My husband and I just spent a fabulous week by the ocean with four other couples. We ate guacamole, played way too much pool volleyball, goofed off on the beach and generally relaxed. The trip home was smooth until we reached Terminal 5 at LAX, and a car accident occurred outside. All chaos broke out at that time, with TSA people yelling to get down. It was a scary hour, but all was okay in the terminal. And I also learned what real fear feels like…which is something a good villain brings to a story. Most of us love a great hero. Of course, to have a good hero…you need a great villain.
Well, I’m under deadline right now writing BLIND FAITH, which is the third book in the Sin Brothers series, and when I need to organize, I turn to lists. So I hope it’s okay to throw a list out there.
The Top Five Characteristics of a Great Villain
1) The villain has to know he is the villain—and embrace it—hopefully with a sardonic twist of humor. If you haven’t watched Timothy Olyphant in Live Free or Die Hard – watch it and not just because hey, it’s Timothy Olyphant. There’s a scene where John McLane (hero) taunts Thomas Gabriel (Olyphant playing the villain) about greed and money. Gabriel responds with, “You don’t think I deserve the money, John? Hell, I’m working my a** off here.” It’s sarcastic and funny and you get the feeling that Gabriel is laughing at everyone, including himself.
2) The villain has to be as smart if not smarter than the hero. The story would be no fun if the hero and heroine didn’t have their work cut out for them. The brilliant bad guys are the ones we remember. Hannibal Lecter was a genius, and Clarice Starling had to dig deep to thwart him. Of course, did she actually beat him?
3) A good villain needs to have the reader cheer for him at least once, if just for a second.
Often, the villain has had a terrible childhood, so for a second you can feel for him. But, then he’ll go and do something so dastardly…that emotion goes away. In order for a villain to be truly effective, we have to see him as human. In fact, we have to see ourselves in his shoes, however briefly. (This is a bit of a stretch—but am I the only one who roots for the Road Runner to win…just once?)
4) The villain has to believe he’s right, even when everyone else knows he’s wrong.
The villain needs to be as committed to his path, and believe it’s the right path, in order to show how committed the hero is to his path. Colonial Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men is an excellent villain. He’s tough and thinks his way is the only way. And there’s a slight possibility that he is right—he works on the front lines and does keep people safe. But he lied and sacrificed two marines to do it, so we know he’s the bad guy. But what an excellent bad guy!
5) A good villain needs to have that moment of choice—he really needs to choose to be the bad guy with his eyes wide open so we can cheer against him.
We don’t want the villain to fall into being the bad guy any more than we want the hero to naturally be a good guy. Characters need to struggle and fight to claim their role. Even if they’re established bad guys by the time they’re on the page…we have to know that they chose their own path and nobody forced it on them.
To sum up, the villain needs as many layers as the hero. The cookie-cutter ‘bad guy’ who’s just plain bad isn’t interesting. The bad guy who might turn good…but doesn’t…well, he’s interesting. We truly need a dastardly villain we can identify with in order to cheer for the hero to win. And the hero should win.
Who’s your favorite villain?