If you’re a writer like I am, the villains you put onto the page are simply the viable pieces of proof everyone close to you uses to demonstrate that you’re diabolically insane.
“What’s wrong with him, honey?” your father will say to your mother as he watches you during breakfast, your eyes bloodshot as they stare into the computer screen, fingers tapping wildly.
“Damn boy of ours,” she’ll answer back. “He’s torturing those people in his head again, apparently.”
Your father won’t understand a lick of this until the first draft of your story is done and you show him the fruits of your labors, a tale about a protagonist traumatized by a gory and booby-trap- ridden Easter egg hunt orchestrated by a central villain who likes to watch him dance.
“Where the hell does he get all this stuff?” your dad will say that very night as he and your mother prepare for bed.
“I don’t know,” she’ll reply again, “but I’m a little concerned. He was telling me his next story involves a killer who removes the heads of his victims and puts them in his fridge as souvenirs, like a trademark. He smiled, talking about how excited he was to start researching what tools you’d need to decapitate the human head properly and what the head would look like once it’s been refrigerated for months. What’s wrong with him, [insert your father’s name here]?”
What your parents won’t see, at least not at this early stage, is that there’s nothing wrong with you. Well, mostly. You’re a writer, plain and simple, and part of the job is looking up some straight-up crazy information to use as research material while compiling your story’s developing plot. Over time you become like a sponge, absorbing all the screwed up things you see and hear people do all day long, until you gain enough familiarity to pull from this knowledge and create an interesting villain with whom to torture your heroes.
Ah, villains. They’re the bastards we hate to love, love to hate and love to love, all at once. We feel conflicted about these figures of mischief, though the reasons often differ.
And the simple truth is, every great story also needs a great villain. And so do your protagonists, because who else but the villain can bring out their inner demons for everyone to see. Who else can challenge them in ways nobody else can? Not to mention that our heroes need someone tangible to sling their sanctimonious moral lectures about right and wrong at while toeing that all-important line themselves, the hypocrites. And let’s face it, those love interests aren’t going to kidnap themselves, are they? Though, that sure would make for one hell of a twist, wouldn’t it?
Intrepid reader, by this point you may very well be asking yourself just what elements make up a strong, complex, and captivating villain? Well, you’re in luck, because that’s exactly what I’m here to tell you.
#1 The Hero of His Own Story
The single most important thing to keep in mind for your antagonist is that he sees himself as the hero of his own story, with your protagonist filling out the villain role.
The most fascinating kinds of villains are those created by writers who give them complexities beyond the heinous acts they oftentimes perpetrate. They justify their murders of a board of executives, a busload of schoolchildren, and a litter box full of kittens in the same way that our heroes justify stopping them.
When creating your own villain, don’t write her through the prism of your hero; that will soil your narrative as you begin to see her the way the protagonist does: as a force that needs to be stopped. By immersing yourself inside your villain and your villain alone, you stand a better chance of transmitting her motivations and overall character in a more genuine and effective manner.
#2 The Gentleman’s Playbook
Everyone complaining about chivalry being dead really needs to get in touch. The real loss in this twisted world of ours is the gentlemanly demeanor with which our heroes and villains used to navigate each other. Everything nowadays revolves around fistfights and low blows dealt between these two archetypes. The hero defuses one measly bomb in a packed stadium and the villain, in a tizzy (the drama queen), calls up the hitman hotline and hires a gunman to pay him a visit that day. And of course he waits to order the hit at nighttime, so that the hero can’t even see the bastard when he pops out from the shadows with his silenced pistol to pop off a few shots. Bad form.
The strongest villains are the ones that face the hero on an equal playing field. They don’t engage in petty one-upmanship by dishing out low blows to the hero and his friends. Your villain should respect the hero enough to extend a gentlemanly courtesy or two as their conflict unravels.
For instance, Professor Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes are aware of their roles as the immovable object and the unstoppable force, respectively, two entities that can’t help but clash with devastating frequency until one or both of them are vanquished. Moriarty must kill Holmes to stop him from being a pesky thorn in his side, and Holmes fully accepts death if it means London will be freed from the grip of that Napoleon of Crime. And still, all these factors don’t cancel out the respect that the men have for each other.
When Moriarty and Holmes meet to have one last fight to the death near the Reichenbach Falls, the villain allows the hero to take a moment to write a farewell letter to Dr. Watson, his friend and partner. And even when Holmes defeats the professor, years later he still mentions that the world is a less interesting place without him in it, if only because he made things interesting and challenging for one fleeting, spectacular moment.
Having a hero and villain who can face off against each other while still displaying a sense of gentlemanly respect says a lot, and this very traditional, yesteryear approach to the classic protagonist/antagonist confrontation deserves to make a comeback. So get on that.
#3 The Beast Within
Everyone loves a good animal metaphor. One of the best ways to really characterize your villain and bring her alive on the page is to provide readers with a passage that, through a good metaphor, shows you the beast welling up inside of her, ready to burst out at any second. Serpents are a go-to across many genres for human/animal comparisons, as are sharks, but bears, wolverines and lions are all possible options too. Hell, I’m sure even Arthur Conan Doyle himself could’ve pulled off an animal metaphor using a chinchilla as a template.
To display this effect, take the sentence, “The large man made noise in the bar as men stood up and joined him.” It can be markedly improved with an animal metaphor to strength his character and the atmosphere he creates when he’s around. A weak, static sentence is transformed through metaphor to read, “A gargantuan gorilla of a man busted through the bar doors and captivated the room with his presence as his entourage rose from their seats to follow him, as if he’d beaten his chest with clenched fists and let out a resounding roar, marking himself as the dominant primate amongst them.”
Metaphors are literary tools for understanding: you take a complex concept or figure and, using comparisons of a lyrical nature, create an understanding of them for your readers. Because so much of crime and mystery fiction is made up of the beastly things humans do to one another, and even more than that, how heavily we are all unconsciously driven by the same laws of nature those in the animal kingdom follow like gospel, employing an animal metaphor to characterize your story’s villain really adds a special something into the mix.
#4 My Mother Had Me Tested
We all love the crazies, and the faster we admit that, the less money we’ll all have to spend on visits to our shrink’s plush couch-bed thingies. Because we are all wrapped up in the complex enigma of living and the many questions that arise out of that, we naturally become attracted to repulsive figures that challenge our ideas of order and morality. Ultimately, we are shocked at the debauchery and depravity they represent in this world of ours.
Antagonistic figures like this in fiction, with a special element of something or other to them, sets them apart from other villains out there. Just like protagonists all have unique idiosyncrasies, proclivities and flaws (yes, those three words again), so too can the baddies. Give them fixations and impulses they can’t ever hope to sate, ramping up the tension, risk, and beastliness of whatever they’re doing in your story. Maybe your killer’s ritual, for example, is to break into the homes of her victims to live their lives a bit before making the kill, really getting to know them and what kinds of joys she is robbing them and their loved ones of forever.
Or maybe your villain is still dealing with a traumatic upbringing colored by the verbal and physical abuse of his mother. She died before he was old enough to take out his bloody revenge against her, so in his adult life he constantly seeks out a specific modus operandi: women who fit her age at the time of her death and who share similar facial features, hair color, and sense of style. Through the villain’s projection upon other women of the hatred and unresolved anger he still holds for his mother, an interesting dynamic can form between him and the protagonist, as well as the local communities affected by his acts. The villain simply sees the killings as a perpetual opportunity to kill and re-kill his cruel mother, while the protagonist and the public are horrified and perplexed by the manner in which the women have been selected, feeling each and every loss of life as if the women were their own mothers.
There are plenty of fruitful fruitcake attributes to select for your leading antagonist to embody, from fetishes to deep-seated and unresolved psychological trauma. Creating your baddie inside the profile of a troubled and complicated mind will keep your audience fascinated and horrified.