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How to Write an Effective Villain


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We all love a good villain. From Tom Ripley to Hannibal Lecter, it’s the bad guys who make us sit up and pay attention when the movie scene changes or we dare to turn the page. In cinema, the cheapest scares come from the sudden jump cut, the full-face close up, a blast of discordant violins. There is no real equivalent in the novel, and none of those techniques produce what a truly effective literary villain can: that insidious creep of fear you get while reading, the dread that crawls up your spine, and often even lingers long after the cover is closed. But what is it about them that fascinates us so much? Let me rephrase that: how does the author fascinate us? Why do we feel something as elemental as horror or dread purely by reading words on the page?

The starting point of any successful novel are the characters in it, likeable or otherwise, and the villain is no different. Few, if any, of the great literary villains are of the slasher or jump-and-scare variety; they rarely leap off the page and shout Boo! Think of a favourite villain and I would wager it’s not actually their crimes that you most remember, but their personalities: who they are, not what they’ve done.

Stephen King knows how to write a great villain probably better than most. In my copy of The Shining is an introduction by the author, in which he discusses a moment in writing that book when he realised that to make Jack Torrance a truly terrifying character, he needed to delve further into Jack’s abusive past and mine the source of his anger, rather than simply have him compelled to violence by the haunted Overlook Hotel. By pushing deeper into Jack’s past, by making him more human, not less, King was able to (in his words) turn him from a “two dimensional villain driven by supernatural forces…[into a] more realistic (and therefore more frightening) figure.”

This, I think, is the essence of a successful villain: the character must feel real. It is easy to dismiss the fantastical bogeyman once the book is set aside; less so (for example) the charming, sophisticated, educated and urbane Tom Ripley, whom you’ve actually come to like and in a perverse way root for, despite him leaving a bloody trail along the Mediterranean coast. Similarly, in Gone Girl, we spend the first half of the novel feeling nothing but sympathy for the supposed victim, disappeared Amy Dunne, only to have the rug pulled from under us in spectacular style. By the end we come to realise just how dangerous Amy is, a fact that packs so much of a punch because she’d seemed so normal and sympathetic only a few chapters ago.

But it’s a fine line. Show us too much of the villain, take us too deep inside their mind, and not only does the character lose their mystique and fascination, but we might find ourselves not only repulsed but numb. There is perhaps no better example of this than Patrick Bateman, whose thoughts, crimes and neuroses are narrated in American Psycho in such nauseating detail that they almost become banal. But then that is also the point, of course, since Brett Easton Ellis has bigger concerns than simple scares. American Psycho is at its heart a jet black satire, not really a horror or thriller at all (though it is in places horrific), and we are invited not so much to fear Bateman but to question whether—and if so how—he even exists at all.

Patrick Bateman may be honest to the reader about his crimes, in his own mind anyway, but you would struggle to call him self-aware. Judge Holden in Blood Meridian, on the other hand, is entirely that, and startlingly effective for it. Cormac McCarthy’s ultimate embodiment of evil, the devil incarnate you might say, is also a polymath, a skilled orator, at times a raconteur. And he knows exactly what he is, revels in it, delighting in the violence and bloodshed of the borderland wars, and killing with such stone-cold ambivalence that to him the act is neither here nor there. The effect for the reader is chilling. A raving madman can be dismissed as insane, but a man fully in control, both physically and intellectually, while he commits his crimes, is about as terrifying as it gets.

Anton Chekhov’s advice “When you want to touch a reader’s heart, try to be colder,” might not have been intended for this exact subject but is perfectly applicable to another of McCarthy’s antagonists, No Country for Old Men’s taciturn psychopath Anton Chigurh, who embodies a very different technique in crafting a villain: withholding almost everything about them.

Now, I realise I am contradicting myself here, having spent a number of paragraphs extolling the virtues of providing sufficient depth of character for the villain to become real. But here’s the thing: despite us knowing almost nothing about him, Chigurh is very real. He is utterly believable on the page, an implacable force of nature sweeping after poor Moss no matter where he runs. Our ignorance about Chigurh is what makes him such a menacing presence, since what we are able to glean about the man from his actions is deeply unpleasant: he is methodical, unstoppable, merciless, without emotion of any kind. The coin toss scene in the gas station is so effective precisely because we, the reader, know what Chigurh is capable of, yet the proprietor really has no idea. It dawns on him eventually, though, as Chigurh flatly asks him, while methodically eating his cashew nuts: “What’s the most you ever saw lost on a coin toss?”

The point, I suppose, and the key to successfully rendering a villain on the page, whatever technique the author deploys, is that they have to be believable to the reader: a villainous device, a cartoonish cut-out, is doomed to fail. It is not always as easy as it sounds. In writing my own novels, Only Killers and Thieves and Dust Off the Bones, I needed to breathe life into a villain drawn from the history books: Inspector Edmund Noone of the Queensland Native Police, a real-life force charged with “dispersing” (as it was euphemistically called) Indigenous Australians from the Queensland frontier, supposedly in protection of settler rights. They were mercenaries, basically, patrolling the Outback and killing indiscriminately, led by men like Noone. He was both an intriguing and discomfiting character to create: what kind of a man, I asked myself, would have volunteered to carry out such a task? What—beyond the role itself—would have made him so widely feared? I won’t reveal any spoilers, but as we’ve seen, less is often more: when Noone is first encountered in chapter 1 of Only Killers and Thieves, he stays in the background, his dead eyes watching, not saying a single word; and when he appears in Dust Off the Bones it is with a smile, asking, “Now isn’t this a pleasant surprise?”

Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, director Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel, despite appearing on screen for a mere 16 minutes – still a record. Indeed, for almost all of both Silence of the Lambs and its predecessor, Red Dragon, Harris kept his iconic villain determinedly caged, and yet somehow he was all the more menacing for it. By withholding the villain from the page, his presence is magnified whenever he does appear, and such is Lecter’s impact that he is still able to haunt Will Graham and Clarice Starling (and therefore the reader) between times.

See how Harris does it: in Silence of the Lambs, the first two chapters are spent introducing rookie agent Starling while at the same time drip-feeding dire warnings about Lecter, the man she is being sent to interview. It isn’t until chapter 3 that they actually come face to face, by which point the reader is already afraid of him, and fearful for Clarice. And yet, despite all we’ve heard, the Lecter we find waiting in the cell is a small neat man, courteous and well-spoken, a contrast that only increases our dread. He is a stunningly effective villain, so much so that his name has since entered the mainstream as a personification of evil, even managing to eclipse in both books the active serial killers the FBI are hunting: the Tooth Fairy and Buffalo Bill.

In Hannibal, of course, Harris’s third book in the series, Lecter is wandering free and on more of an even-footing with Clarice both in terms of page time and psychological insight. Is he any scarier for it? Certainly his criminality is more obvious, his tastes more indulged: in his evisceration of poor Inspector Pazzi we get to see him in full cry, disembowelling his victim and in the process managing to reference obscure Florentine history and art. But for all the guilty pleasures we might feel watching him run amok, has he ever been more menacing than when he was confined to a cell? The pinpoint stare of those red eyes in the darkness, the silvery whispers of his voice burrowing into your head, the unshakable sense of dread raising goosebumps on the skin…

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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