How to Write a Three-Dimensional Villain

Alfred Hitchcock said, "Audiences are smarter today. They don't want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings."

I recently read a romantic suspense story by a well-respected author that had this limelight problem. The moment the character appeared, I knew he was the villain. How did I know? Because he was portrayed as politically & religiously conservative. It's become all the rage to cast conservative characters as bad guys. I'm going to resist saying that it's a symptom of the current political climate because I can see that it's appealing simply because it gives the author the opportunity to write a villain with that most horrendous personality flaw of being *gasp* a hypocrite. (Like being into child pornography or white slavery or *name your crime* isn't bad enough.) 

But here's the problem: It's been done to death.

To the point that before I knew anything else about this character, I knew he was the bad guy, which made him:
A) trite
B) cliché 
C) a cardboard cutout 
D) all of the above

In my opinion, that makes the villain a failure and the story was much less than it could have been.

Yes, villains can be tough to write. It doesn't help if the author takes the easy way out and goes the done-to- death route.

I'll bet you spend a significant amount of time thinking about the hero's goals, motivates, and conflicts. If you don't want your villain to be cliché, you should spend just as much time on him.

So before we get into the nitty-gritty of what the villain is, let's define what he isn't. Unless you're writing a cartoon, he's not going to look anything like Snidley Whiplash. There will be no mustache twirling, no maidens tied to railroad tracks, no evil for the sake of evil. Like the uber-conservative character I mentioned above, that's not a villain; that's a caricature. Flat. One-dimensional. If you're villain is being nasty just because that's what you need someone in your story to be, that's boring. Yes, even if he's a sociopath. Remember Hannibal Lecter, arguably the coolest villain in modern literature? Even he had reasons for what he did. Reasons that were made perfect sense if you were looking at the world through his eyes. And that's what you need to do: get inside his skin and look through your villain's eyes.

Even if you're not looking to delve deeply into the villain's psyche, if all you want him for is to create problems your hero has to surmount, do you really want the reader to know at a glance who he is? Okay, yes, in some stories, you do--it works well if you're writing a Columbo-style mystery--but most of the time, you want the reader to wonder who is behind the threat to your hero. If that's the case, ask yourself if you've been original or if you've taken the easy route. Does your villain have the same character traits you've read in other books? Remember that old saying, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is"? The same holds true with villains. If they feel ready-made for the role, then you've read this villain before. Probably a lot.

There's an axiom about everyone being the hero of their own life. If you want to write a really "good," three dimensional villain, you need to hold onto the awareness that few people see themselves as "the bad guy." An effective way to put this into practice is to stop before you get very far into the story, turn it on its head, and pretend that the story you're telling is the villain's story. Pretend that, instead of being cast as the villain, he's the hero. How does that change how you see his goals? Why does he need the things he needs? This changed perspective will probably force you, the writer, to dig deeper into his back story. What childhood trauma made him need the things he needs? What makes his choices the only ones he could make?

Dig until you find that thing that makes you feel sympathy, or even better, empathy. You're looking for that thing that gives you the sense that "but for the grace of God, there go I." When you feel that, when you know him at least as well as your hero, then you have the groundwork to write a "good" villain. The only danger in this process is that, the more successful you are, the bigger the risk of finding your villain more interesting than your hero. (I suspect this may be how the anti-hero was born.)

Not all of what you discover will end up in the story, of course, but if you understand your villain, you'll care more about him, maybe you'll even cry a few tears over his damaged soul. The payoff will come in the form of reader satisfaction as they sense the depths you've plumbed to get to that stage.

So who are your favorite villains? And what details earned them that spot in your personal hall-of-fame?

No comments:

Post a Comment