June 19, 2012

The Art and Craft of Villainy

Once upon a time, my family watched Midsomer Murders.  Looking back on it, I can hardly figure out why, but for some reason we liked the series - until Troy left and they brought in a new right-hand-man.  After that, we stopped watching and the series has, for the most part, faded from my thoughts.

Not entirely, though.  Villains seem to be the characters of the day - or month - and when Georgie and Sky released their Villain edition of Beautiful people in May, my mind soon went to a line from one of the Midsomer episodes.  I can no longer remember the exact quote, and I've no intention of trawling through fifteen seasons' worth of episodes to find it; but in the main, the detective was asking another character if he knew about the trinity of murder.  That is,


Three things that seem to me fitting questions to ask any villain, murderer or not.  After all, there is an art to creating a memorable villain, as much as there is an art to creating a (hopefully still more memorable) hero; greatly as a billowing black cape may enhance the awfulness of any antagonist, it is, alas, not the deciding factor of villainy.  So what about this trinity?


Much is written about backstory - the primary factor in forming any character's motive, including that of the villain.  He must have some reason for doing what he does, or he will only come across as arbitrary and irritating.  Writers are forced to take into account that, depraved though human nature is, it is still considered unnatural to commit certain crimes, including murder; one usually doesn't simply wake up one morning and decide to take a jaunt before breakfast to kill a handful of people.  An impetus is needed.  What is that happened, or is happening, in the villain's life that set him on this particular path?

That said, I'll add that it isn't necessary for the villain's backstory to overwhelm the story, or even to be worth sympathizing with.  I never sympathized with Wickham, or Magua, and I've only ever remotely sympathized with one of my own villains.  Some people are just plain wicked, and it takes a great deal of effort to summon up any charitable feelings toward them - especially if they're on a page.  But you know, even psychopaths use a form of reasoning, and it ought to be lightly threaded into the story.

Another thing to consider in the search for motive is that the external impetus is not enough.  Two people will react to an event in two different ways.  One character may suffer poverty and come out on the other side with more charity and compassion; another may become Ebeneezer Scrooge.  The mental configuration of the villain is even more important than the outside events one may lob at him, for abuse and rejection and poverty and starvation and the whole shebang will only warp a character as much as he allows himself to be warped.


The villain has to spend most of the story with opportunity, and greater opportunity than the protagonist.  The story will always be a give-and-take between the two characters, a battle in which sometimes one side and sometimes the other will come out the victor.  But for the most part it should be the villain who keeps the upper hand, for otherwise he isn't much of a villain at all.  The greater the villain's success, the greater the tension.  Thus, he must be in a suitable position for whatever it is he is attempting to do - or he must have good connections. Good connections are always to be coveted.  (Although one must take into account that if one wants a thing done properly, one has to do it oneself.  Never trust matters to the hired help.  Important advice for those who are considering ruling the world.)


Here there is a great deal of room in which to play.  The usual fallback means for villains to get what they want tends to be murder, but as mentioned above, that is hardly what one would call a "natural" thing to do.  The character has to be pushed very far, and have a certain makeup, to resort to that.  So before pinning the murder on him, the writer has to stop and consider whether he is in fact the sort of person to bring about his own ends by taking another person's life.  

If not, there are other means, just as wicked, some more insidious, that don't require any physical blood being spilled.  Manipulation is a good example and can take any number of forms, including blackmail; bullying also works, especially for characters who are rather childish.  For stories set in fantastical worlds, sorcery presents a whole array of possibilities.  And in any genre, there will be those villains who prefer to work entirely behind the scenes, pulling the strings so that others do the work for them.  In this instance, however, it is important to know why the puppets agreed to being on the strings in the first place...

...and then you go full circle and are back to "motive" again.


  1. This was a very interesting post, Abigail! I enjoyed reading it immensely. I also agree with all you said one hundred percent.

  2. I love Villains. XD

    There is so much depth to them, so much I have to figure out in my own Villains. See, one of mine, Dr. Bouadin, is good on the surface. He is a widower, with two nearly adult children. He works at a hospital, and enjoys his tea hot. But, underneath, the Bouadin not everybody sees, is trying to change human DNA to create a Mutant world. But even that isn't all bad, you see, his wife died of cancer, and that has left him emotional and mentally scarred. He thinks the way to overcome all disease is to change DNA. nice idea Doc, but you arent giving people the choice as to whether they'd like to become test rats. And that's where his villainy plays. So, for Doctor Bouadin, I guess I play the insane and misunderstood card.

  3. Thanks for this helpful and insightful post, Abigail! It was pretty interesting!

  4. Gabrielle and Lilly - Glad you two enjoyed it! Thanks to Sky and Georgie for prompting the idea back in May.

    Ashley - Oh, the scientific villains always creep me out the most. Their methods are so horribly plausible. It sounds like the good doctor has a great deal of depth to his insanity, though!

  5. This is a great post, Abigail; quite helpful too... for me personally, villeins are so much fun to imagine and create, though a little harder to actually impart into one's writing. Those thoughts were really helpful :).

    My villain has a tragic past which plays a big part in his motives as antagonist throughout The Crown of Life. Having said that, I can easily imagine him as an imperfect protagonist... his villainy progresses from a seed of ambition, hatred and jealousy in the beginning to out-right murder later on, but were it not for his past I am sure he might not have gone so far down in his evil ways...

    Wow, Ashley, your villein sounds fascinating. Like in Sherlock Holmes he said something to the affect "when a doctor goes wrong he is first of criminals" and I think that's because they know all about the human body and how to heal, and plausibly how to destroy.

  6. I agree with Joy, villains are a blast to create!

    Excellent thoughts, Abigail! Very helpful as well since I'm having a wee bit of difficulty figuring out the motive for the villain in my sci-fi novel.(the one with the twins) I think pride and jealousy as well as the hunger for power has a lot to do with his evil actions.

    Jenny, your comment startled me since my villain is very like Loki, in appearance at least. I remember the first time I watched Thor my mouth fell open and I thought "he looks just like the villain in my story!" :)

  7. Joy - I confess, villains are some of my favorite characters as well. Not so much for themselves, though, as for their interactions with the protagonist; it's great fun to have the hero and the villain going at it hammer and tongs. (Although the one with the tongs really got the short end of that stick...)

    Flavius sounds like an interesting character! I'm looking forward to reading more about him. I suspect I'll end up liking him, villain though he may be.

    Jenny - Well, I just mentioned a hammer...

    Annie - If it's any consolation, I didn't realize Lewis' motivation until a little over halfway through "White Sail's." Sometimes the plot-problem just has to work itself out, rather than being puzzled over and brain-stormed. It sounds like you have some good thoughts for your villain, though; pride and unfettered ambition are strong motivations. As they say, "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

  8. AHA!!!!! This is JUST my kind of post! *rubs hands together in glee and cackles* Villainy gallore!!! Yes, yes, we must give our villains room to play.
    And I adore how Jenny said you'd been Loki'd. I love that phrase. I love Jenny using that phrase.
    I love you both.
    And your villains.
    In fact, I think I'm going to get a tee shirt that says "Have you hugged your villain today?"


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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