Thursday, August 11, 2011

How to Create Memorable Villains

About fifteen years ago, my wife and I rented an apartment in South Buffalo. It's a blue collar neighborhood with a strong Irish heritage. Our apartment was across the street from an American Legion. There was a group home for developmentally disabled adults on the corner. It was generally a quiet neighborhood, and we enjoyed living there.

Until George moved in downstairs. The first day I met our new neighbor, he filled me with a sense of unease.  Not long after moving in, he stole some items off of our storage shelf in the hallway. He also told me he was arrested for waving a gun at a former neighbor, but not to worry because it was only a BB gun. That didn't really ease my mind.  George started getting creepier. He often spent the night in his car, which was parked in the back yard of the house. One night he managed to start the car on fire. Not long after that, he began watching my wife as she came home from work. Then we found out he was walking around naked and leering at the next-door neighbor's daughters through the window. I thought about buying a gun, just in case.  We wound up telling our landlords that they needed to evict him. And they did.

George would've made a good fictional villain. Unfortunately, he was real. He made me uneasy. How does this apply to fiction? To me, the best villains make the reader nervous. They are unpredictable. In one scene they might do horrible things to a victim. In the next, they might let a victim narrowly escape.

What can you do to create a great villain?


  • Make them violent, explosive. Like a bomb waiting to go off.  Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds is charming and suave. But this facade disappears in an instant when he brutally chokes a suspected spy to death.
  • Give them perversions. Make them deviant.  Jame Gumb in Silence of the Lambs is making a dress from his victim's skin. Hannibal Lector enjoys snacking on people's livers. 
  • Great villains are intelligent, cunning. They must be a worthy opponent for your hero. They shouldn't be easily defeated. 
  • Give them a physical deformity or make them ugly, unattractive. Or make them attractive and charming. That can be just as frightening.
  • Create a villain that is physically imposing, or has skill with weapons. Make them someone you wouldn't want to mess with.
  • Mix in some qualities that elicit sympathy. Dean Koontz, in Watchers, does this with the murderous creature known as the Outsider. The Outsider is a genetically-engineered killing machine, but Koontz creates sympathy by showing us its den, where it keeps a Mickey Mouse doll. 
  • Have them be unpredictable. Anton Chigurh, in No Country for Old Men, is a remorseless killer. But in one scene, he allows a storekeeper to live based on a coin toss. This creates suspense. Will he let the next person he comes across live?
In my work-in-progress, The Hollow, I've tried to incorporate these qualities into my villains. They are cold-blooded killers that prey on the innocent. No one who gets in their way is safe, and my goal is to make the reader uneasy every time they appear on the page.

Keep these tips in mind and you'll create a character that is not only a worthy adversary, but will give your readers the creeps. And as a writer of horror or thrillers, that's worth going for every time. 

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