Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Walk on the Dark Side: Writing Believable Villains

For Christmas this year I got a book called BULLIES, BASTARDS & BITCHES -- HOW TO WRITE THE BAD GUYS OF FICTION by Jessica Page Morrell. It's the first writing book I've read in years, and it was well worth the wait to find a good one. While reading it, it got me thinking (obviously, duh) about the villains and what makes them tick. What sets a good and memorable villain apart from a clearly lackluster one? What is that magic mojo that writers "do" when they write villains that makes them seem so real to the reader? 

So, once again, I turned to the writing community and asked. Only this time, I opened it up to other genre writers and not just those in pulp.

Here's what they had to say.

Think about your favorite villains from the written word. What makes them memorable?

Nancy Hansen: Villains come in assorted types, from the simple minded bully or thug to the elite criminal mastermind. A really fascinating villain is complex, ruthless, privately merciless while publicly benevolent, always unpredictable, and highly intelligent, with a certain amount of charisma and great leadership skills. It helps to have a bottomless pit of flunkies and boot-lickers that do the dirtiest deeds without questioning why.

Pete Hernandez III: Their personal drive and the rationale they employ to justify their actions.

Shane Moore: Anakin Skywalker from Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Woodring Stover. He is one of the most memorable characters for his fall -- and justifiable reasons for doing so. He is the epitome of chaotic justice that all of us, at one tome or another, have wished for the empowerment to perform.

Ally Bishop: I love gray hat villains. Ones you can hate because they have good reason for what they do, even if what they are doing is still wrong.

Jim Beard: My faves have all been eccentric. Villains without quirks just aren't interesting.

Van Allen Plexico: In terms of pulp, I would say they have to be colorful, say and do things that spark sharp reactions from the reader and from the other characters, and have a plan or scheme that is either big and bold and audacious or sneaky and dirty and insidious!

Ryan Stegman: My favorite villains have always been the henchmen. They have always had the real depth for an interesting character. Darth Vader in the first three Star Wars books as an example. While not in writing, in the movie, FLASH GORDON, put out in the 80s or 90s, Kladus was absolutely perfect. He was trying to do his job to perfection, without regard to what damage his actual job was doing.The pure evil character, Emperor Ming, The emperor in Star wars, were cardboard with no personality at all. Few ultra evil seldom ever make good characters. there is no reason for them to do anything other than to be evil.

Bill Craig: The most memorable villians are truly EVIL, yes, in capital letters. Fu Manchu, Doctor No, and John Sunlight are all good examples of penultimate villians.

Bill Cunningham: Hate to stir the pot here, but I couldn't disagree more. The BEST villains, the most memorable and terrifyingly ruthless are those persons who don't think of themselves as villains, but as heroes. Fu Manchu thinks he's taking his rightful place, fulfilling his destiny. Dr. No likewise. John Sunlight's goal is to end humanity's problems. To do that he has to bring it under his control.

C. William Russette: Generally it is what have made of themselves often despite their circumstances. What have they done to get to the point that they are at when we meet them? Realism is certainly important. I don't need a big history but it has to bring something new to the table. Villains should be shaped by their past but not become cliche. No two people are alike and no two people are going to react to negative stimuli the same way either.

Lee Houston Jr.: The best villain (if that isn't an oxymoron), is the one who can go toe-to-toe with the hero, whether it be physical and/or mental prowess, and make the hero work for their victory. Otherwise, why bother reading the hero's adventures at all? Yet while this led to the development of what we know today as the rogues gallery, you do not want to overuse any one particular villain either. For example, despite the references within previous tales, how many times did Sherlock Holmes actually confront Professor Moriarty before that fateful incident at the Reichenbach Falls in "The Final Problem"? Only once, in "The Valley of Fear," which was published after, but which occurred before "The Final Problem."

Bobby Nash: A good villain, much like a good hero, must start out by being a good character. I prefer my villains to be well-rounded, to have multiple layers to them just as the hero would. The most memorable villains are those with those added layers. Dr. Doom, for example, is a tyrant, a dictator of a small country with ambitions of taking over the world. However, to the people of his country he is a benevolent leader who takes care of them. He then becomes a surrogate father to young orphaned Kristoff, whose mother is killed by Doom's enemies. In more recent stories, Doom is like an uncle to Valeria Richards, the daughter of his greatest enemy. Those additional layers add depth to the character instead of him just being the guy who screams, "Richhharrrds!!!!" when he can't beat the FF.

There's an old saying that a hero is only as good as the villain he or she faces. I believe that. Recall the Star Trek movies. Why does Wrath of Khan stand out above the others in the series? I'd say it's because that movie has the best villain. That's probably why Goldfinger stands out for the Bond villains. He was a well-written villain so he stands out.

Pete Miller: I love when the villain is the hero of their world. That is to say that their world view is so out of line that they don't see the world as the hero does at all. They don't have to be batshit crazy, but they are often delusional and don't know it.

Derrick Ferguson: Fu Manchu. I just love him because of he was convinced he was so RIGHT. And to me that leads into my answer for your second question...

As a writer, how do you approach your villains differently than when writing your heroes?

Derrick Ferguson: I always write my villains the way I think Sax Rohmer wrote Fu Manchu. Great villains don't think they ARE the villains. In their minds, they are the heroes of their story. And I think that's the key to the most memorable villains.

Bill Craig: I have to go to a very dark place inside to write my villains.  Heroes are much easier to write.

Pete Hernandez III: I have to figure out where my villains went wrong in their early years. That point where they went left instead of right and traveled so far in that direction it's too late to turn back, in their minds anyway.

Shane Moore: I approach them exactly the same. ...have you read my work? :)

Van Allen Plexico: Villains are most concerned about what is best for them, personally. Heroes are most concerned about what is best for everyone, even if that means sacrificing themselves. So when thinking "villain," I just think "selfish and self-centered to the max!"

Pete Miller: I tend to not have a single villain. My villains seem to be a group that is in conflict with the hero. Like Reich secret police, or a corrupt group. And sometimes the villain is forced to see the world differently and changes into an ally. My heroes are like Indiana Jones or the Rocketeer -- forced into fighting where they shouldn't, don't want to, but must. Because they believe in the inherent goodness of men. They'll kill, ? but only when they have to. 

Krystal Rollins: Villains seem to have more characteristics to them and we focus on the bad things about him/her.

Ally Bishop: I approach my villains by figuring out how they make it work in their head: what did they have for breakfast before killing their victim or stealing the massive trove?

Jim Beard: Push them to be the most interesting character on the page. Your heroes will benefit from that, too.

Ryan Stegman: I tend to like my villains more than my heroes. I want my villains to be believable, and even if you don't agree with what they are doing, you understand why they are doing it. I do that BECAUSE they are usually made so cardboard.

C. William Russette: I don't know that I do approach writing my villains any different than my heroes. I need to know them to write them believably but the baddies just take a different path down the road of life. The biggest difference I think is that the villains needs to have a slightly bigger personality. They want more, they feel perhaps too much or too little, they are cranked up more than your average joe. That sets them apart.

Nancy Hansen: I really don't treat them much differently. Any character with staying power—heroic or villainous—has to be well fleshed out and have some clear motivations for what she or he is doing. A minor character is likely going to be less complicated so they don't get laid out as carefully.

Lee Houston Jr.: A villain can't just do bad things. That is so cliched. There has to be a viable reason, at least from that character's point of view, to at least explain why the villain does what they do. Note that I said explain, not justify. The reason may not make any sense to anyone else within the story or the rest of the universe, but there has to be more to any villain than just "I'm bad. Deal with it."

Bobby Nash: Certainly, there are times, especially in pulps and comics, where the villains are often portrayed as pure evil, mustache twirling, sociopaths, and there's nothing wrong with that type of character, but I prefer to add an additional layer to them. The best villains are those that rarely think of themselves as 'evil' or even 'the villain.' As with all the characters I write, the villain has to be a believable character first.

Bill Cunningham: ones where the writer creates the mindset within the character that justifies all of the excesses he commits. Villains that revel in their evil -- they're cheap and forgettable. Villains who rise to greatness, to the height of achievement, overcoming the odds placed in their path... They are the stuff of legend.

Do you find writing believable villains more simple or more difficult than writing believable heroes? Why?

Van Allen Plexico: Each has its challenges in different ways. The key to "believability," quite obviously, is "Would anyone on earth actually say/do THAT?" Or "COULD they do that??" With pulp, where everything is amped up and heightened for maximum effect, the trick is to push those things right up to the very limits of credibility -- and sometimes beyond! -- while never allowing the reader to lose interest or to decide it's "too" unbelievable.

If writing plain literature is performing, say, the "saw a woman in half" trick, then writing the actions of pulp heroes and villains is "sawing the woman in half, riddling her with bullets, dousing the two halves with gasoline, and setting the whole building on fire." And never during that process allowing the audience to stop and say, "Wait--that's ridiculous!" :-)

Pete Miller: Both. I think villains are easier, but maybe because in my stories they are not as featured as the heroes. They are more like a force of nature that the hero fights against. But? It is really hard to write a really good, believable major character that is the villain.

Bobby Nash: I can't say if writing a villain is more or less difficult. I approach them the same way. Start with character. Once you know your character, you drop him or her into a situation and see where he or she takes you.

Bill Craig: Villians are tougher because they are polar opposites to me personally.  I have to dig deep and go to the dark side.  A good example is Chi Pei, a villain that originated in my Jack Riley adventures and has transitioned to the Hardluck Hannigan books.  He is a villain of the highest caliber, an ancient Chinese scientist who pioneered work in genetics to create monsterous freaks and would often even experiment on members of his own family...The Butterfly Killer from The Butterfly Tattoo is another example.  He preyed on women from all walks of life to satisfy his dark and perverted needs. He was probably the creepiest villian I ever wrote in that his day job was as a gynocologist.

Pete Hernandez III: Villains are easier and often times more fun to write because they can be closer to real life people than heroes. Most people are not heroic or selfless and have to fight to do the right thing whereas the villains appeal to the part of us that just wants to say "screw it" and be the bad boy playing by no ones rules etc etc.

Shane Moore: Writing believable villains is equally as challenging as writing heroes. The problem is, the general reader has been predisposed to have less emotional investment in the villains. In my work, not only will you have an emotional investment in my villains, you may even find yourself having a difficult time distinguishing who the heroes and villains are.

Ally Bishop:  I think villains are damned difficult to write. Most of us don't like to think that way, as there is some fear that we might actually be like them. How often have read a really gory death scene and felt like, holy crap. Who even thinks of this stuff?! Well, we do. We're writers. But I think that is easier said than done sometimes. But it's also fun once you get into it. :)

Jim Beard: I like villains that are equal parts bad AND wonky. They should be a bit pathetic, even. It may be easier to write a villain because they can do ANYTHING. Your heroes can't."

Ryan Stegman: I tend to write based on a scene and situation and my character is plugged in to carry the action along. Because of this they tend not to have that much depth. As mentioned above, I tend to work harder on the bad guy to make him a bit more believable to counter what everybody else does.

C. William Russette: Probably a little more difficult because you don't want to fall into cliche. For pulp fiction you can go too far over the top in my mind. That can land you in the realm of the super-hero and that is a whole different beast. There needs to be a line that the reader can relate to even if it's bent way out of wack.

Nancy Hansen: Neither really. I wind up asking myself the same types of questions as the character evolves. What is difficult is figuring out how to keep them somewhat evenly matched as you go along without it looking that way, because the hero must suffer before she or he prevails and it has to look like the bad guys are going to win to ramp up the tension. For good action scenes, that means a lot of back and forth with the strengths and weaknesses until our hero finally has some sort of breakthrough moment.

Derrick Ferguson: I usually have no problem writing believable villains if I write them from the standpoint that for them THEY are the heroes of their personal stories.

Lee Houston Jr.: In all honesty, I find writing the villains more difficult because basically I am not that kind of a person. A writer should know all the ins and outs of at least their main cast in any given story, but there are a lot of things villains do that I would never contemplate even in my worst nightmares.