Ethan Cross: What makes a great villain?

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The concepts and qualities of villains is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart. It’s my belief that the villain makes the story. Without the villain, your hero has nothing to overcome, no challenges to face. And the level of tension and excitement in your story increases along with the capabilities and cunning of your villain. Where would Sherlock be without Moriarty? Without Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker would still be a whiny kid trapped on a desert planet (well, technically, he would never have been born in the first place, but we won’t get into that). The point is that the villain makes the story, but the question remains, what makes a good villain?

I’ve already touched upon my first point. Your villain needs to be cunning or capable or both. I say this because not all villains are criminal masterminds with genius level IQs. In fact, most criminals aren’t very sophisticated or intelligent. For the sake of fiction, we sometimes incorporate characters that exceed their real-life counterparts, but even if your villain is of average intelligence or less, he or she needs to be capable in a way that makes them a threat. Perhaps they are large and imposing, frightening, psychotic, ruthless, good with a gun or knife or fists. Whatever the case may be they need to stretch the limits of your hero’s capabilities to deal with them.

The bigger the hero, the bigger the villain. For a rookie detective, a rapist or bank robber may be enough. But think of Superman. It would be a boring story to have a character with Superman’s abilities flying around stopping purse-snatchers or even rapists and bank robbers. He can handle these tasks without breaking a sweat.

This brings me to a concept that I call “The Heroes Conundrum,” based upon the TV show Heroes. In that show, they created “good” characters that were too powerful or capable; then they had to invent ways to strip those characters of their powers. This quickly became tedious. As I said, the bigger the hero, the bigger the villain. Sherlock Holmes needed someone to match his intellect in order to make a truly great villain. This can work from the opposite direction though, where you have a villain that is so powerful that you don’t know how the hero can match them. This creates a daunting challenge that our hero must rise to face, and readers will keep turning pages into the night to see how our ordinary protagonist can stop the criminal mastermind. Of course, if we take that approach too far, it creates some serious believability issues.

Something that many writers don’t understand is that the villain must also be a “real” person (of course, this excludes fantasy, sci-fi, horror, etc. where your characters aren’t human). Your villain had a mother and a father, friends, hobbies, interests, fears, etc. Even the most frightening villains need something to connect them to the real world. I call this “giving them a dog.” The best example of this is from Silence of the Lambs where Buffalo Bill is a brutal killer but also loves a little dog that he showers with affection. Obviously, I don’t mean that every bad guy needs to have a pet, but every bad guy should have something such as this that makes them feel like more than evil personified. Remember that in the villain’s mind, they are the star or hero of their own story.

In the end, I think the key to writing any character well is first for the author to care deeply about that person, otherwise the audience never will. Therefore, love your villains, and your readers will as well…or at least love to hate them.

Prophet front cover


International bestselling author Ethan Cross’s most recent novel is The Prophet. You can read more about him here.

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On January 8, 2013
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