Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Beware the Smiling One

by Linsey Lanier

Our theme this month on PFHT is Villains!

It might be an indication that I need therapy, but I love creating villains. I love getting into their heads and figuring out what makes them tick. The villains in my books have included a sadistic son of a Nazi, a psychotic wife abuser, and in my current WIP, a Chicago Outfit mob boss who's something of a cross between Tony Soprano and Hannibal Lechter.

Fun! (I think I need to mention at this point that I write romantic suspense. These bad guys are definitely not love interests.)

In a recent guest blog on PFHT, CJ Lyons said a hero is, "anyone willing to face their greatest fears and be willing to risk change in order to make things better in the world around them." A villain is just the opposite - someone consumed and driven by his greatest fears, willing to take risks to harm the world around him to relieve those fears. Someone totally consumed with himself. Or herself.

So how do you create memorable, bone-chilling villains? Here are some of the top tips I've collected:

  • The villain has to be stronger and seem to have more advantages than the hero. He's smarter, more cunning, doesn't play by the rules. That gives the hero the greatest challenge. If the villain is equal or less than the hero, your conflict fizzles into an anemic puff of smoke. Poof. Not good.
  • Mix good and bad in your villain. (Like the Phantom, as Darcy mentioned yesterday.) Don't make a cardboard Simon Legree twirling his mustache. Make him a real person with real goals and motivations, no matter how twisted. For a while, you might make the reader believe he's actually a good guy (see the title of this post).
  • Most importantly, the villain's reasons for what he's doing have to make sense to him. He has to see himself as justified, and maybe even righteous, in what he's doing. As Christopher Vogler said, the villain is the hero of his own story. Tough to do, but that's what makes it fun.

Additional advice from authors on the creep factor:

  • In an article I found about Robert McKee about Robert McKee, author of "Story", there is mention of a political-science professor's thesis: “doing evil is an attempt to transform the terrible passivity and helplessness of suffering into activity.” I don't know about you, but that sentence makes me shudder.

  • In her article called "The Villain's Journey" on Murderati (love that title!), Allison Brenan says: "A villain has specific goals. Murder is not the goal. Murder is the means to an end. Very few villains kill simply to kill." Great point to keep in mind.
  • And according to best-selling suspense writer and the Queen of Emotion (as Margie Lawson has dubbed her), Lisa Gardner, "The truly chilling villain is a psychopath, the charming, brilliant boy-next-door." And, "The best villain goals are goals we would fight for as well." For more great advice, check out Lisa's fabulous article "The Villain: Developing the Diabolical Prima Donna" on her website: www.lisagardner.com
So what does it for you in a villain? What techniques have worked for you to make your villains come alive? Who are some of the most memorable bad guys you've read and why?

picture credit

24 comments:

Walt Mussell said...

For good villains, I have to go with Alan Rickman in any evil rle he chooses.

Walt Mussell said...

The "rle" in the previous comment should be "role."

Marilyn Baron said...

Thanks for the great advice on villains and thanks for the link to Lisa's Web site. I'm trying to fine tune the villain in one of my stories and this will come in handy.

Marilyn Baron

Tami Brothers said...

Awesome post, Linsey! I can't believe how much useful advice I get from all of you!!!

I had never really looked at the villain's role quite in this way. Maybe that's why mine have been lacking and my story has seemed a tad dry. I will definitely start taking this into consideration.

Thanks for the link to those other articles. Lisa Gardner has a ton of other neat articles I had seen before.

Thanks a bunch.

Tami

Debbie Kaufman said...

Hi Linsey:
This month's theme is appropriate for me as I am working on my villain. It's always those oh-so-normal-seeming villains that get me. The ones you can't imagine that let the other side of the personality loose and you realize it was there all along. I guess that's why, like a lot of others, Hannibal Lector is still my favorite.

Thanks for the article links!

Cyrano said...

I've been to Lisa Gardner's website before and not only does it have a great villain article, but loads of other helpful advice too.
I myself love a villain. I'm a huge Star Wars fan so I've mentioned this before, but Darth is one of my all time favorites.
I also love the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (otherwise known as Glenn Close in Dangerous Laisons) She's so wicked and cunning and completely nasty.
Another great female villain is Drusilla from Buffy the vampire Slayer. Her sadistic mental instability is so compelling
We as writers shouldn't merely concentrate on making our heroes and heroines jump off the page. We should make an effort to breathe life into our villains as well. They help complete the story and give it balance.
Great post Linsey, and loved the pics.
Have a wonderful day,
Tamara

Cyrano said...

I've been to Lisa Gardner's website before and not only does it have a great villain article, but loads of other helpful advice too.
I myself love a villain. I'm a huge Star Wars fan so I've mentioned this before, but Darth is one of my all time favorites.
I also love the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (otherwise known as Glenn Close in Dangerous Laisons) She's so wicked and cunning and completely nasty.
Another great female villain is Drusilla from Buffy the vampire Slayer. Her sadistic mental instability is so compelling
We as writers shouldn't merely concentrate on making our heroes and heroines jump off the page. We should make an effort to breathe life into our villains as well. They help complete the story and give it balance.
Great post Linsey, and loved the pics.
Have a wonderful day,
Tamara

Sandy Elzie said...

Great information! I'm glad to see that someone has mentioned female villains, since, (hehehe) we can be naughty as well.

How about the queen of Narnia?
Or the Wicked Witch of the West in Wizard of Oz?

My favorite villain is one who appears normal and helpful and maybe even loving, then I find out that he/she is mean and evil and it's their fault that the family is losing the ranch.

What I don't enjoy is a villain who is cruel, abusive, serial killer/rapist type of bad guy. I want to be entertained, not given nightmares.

Sandy

Dianna Love said...

I like the unexpected twist in a villain like Darth Vader that was mentioned, and to see a really well thought out female villain.

Most of all, I want to be entertained. If it's billed as a horror I won't read it just because my mind would have a field day the minute I went to sleep and make it ten times worse, meaning I'd never sleep again. Other than that, I like the really dark, edgy, dangerous villains that give you chills.

Linsey Lanier said...

Thanks for stopping by, Walt. Glad you liked our survey. :)

Marilyn and Tami, glad you found the links helpful. I read somewhere that the in a straight romance, the hero can play the role of the villain, though he becomes the good guy before the end.

Debbie, hope your villain is everything you want him to be. Yes, I'd say Hannibal is one of the best of the bad.

Tamara, oh, those are some good ones. Glad you mentioned Darth - he's got to be in the top ten. And I remember that Glenn Close role. Very nasty. Glad you liked the pics. :)

Sandy, I don't like books that give me nightmares, either. I like to keep the real bad stuff offstage.

Dianna, some good thoughts. That's just the balance I look for. As Hitchcock said, "There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it."

Linsey

Maxine Davis said...

Great post Lindsey! I have never had to nerve to try to create a nasty villain. You gave some great tips and I may try it one day. Thanks.
Maxine

Carol Burnside said...

I'm in agreement with Dianna. Horror gives me nightmares I'd just as soon avoid, but give me the nice baddie and I'll hate with glee. :)

Nicki Salcedo said...

I think what makes a good villan is the belief that what s/he does is right.

A great villan is John Hammond in the book Jurassic Park. (Not the movie! He was completely wrong/different in the movie). In the book, he had this grand idea to create the dinosaurs, then the plan goes bad, and he moves forward with such single-mindedness that he becomes a villan.

Linsey, this is a fabulous post. Got us thinking and back to work on our baddies!

Susan May said...

Villins are not what I normaly read or watch. But the ones that interest me are the ones that surprise me. Pierce Brosnon is one of my favorite actors and I always expect him to play someone I like. In one of his movies he plays a bad guy, not just any bad guy, but a really bad one. The character stands out as one of his most memorable parts. Villians work because they already have built in internal and external issues. The trick is to make them likable enough that the reader feels for them also.

Pamela Varnado said...

I love your comparison between a hero and a villian. It points out how important it is to make them equal opponents.

CiCi Barnes said...

Villains are a necessary evil. No pun intended. They motivate our heroes and heroines to get the job done, so I like having them around.

I like the points you made, too, especially not making him the cardboard Simon Legree. Usually, I want to like something about the villain, even as I hate him. And sometimes, I even feel sorry for the villain, although I don't want my heroine falling for him.

Great post. Another cut and paste article to put in my folder, Tidbits for Writing.

CiCi

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Great post, Linsey!

I think one of the best points you touched on is that your villain's goals have to make sense and the reminder that he doesn't play by the rules. Or she. I've always thought that Elizabeth Hurley in Bedazzleed was exactly what the devil would look like to a guy. For us ladies, he's probably somewhere closer to Johnny Depp.

EC Spurlock said...

One of the best villains I've read is Bob MacIntyre in Susan Squires' BODY ELECTRIC. It's fascinating and chilling to watch this brilliant man slowly sinking into complete madness through the course of the book. JK Rowlings' villains are also some of the few that I can't find redeeming qualities in. The Malfoys are nothing less than Nazis, and Voldemort is so literally inhuman that he makes my flesh crawl.

Pamela-reader said...

Great article Linsey! Villians *are* fun!

Let's see if I can manage to describe this... Another nice trick I've seen is to have a villain who is obviously doing wrong and is doing evil things, but at the same time, he has his own rigid code of honor (however twisted it may seem). I have seen this in a series which had a villian who worked for this huge faceless evil mob and killed people for a living and (of course) was trying his best to kill the hero. (I've also read this when the hero and villians are mercenaries) Anyhow, this villian, while trying to kill the hero according to his own internal rules, did help the heroine do CPR to save the hero at one point. I believe the villian told the heroine " it would not be honorable to kill him when he cannot defend himself". Kind of spooky and intriguing to me. (Of course, since this was a series, this did give the author the ability to use this villian as the hero in the next book and to have his turn growing and helping us understand his motiviations.

Darcy Crowder said...

Linsey -

Great post. Thanks for the links. I really like Margie's quote: "The best villain goals are goals we would fight for as well." Food for thought.

As for women villains, one that always stuck with me was Rebecca de Mornay's character in the Hand That Rocks the Cradle. She was wickedly off her rocker! :)

Linsey Lanier said...

Thanks everyone for all of the kind comments.

Wow, what a list of great villains we've compiled today! From the horrifying to the merely slightly deranged. Now everyone has a cadre of scoundrels for inspiration for your WIPs.

Go forth and write (and read)!

Linsey

Mary Marvella said...

I love villains who seem normal on the outside. I tend to enjoy villains you almost wish didn't need killin'!

Have you visited Tamara today on www.pinkfuzzyslipperwriters.blogspot.com? She's talkin' dirty

Scarlet Pumpernickel said...

Interesting take on villans. Getting inside their head can be so facinating! It also gives one a chance to do the nasty things you'd never do in real life. Don't you just love to hate the bad guys?

MM, Tamara is indeed talkin' dirty! Everyone should drop by and see for themselves at the Pink Fuzzies!

Scarlet

Linsey Lanier said...

Ooh, I see we have some night owls, like me! Welcome, ladies.

Interesting thought, Mary. I hope I can write villains who make readers feel that way.

And I agree, Scarlet. I too find writing a good villain very cathartic.

That was a pretty hot post on Pink Slipper, Tamara. Glad you mentioned it, Mary. Love the slipper icon -- hadn't seen that before.

Linsey