What makes for a good villain?

hannibal-lecterA good villain is essential to my genre (mystery or crime fiction). In fact, a good enough villain can make a writer’s career—just ask Thomas Harris about Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. But as memorable as Hannibal was, to me the most effective villains are neither obvious nor completely irredeemable. Their evil takes on a far more subtle form. They look and act just like you or me, or they evoke feelings of sympathy—forcing us to look at the world in a more nuanced way than we are allowed to otherwise. Maybe that is why I prefer the villain in Harris’s second book, Red Dragon. He embodied one of the most intriguing kinds of villains: one that is absolutely and completely lethal, yet one you cannot help but feel sorry for.

Unfortunately, such villains are endangered species in our current cultural climate, whether fictional or real. We live in a very polarized world and people are defensive about their worldviews. So many people today cling to the notion that their values and norms are the only acceptable way to live a life. To accept the notion that evil can look, talk, think, and act just like they do is to reject the very point of their lives. They want to be able to blame someone who looks or sounds different as the root of their troubles, or even as the root of all evil. They want a villain that looks like their version of a villain. They do not want to look into a mirror.

Ironic, isn’t it, when you consider the fact that we almost always kill our own kind? Or that the most dangerous villains, those capable of infiltrating and destroying your entire world, are smart enough to know that first they must fit into it?

Sympathetic villains are equally hard to find, both in real life and in literature. They force us to look inside ourselves for why we feel connected to them—and very few people are willing to admit that, perhaps, we all have the seeds of darkness within us. Sympathetic villains also force us to acknowledge that we as a species may have a hand in creating our villains by the way we treat one another or allow others to be treated.

To acknowledge that a villain is not entirely unlike us, or that their evil may have been prevented, is to admit that we are neither invincible nor on the right track as a society. So it’s just a whole lot easier to attribute a villain’s behavior to being born bad, or being born insane, or being born to insanely bad parents. Meanwhile, the truth, like a great fictional villain, is far, far more complicated.

Good and evil. Black and white. Truth and fiction. The lines get blurred. And good writers make the most of that ambiguity.

I have my favorite fictional villains. What I’d like to know is: who are yours? I’d love to hear about some of your favorite villains from books and movies you’ve seen and why you find them so memorable. Let me know and, in the meantime: don’t look behind you. You never know who might be standing there.

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4 thoughts on “What makes for a good villain?”

  1. I am fascinated by villains, starting from what I always tell library audiences: when the bad guy (or gal) brushes his teeth in the morning, he doesn’t gaze into the mirror and say: “Oh, I am so bad.” Usually the bad guy has very valid (to him) reasons for the bad acts. I’ve had some fun with that in my books. In the first Joe Burgess police procedural, Playing God, the villain is very sympathetic and serves as a mirror for the investigator who understands exactly why the killing seemed necessary. In one of my Thea Kozak mysteries, I create a kind of a Death on the Nile scenario where everyone Thea talks to has a strong reason to want the victim dead. If we didn’t make them complex and give them reasons for their behavior, the books would be dull and/or the bad guy would jump off the page right away. Where would the mystery be then?

    Great post, Katy.

    Kate Flora

    1. You nailed it: this is why we need books! We live in a world of sound bites and social media posts that instantly tag people as villains — taking their actions out of context, cherry picking what you hear about them, and them pronouncing them evil. But, as you say, we authors make them complex and give reasons for their anti-social behavior: and that’s way more like real life. Because if you walk around expecting the bad guy to be obvious, with a nice meme caption under his face alerting you as to why he is bad… you are way more likely to become a victim. 🙂

  2. I think you are both right on the money about villains! It is a big let down to read about a villain that is boring, either by being invincible or hopelessly obvious in his motivation.

  3. One of my favorite villains is Barnabus Collins, a 200 year old vampire from the 1960s soap opera “Dark Shadows”. He was billed as a sympathetic vampire. He started out as just plain bad but then the writers gave him a backstory and we understood the helplessness and loneliness that he felt. He always lived on the edge of discovery. I am writing a mystery with an evil man who just told the perfect protagonist about the death of his mother. Now things are getting interesting.

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