hannibal, Nurse Ratched,
Creating Your Villain
by James Thayer
Readers just love to hate
Nurse Ratched and Lord Voldemort. And Iago, Ernst Stavro Blofeld,
and Bill Sikes. These villains lie, cheat, bully, swagger, and
connive, and we love it. And then they chisel, goad, cackle, and
leer, and we love that, too.
Few things in fiction are as fun as a vile villain, both to read
about and to write about. We—at least, most of us—can’t be
outrageous, sordid, and corrupt, but our reading and writing can be
filled with such folks. Aren’t we relieved when Aslan finally
destroys the beautiful, haughty, evil White Witch in C.S. Lewis’
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? But aren’t we glad to
have met her?
Here are some thoughts on creating villains for our stories.
Not all novels have villains. Yes, these stories have
conflict and tension, but not a villain. Novels where a natural
disaster is the key ingredient are an example. Or it can be a
character’s wrong decision: she’s not a bad person, she’s just
mistaken about the big issue. Or it may be a singular personality
flaw in an otherwise normal character.
A famous example is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Count
Vronsky and Anna, the sympathetic lovers, aren’t villains. Neither
is Anna’s husband, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, who is spiritless
and stuffy, but not evil. The story’s conflict arises from Vronsky
and Anna’s own choices and their society’s pressures.
Another example: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
There’s no villain. The bluecoat who comes to Tara and tries to
force himself on Scarlett is a bad guy—and gets gut shot for his
trouble—but he’s a bit player, come and gone. Same with the
carpetbagger who raises taxes on Tara. The conflict comes from
But most stories feature a villain.
The reason: villains often provide the conflict that is essential to
a novel. Conflict, in all stories? David Morrell says: “Without
conflict, no plot can be interesting. Without conflict, you
don’t have a plot.” Conflict in a novel, Albert Zuckerman says,
must be “the main issue that drives and unites its myriad scenes.”
It doesn’t matter what genre you write in, even comedy. The creator
of Garfield, Jim Davis, says, “In order to have humor, you
have to have conflict. If everybody agreed, if they all got along,
there’d be no humor whatsoever.” Same with romance. “The
conflict,’ says Charis Calhoon of the Romance Writers, ‘is the
struggle to make your love work.” Every novel in every genre is
Jack Bickham says, “Most popular novels, for example, are basically
the record of a prolonged struggle.” Successful novels could be
subtitled The Record of a Prolonged Struggle: The Godfather; the
Record of a Prolonged Struggle. Lord of the Rings; The Record of a
Prolonged Struggle. Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock: A
Record of a Prolonged Struggle. Peter Rabbit: The Record of a
Prolonged Struggle. The struggle comes from the protagonist
resisting the villain.
The villain has many roles.
1. Adds tension.
Often a story’s central question is: will the protagonist overcome
the villain? This answer is saved for the climax of the story, just
a few pages before the novel’s last page. But a villain can also
supply a constant source of tension throughout the novel, keeping
things ramped up. Croup and Vandemar from Neil Gaiman’s
Neverwhere chase the Lady Door throughout the novel, popping up
whenever things might otherwise lag. Croup (with his orange hair)
and Vandemar (with his ring made of ravens’ skulls) might always be
around the next corner. Lady Door and the reader can never relax.
Another example is Robert Louis Stephenson’s Mr. Hyde, in The
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When the reader
witnesses Mr. Hyde stomp a little girl in the street, we know Hyde
will do anything, anytime, and it’ll be bad. His presence is a
Offers contrast. Raymond Obsfelt says, “Putting
contrasting elements next to each other tends to emphasize each
work; putting similar elements next to each other tends to blend
them together.” A villain sets off the protagonist, and the hero
and villain shine brighter when compared to each other. In
Treasure Island, Stephenson’s Long John Silver is cynical,
cunning, and dangerous. The young hero, Jim Hawkins, is loyal,
honest and impressionable. Each character is made more vivid by
contrast with the other character.
Sure, interest is generated by the main story question: who will
prevail, the hero or the villain? But villains often bring new
things for the reader to marvel at, to be disgusted with, and to
wonder about. Hannibal Lecter’s favorite dish is human kidney with
fava beans. In John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi,
Ferdinand is weirdly fond of his twin sister. Mr. Kurtz in Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness prefers to be surrounded by human heads
mounted on poles.
Some techniques for creating villains.
Your protagonist isn’t the only person in the novel who should be
fleshed out. A one-dimensional villain is little more interesting
than Popeye’s nemesis Bluto. Some villains are notoriously
complicated; Hannibal Lecter, the Phantom of the Opera, Count
Dracula. Some less so: Nurse
Illustration by Jennifer
Paros - Copyright 2010
Ratched, Auric Goldfinger, the shark.
But almost all effective villains share these traits: they are
tough, they are clear in their goals, they are odd, and they ration
A. Make him tough,
which doesn’t necessarily mean physical strength and
endurance. It can also mean cunning, intelligence, or doggedness.
Tough means daunting.
Novels present a duel: the
hero versus the villain. The hero is often courageous and wise, and
sometimes possesses a remarkable talent. There wouldn’t be much of
a novel if the villain were soft and easy. The hero would shoo away
the scoundrel in the second chapter, and it’d be a short novel.
In the late 1930s,
Superman’s first foes were bank robbers, muggers, and Nazi spies.
The writers soon realized they were no match for Superman, so they
invented the evil genius Lex Luther, Live-wire (a woman who could
control electricity), and Metalla (a cyborg whose heart was
kryptonite). So then Superman had tense duels.
The villain should be a
match for the hero (rather, almost a match). He should be worthy of
the protagonist and of the novel, and sufficiently tough to last the
first 345 pages of a 350 page novel.
Make him understandable. Literary agent Donald Maass asks,
“Don’t you find the most interesting villains are the ones whose
motives we can understand?” And novelist Alice Orr says the
difference between a cartoonish adversary and a credible villain “is
that we know and understand on a mentally engaging level, the
reasons for an effective villain’s behavior. We don’t have to
sympathize with that behavior, as some writing texts claim, but we
must understand it.”
What drives your villain?
Greed, revenge, misplaced loyalty, a terrible misunderstanding,
depraved lust? Make it clear to the reader. The dentist in William
Goldman’s Marathon Man simply wants to know, “Is it safe?”
Mrs. Coulter in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy seeks
only to amputate children’s souls. Samuel Whiskers, the giant rat
in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, just wants
to make a roly-poly pudding out of Tom Kitten. Milo Minderbinder in
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is so greedy he sells medical kit
morphine on the black market. The shark in Peter Benchley’s
Jaws wants something to eat. For the reader, these
villains’ motives are clear and they are enough.
C. Make him odd.
Our lives are filled with normal people, and normal is bland in
fiction. Readers want characters who are ramped up, particularly
villains. And this means more than making the villain bad. Give
your villain a quirk, something for the reader to remember. Judge
Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is entirely
hairless; none on his head, none of the rest of his body. Ian
Fleming’s Blofeld—who insists on being called Count Blofeld—wears
green contact lenses to reduce snow glare.
Long John Silver walks on
a peg leg. In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the
Alec d’Urberville smokes rank cigars and carries a pitchfork.
Pinkie Brown in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is revolted by
sex because he once espied his parents engaged in the same. Half of
Cruella de Vil’s hair is white and half is black, in Dodie Smith’s
A Hundred and One Dalmatians. Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Croup likes
to eat—not admire or covet, but eat—precious Tang Dynasty ceramics.
Sherlock Holmes' arch rival, the brilliant Professor Moriarity, has
written a treatise titled Binomial Theorem.
D. Ration the badness.
Fans (and who isn’t?) of
teen slasher movies go to the theater to laugh, not to be revolted
or horrified by gore. The violence in these movies is melodramatic
(exaggerated theatricality) rather than dramatic. When Jason (or
Freddie or Mr. Creepy) skulks toward the prom (or sorority or
sleepover), chainsaw (or flamethrower or pneumatic jackhammer) in
hand, the boys in the theater—the few girls have already left—grin
in anticipation of boffo laughs. They know nothing will be
credible, and it’s all good clean evisceration fun.
So your villain shouldn’t
be Snidely Whiplash; unrelentingly loathsome at every opportunity,
because he will become unintentionally comical. The monster behind
the door is scarier than the monster revealed, and that’s true of
villainy. Build the tension by rationing his badness, and saving his
über-badness for critical moments.
Drenched in wickedness,
Max Cady, Cujo, Norman Bates, Captain Hook, and Anton Chigurh
escaped from their creators’ minds, and aren’t we grateful? Maybe
we can let one loose, too.
Thayer’s thirteenth novel,
The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a
was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches
novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and
runs a freelance editing