Thursday, August 2, 2012

Getting Under the Hero's Skin -- Writers on Villains

Good villains (or antagonists). 

Where would our heroes be without them? 

So, let's find out what make 'em tick (and kill and maim and steal and refuse to leave our memories alone).

What makes a villain memorable? 

Allan Gilbreath: The depths they are willing to go to and the singular identifying characteristic that makes them obvious.  

Derrick Ferguson: I think a memorable villain should be as formidable and as resourceful as the hero if not even moreso. Nobody would have remembered St. George if he had slain a waterbug. No, he went out and slew a dragon.  That's why James Bond villains such as Dr. No, Goldfinger and Ernst Stavro Blofeld were so memorable.  They were all smarter than Bond, had way more money and resources and just by looking at the tale of the tape, Bond should have never stood a chance against them.  But he took 'em all down.  I think sometimes writers are afraid of making their villains too powerful, too charismatic or too intelligent for fear that they will take over the story or overshadow their hero.  I say go for it! Maybe your hero will surprise you yourself at how he rises to the challenge!

Selah Janel: For me, it depends on what the vehicle is. In comics or movies, I want them to look amazing and just be completely badass. I want to feel intimidated by a good villain. In books and in general, though, I want to know what makes them tick. It's important for the villain to have their own story and not just be there to oppose the hero. It's scarier if a reader can connect to a villain in some way. If you can empathize with someone you may consider evil - that's terrifying, because then what does that make you? I also like well-rounded villains because sometimes they're just plain more likeable or more fun than a very stoic or typical hero. Look at all the variations of the Joker in Batman - in The Killing Joke you empathize with him because you learn his tragic backstory. In the Animated Series he's just plain hilarious while still being a vile enough threat. And when he's all-out like in certain comic arcs or The Dark Knight - he becomes terrifying because you can't exactly argue with some of his twisted logic. In the series American Vampire, there is no doubt that Skinner Sweet is evil.He's manipulative,  unrepentent,  and a killing machine. He wants what he wants. But he's also a vampire because of the people who tried to screw him over - he just made the most out of it. He's genuinely funny at times and as the story progresses you can see why Pearl might be tempted or attracted by him. You can understand in some arcs why he does what he does,  but he's still completely vile. He's strangely likeable, but vile.

Alan Lewis: People love a good villain because the bad guys are able to go in to the dark places of our minds and do the things that we may want to do but are afraid to admit. If someone cuts us off in traffic, we may want to pull out a gun and shoot, but a good villain will not only shoot, but take out the bastard’s family and if possible, set fire to the planet. Oh, and did I mention that the villain’s usually have the best outfits and the hottest chicks…albeit brainwashed, but still.

Andrea Judy: I need my villains to be justified. I don't want someone who just rolled out of bed and decided to blow up Oklahoma. For me that justification is what makes or breaks a villain for me. I want to know the details; I want to feel his/her pain and rage and reasons for their actions. What I really love is a villain who has a sliver of humanity left, a sliver of hope, something good still there that the audience wants to root for. I want my readers to say 'Yeah, he/she robbed those people… but I can see why.' The line between love and hate is paper thin when it comes to villains.

James Comer: Being a person.  Sirat Tho'anchur, the antagonist of my story "Windbox", is a sworn-virgin who lives life as a man, despite being female; his back story is yet a secret to the heroes.  He comes from a village wrecked by bandits, and took the virgin's oath in order to earn money and protection for his sisters.

Herika Raymer: For me, their demeanor. To me, a loud-mouthed profane villain is not scary, he is just bluster. However, the calm calculating and intelligent villain who understand human behavior and uses it to his advantage, now THAT is the type of villain that impresses me. Barring that, the type of villain who can hide in plain sight, they really creep me out.

Lee Houston, Jr.: That is a two-edged sword. On one hand, the villain can be infamous for past deeds. On the other, the same character could be remembered for something more noble. Doctor Doom is reviled and even hated by the Marvel superhero community, yet most people in Latveria actually love and adore him because he looks out for and truly cares about them.

Describe your approach when creating the antagonists for your main characters.

Derrick Ferguson: I always keep in mind that as far as the villain is concerned, HE'S the hero of his own story. To him he's got a perfect good and sound motivation for doing what he's doing. Even if he knows it's wrong, he thinks his reasons for doing it is right.  Two of my favorite villains of all time are Fu Manchu and Doctor Doom.  Both are men capable of hideous evil.  But they also are men of honor and great benevolence toward their people. They are villains whose complexity springs from the core of their belief that the world would be much better off if they were ruling it.  When I write my villains I try to remember that villains are people too.  Well, some of 'em, anyway.

Selah Janel: It depends on the story. If I'm doing an actual villain and not some scary force,  I do like to keep some sort of humanity there. I want people to think that their reasons at least make sense. I also like really quirky,  interesting villains - things with a good look or a really creepy vibe. I don't know if it's the comics/horror geek in me,  but I do like to have some aesthetic value there,  too. Then it all depends on if the character is supposed to be sympathetic or plain evil, deciding how much of their reasoning/back story to show, etc. I'm the type that would almost rather focus on the dark characters so I'm not sure if I write classic villains or more of an antihero twist to them. I like to analyze what kind of a home life vampires would have or what crazed maniacs would think about.

Andrea Judy: I love villains. Most of my friends will tell you that I have a bit of an obsession with them. I usually am rooting for the villain. So for my own work, usually the villain shows up first and is screaming his/her story. The villain helps to set and create the whole rest of the story. I rarely have a method that I always use for creating a villain but I find reading/watching other stories with amazing villains really helps. Also listening to angry music.

James Comer: I have to see them. It's hard to explain. For this story I saw the hero, a monk, running across rooftops with a group of warriors chasing him, and leading them  was a black-dressed swordbearer. With attitude.

Herika Raymer: First, I have to consider the context. For instance, if I am writing psions, the villain has to be similarly talented and motivations must be even better hidden or, at the very least, shared among like minded individuals. In the case where I am writing paranormal or supernatural tales, I usually concentrate on mythos and legends but the lesser known ones because I do not like the romance now attached to the main monsters -- i.e. werewolves and vampires - and wish to reinstate the dread that is supposed to be associated with them. Which makes it especially difficult when writing just everyday stories: shall the antagonist be a serial killer, a drug-peddling creep, someone warped in the head due to nature or nurture, or are they fighting themselves. Though I enjoy character development, the story also matters and I have to be sure it makes sense.

Lee Houston, Jr.: Whether I'm writing Hugh Monn - Private Detective or Project Alpha, my superhero, first and foremost their opponents have to at least create a challenge, if not be an actual threat to the heroes. Hugh (so far) has only gone up against beings who are out for some kind of personal gain. But in his first outing, Alpha went up against Conalaric, his equally powered counterpart who had already made himself the self appointed dictator of his home planet. But it's good to mix things up too. Further down the road, Hugh will be facing a far bigger threat (probably in his third book) while Alpha will face more personal menaces as he tries to find himself and his place in the universe.

What kind of connection (if any) do you prefer your villains have with your heroes? Or that sort of relationship to stereotypical (a la Vader and Luke) to be believable?

Derrick Ferguson: It's a case by case basis. I don't believe that a villain has to necessarily have a connection with the hero outside of that the villains wants something and the hero has to stop him.

Lee Houston, Jr.: I agree with Derrick that there doesn't always need to be one. But when one does exist, like what Alpha has already experienced and Hugh will, it should be dramatic in some way and logical to both the plot and the background of the characters.

Selah Janel: If a villain is going to get under a hero's skin,  then they either have to be such a complete threat to the entire world as we know it (like an indestructable monster or aliens or something) or they have to have something in common with the hero. Voldemort works because he starts out as Tom Riddle who has quite a bit in common with Harry. In the second book in the series we get to see that they're not too much different in some ways,  which makes the further evolution of Voldemort that much more powerful. I keep going back to Batman,  but for a reason. In the original comics the villains were much more light-hearted or comedic - even up to their original television incarnations. As the series progressed and they were evolved and given tragic back stories and reasons for doing what they do, it suddenly made the fact that there are all these crazy people running around with either superhuman abilities or who are willing to go to any lengths to get their way really scary. If you can suspend your belief that this could happen in the real world in some fashion, then these characters become formidable. And because you know that they started as regular people for the most part,  it's worse because you want to feel sorry for them even though they're despicable.

Andrea Judy: I don't think there has to be an immediate connection between hero and villain. It's sometimes nice to add in some sort of dynamic, family, old lover, friend, etc. but it's not a requirement. I want my villain to stand on his/her own, not need the hero's back story to make sense as a character.

James Comer: I do not know that it is needed -- it can work when the story, like Harry Potter, is about family.  (Draco and Harry are cousins). Clearly, not all villains will be connected to the hero.

Herika Raymer: As mentioned previously, I like the calm ones. To me, they are more dangerous. The more volatile one seems, the easier it would seem for the hero to manipulate and thus less impressive. Family versus family is an interesting dynamic, though for me it is rather bland. I can see the want to make the tension between the hero and villain intense, but does the writer really have to rely on a family dynamic to portray that? Friend versus friend can be just as horrifying, and it works a little better. Though, in my opinion, such relationships lead toward the supposition that the author wants some sort of reconciliation at the end - in other words a 'nice' ending. For me, not a good goal. Now, an adversarial relationship between the hero and villain is much more interesting, to see who can win.

To what degree do you give your villain a story arc, or is he or she only important in being an opposite to the hero?

Derrick Ferguson: I think at some point it has to be made clear to the reader exactly WHY the villain wants to take over the world or find the Ark of The Covenant or rob Fort Knox. Motivation is the key to any good villain...hell, any good character, period. Even the secondary characters have to have SOME motivation for why they're doing what they're doing. If the writer knows his characters well, their motivation can't help but come out in the story at some point because the character him or herself will literally demand that they be heard.

Selah Janel: I think it's fine to start out with a villain as being just an opposite - you have to start your introduction somewhere. You don't need to know Vader's entire backstory to know he's a huge threat. But the longer your book/series/arc goes on, the more it helps to open up about the villain. Either the hero ends up projecting their own feelings onto this force of nature and you learn about their own darkness that way, or you flesh out the villain and develop an empathetic connection that way. I think it says something that people keep going back and revamping or rebooting characters - especially villains. It shows that people don't just want an evil force (outside of maybe the mysterious slasher type horror movies or a possession movie where your villain is an ethereal force whose point is just to be scary). They want to know what makes these people tick,  in some weird way I think they want to feel for them as much as they want to know about them. The trick is doing it well and playing a fine line. Vader works and ends up being a tragic character in the original Star Wars series because it's handled fairly subtly. Anakin doesn't really work because it's all out in the open and too much of that transition is shown. You aren't given a chance to even begin to agree with why he's making those wrong choices,  where with Vader you slowly begin to wonder if there might be good in him or if Luke has gone off the deep end.

And you can always just have a well-fleshed out,  interesting villain without having to go into redemption or tragedy. Sometimes it's fun just to have a well-thought out,  interesting,  entertaining baddie!

Andrea Judy: I have a really, really hard time not making the villain's arc more attention than the hero's arc. I really, really love my villains. Any villain that is created only as opposite to the hero is doomed to failure (at least in my world) that villain doesn't have their own legs to stand on. They're riding the hero's coattails and blending into that shadow. The strongest villains stand on their own and have their own story that intersects with the hero's… But is also a totally separate journey than the hero's arc.

James Comer: At the present, Sirat (see above) is an antagonist to Charthat and Hilojat, the heroes of two stories.  I intend to write stories in which Sirat is the protagonist, and in which Charthat and Hilojat are victims, and later, villains.  In other stories, Sirat will be a victim, as will be the wizard Etroklos who is his master.  I believe that to be believable, and not one-dimensional guys-in-tights-dropping-batman-into-meat-grinders, "villains" need their own  characterization. Thus, their rise and fall follows the hero's. 

Herika Raymer: Depends on the story. All characters should have a background, to help flesh them out to more than just a two dimensional reflection. The danger lies in becoming so invested in the villain that he becomes too difficult to defeat or even part with. Then again, for story arcs for comics, a recurring villain is a draw, and the same holds true for some television series or book series. It helps to draw away from the 'monster of the week' trap. For larger novels, though, a good villain is necessary so the readers enjoy seeing the heroes triumph.

Lee Houston, Jr.: That is dependent upon the story. In Project Alpha, Conalaric's background was just as important as Alpha's. Yet Hugh needed time to establish himself to the readers before facing his big menace. But it is an event that I have been building towards since the beginning of the series, and something that will help define who he is. But however you approach villains, their schemes and ambitions should always make sense, at least to them if no one else.


  1. I think we're talking about memorable villains here as to one that is merely transitional in the heroes story. In that sense, a good villain is a subversion of the hero's persona. The movie "The Dark Knight" does a good job of creating a Joker villain who is a twisted demonic version of the Batman and forces the hero and the reader to speculate how they are different if at all. The villain is a narrative means to probe into the character of the hero.

    In that sense, a memorable villain is a kind of hero. He's a hero FAIL.