By: Stacey Purcell
Villians. We love to hate them.
How do you make a villain truly memorable?
One of my favorite television shows is Criminal Minds. If you haven’t seen it, the show is about a profiling group within the FBI who get sent around the country to help on gruesome cases. There are so many villains running through that series that they all begin to blend together. However, there is one episode that stands out in my mind. It’s because the villain was so well thought out.
The essence of every novel is found within the conflict, two opposing forces set in the same time and space. That conflict is usually found between the protagonist and the villain. How much more fun would it be to create a really villainous villain! Let you imagination soar as to the dastardly things they can do on your pages, but be careful. If you let it run away with you, you’re in danger of creating a cartoon character instead of someone who keeps readers turning the page. They will put the book down in frustration because it has lost the reality edge.
The villain in this particular episode of Criminal Minds was doing some pretty intense stuff. He even captured one of the team and in doing so, we came to understand him a little bit better. His father was so twisted that he turned a sweet young boy into the monster on the show. The writers created sympathy and understanding within the viewers. We never condoned what he was doing, but it made you want to rescue the little boy trapped inside who had been branded by his deranged father. The show put us through an emotional wringer that haunts me still today.
That’s what we want for our novels. How do you do that? James Scott Bell in Conflict and Suspense has some great tips on creating unique and memorable villains:
- Create a whole backstory for your villain. Let the reader know that he wasn’t always the psychopath killing machine, the back stabbing office worker, or the corrupt priest. Very few people are born bad to the bone- why did your villain turn out this way?
- Just as it happened in Criminal Minds, give them a sympathy factor. When you do this, your audience bonds on some level with the villain. This is some powerful mojo! Create conflict within the reader. Their brain says he’s the bad guy, but their heart says that it’s not all his fault.
- This next one can be difficult. Justify your bad guy’s actions. No matter how bad it seems to you, he thinks he’s in the right. Find some way to make it plausible for him to believe that. After all, he does what he does because he thinks he is entitled to his actions or what they will bring.
In my first book, I made my bad guy the result of a heinous grandfather’s torture. He was also terrified of the dark and was a gifted artist. Nine times out of ten, I received great feedback for my villain in contests because I made him seem all too human and my readers could relate to him. In my second book, the villain grows up in abject poverty and then loses his whole family in a massacre where he believes my protagonist has betrayed him. It broke my heart to write the scene where he ends up having to shoot his wife because she is in mortal agony. Hopefully, it will break my reader’s heart as well.
Create them bad, devious, sly, murderous, but create them human and you will have a powerful character that won’t be forgotten.