The Art of Creating Memorable Villains Whatever Your Genre

Today’s guest is Lisa Alber, author of Kilmoon, A County Clare Mystery. Lisa describes herself as “ever distractible,” and you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging round out her distractions. Lisa received an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant based on Kilmoon, her first novel; she is currently working on the next novel in the series.

 This first in Alber’s new County Clare Mystery series is utterly poetic … The author’s prose and lush descriptions of the Irish countryside nicely complement this dark, broody and very intricate mystery.” —RT Book Reviews (four stars) 

Of her post today, Lisa says: “I write crime fiction, so I’m fascinated by villains in all their diversity. However, I notice that when we talk about ‘villains,’ we tend to think only in terms of genre fiction such as mystery, suspense, and thriller. I suppose I’m passionate about this topic because villains get a bad rap at times (in literary terms). The truth is that villainy pertains to all genres because all stories need conflict. A story is only as good as its villain.” You can connect with Lisa on Twitter and Facebook, and on her blog, too!

The Art of Creating Memorable Villains Whatever Your Genre I once had a wise-woman teacher who said, “Your story is only as good as your villain.” Being a new writer, the word “villain” confused me. It had me imagining serial killers and blood-sucking demons, which wasn’t my thing. I didn’t truly understand what she meant until I started thinking of villains as tricksters. In mythology, the trickster deities break the rules of civilized life. They’re often malicious, but not always. They exist to cause transformation. They upend. They are catalysts. This is why the better your villain (trickster), the better your story. Another way to think about it is that without a good villain, your conflict can go flat. This potential story flaw applies to everything from literary novels to high-octane thrillers to romances. No writer is exempt from creating conflict, and for conflict you need upheaval. And for upheaval, you need trickster energy. To get your trickster groove on, consider the following:

  • Villains are people too. Great villains are the heroes of their own stories. They have reasons for acting like total cads toward their romantic leads or sleeping with their sisters’ husbands or blackmailing their neighbors or killing their parish priests. They make total sense to themselves.
  • Get as personal with your villain as you do with your protagonist. Villains grow. Character development and progression apply to them too.
  • The best villains are unique in ways that are opposite of what you would think. They have secret depths. For example, Hannibal Lecter, serial killer extraordinaire, is uber-cultured. This is why tropes such as the cad with the heart of gold and the femme fatale with the secret tragedy work—because of the opposition.
  • Create a memorable villain in part by creating a bright and sparkling inner life for your protagonist. If your villain only incites you hero to think, Wow, that guy’s strange, then no matter how unique and trickster-y you’ve made your villain, you’ve got bunk. Give your hero a bunch of attitude about the villain. Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice is the classic example of this when it comes to Darcy.
  • If your villain is nonhuman—nature, the hero’s inner demon, a circumstance, a dog, a contagion—same goes: It must have personality. In Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge, the hero’s amnesia is the villain. Shortridge’s writing is so powerful that the amnesia has what I like to call texture. It’s alive because of the way the various characters reflect on and react to it. You can render anything alive through sensory detail—a natural disaster, a haunted house, a beauty pageant.kilmoon_72dpi
  • Villainy in any good novel is a multi-layered beast. Subtle it’s not, but the novel Silence of the Lambs provides a good example of layering. We have Lecter, of course. We also have the subplot killer, Buffalo Bill; hero Agent Starling’s inner demons centered around dead lambs; the creepy psychiatrist Dr. Chilton; and even Starling’s boss because of the way he’s using her. The novel is ripe with trickster energy at every level.
  • Don’t forget “setting as character” for its trickster potential. In my novel Kilmoon, an ancient churchyard has a life of its own in the eyes of the characters. Indeed, in its own way the church is a villain—it keeps secrets. As one character observes, Our Lady of the Kilmoon nestled in her pasture with the Celtic standing stone her guardian. She extended her shadow over grave markers and minded her business in the genteel way of a bustled and high-bosomed matriarch of old, fanning herself with the breeze, dabbing herself with sea-scented rain.

Villains are the forces that oppose or seem to oppose your hero, whether human or nonhuman. These forces become memorable when they have lives on the pages that are unique, well-developed, rich in sensory detail, and multi-layered. Best yet, getting your trickster groove on while you write is one of the funnest aspects of storytelling! What are some of your most memorable villains? We’d love to hear how you get your trickster groove on!

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for the helpful post. Yes, I agree: Villains make total sense to themselves (as do real people who happen to be jerks or worse). I think keeping that in mind is a key to making a villain a three-dimensional character with complex motivations, much more interesting than just “the bad guy.”
    Carole Howard´s last blog post ..Welcome!

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  2. says

    I always thought Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca was a portrayal of a very slick villain. Thank you, Lisa for this very clear and cohesive post. I’m actually working on a new novel and your insightful points are notes for my work today.
    Paula Cappa´s last blog post ..Lady Madeline of Usher

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    • says

      Funny, I just re-read Rebecca (after not reading it since high school) and wow, are you right, Paula. Mrs. Danvers is a great villain. She’s a major force in driving the action, and more importantly, she’s complex as a character. Attempting to decipher her actions and motivations is at least as intriguing for the reader as trying to understand Maxim’s behavior – and while she’s clearly mean-spirited, DuMaurier does a good job of making sure we also feel a bit sorry for her.
      Lori Schafer´s last blog post ..April Holiday: The Story That Failed

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  3. says

    Loved this, thanks for sharing! One of my close friends is a psych major and I mine her brain all the time for details about the human perspective. One of the things that stuck with me was that “everyone thinks they’re right – everyone feels justified in doing the things they do.” Even Hitler thought his actions were justified. In his mind he was the hero of his generation (shudder!).

    I was three quarters of the way finished with my first manuscript before I seriously started to consider what my antagonist was up to. I’d known the general ending all along, but hadn’t given a bit of thought into the motivation behind their villainous actions. Once I stopped to give it serious thought, it turned my entire manuscript inside out.

    Now I do the opposite. When an idea hits me I automatically start writing. I test the waters, get a feel for the world and all that. But then I stop and write a few chapters from the perspective of my villain. It completely changed the way I tell stories. I really need a t-shirt that says, “Team Villain.”

    Truly loved your post!
    Kendra Young´s last blog post ..My advice to indie authors (that they didn’t ask for…)

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  4. says

    “Great villains are the heroes of their own stories.” This! My favorite villain is from Hatter’s Castle by AJ Cronin. My mother forbade me to read this book and I obeyed. Years later, as an adult, and a writer, I read it. This was his first book and what a masterful study in villainy it was for me.
    Vijaya´s last blog post ..The Donkey

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  5. says

    I sputtered when I read the title of this post. I spent a good portion of yesterday bemoaning my villain and the lack of his personality, perhaps motivation. This has come at the perfect time. I’ll spend this afternoon deepening my understanding of my villain(s). Thanks so much for this!

    I’d say in fiction, one of the most memorable villains I’ve read is Aaron from The Knife of Never Letting Go. Creepy guy. Has passion. Isn’t afraid of offering himself as a sacrifice. What I liked about Aaron was he wasn’t the real villain of the story–Mayor Prentiss was–but the author used both Aaron and a boy named Davy Prentiss, both working for Mayor Prentiss, to keep the villain real until the end, where they would finally meet. I like the idea of bridging villains that way–when they aren’t going to be there until the rest of the book, give them another persona and have them push the protagonist to them.

    Again, great post!
    Anastasia Elizabeth´s last blog post ..Three Dimensional Action Tags

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  6. says

    I love the concept of villain as trickster! Who doesn’t love Loki, right?

    I really enjoyed getting into my villains on the page. I think one of the best decisions I made was to feature all of my villains via their own POV (I write multi-POV in tight 3rd). It’s like an opportunity to indulge your dark side. And I totally agree with your idea of making them multi-dimensional and the heroes of their own story.

    But your ideas inspire me to dig even deeper, and look for ways to present both them, and my protagonists’ reactions to them, in unique ways. Good job. Thank you!
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Chatting With A Hero – A Video Interview of Therese Walsh

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  7. Denise Willson says

    I love the bad guy in the Titanic movie, the rich fiance. He’s handsome, but knows it. Wealthy, but uses money as a nasty tool. He wants what he can’t have and will go to any length, even risking his own life, to get the girl. You almost wonder if he really loves her…like, really.

    So much depth! Cameron is a master story teller on all levels.

    Great post, Lisa.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth, and (coming soon) GOT

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  8. says

    I agree. I never like it when a story has a villain that’s evil just because their evil. My most memorable villains are Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean and (don’t laugh) Mr Freeze from Batman.

    I like how Davy Jones insanely spreads torment because life and love was so cruel to him. Wrong, but perfect sense to him. And I always found Mr Freeze interesting because he would do anything to get back his wife.

    I guess for me great villains are just powerful characters who lost their purpose.
    Jevon´s last blog post ..Can You Travel and Write? Here’s My Answer

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  9. says

    This all makes good sense. Forget genres: without conflict, no story, period. Think of Dickens. With him, we are usually talking about crimes committed against humanity or decency, as opposed to law-breaking. How about Miss Havisham’s bitter sadism, or Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times? His name alone (as is so wonderfully and often the case with Dickens) tells us everything we need to know regarding his approach to running a school.
    As for straight-ahead bad guys, is there anything more depressing than coming across one who apes what we’ve seen and heard from a hundred others? The saving grace of books, of reading is that everything hinges on words. If a writer can’t make his villain new and fresh in terms of language, he’s giving us just another hit man or garden-variety heavy.
    I tried to keep this front-and-center when I wrote The Anything Goes Girl. Charles Lindbergh kills with the best of them, but he’s grown weary of the trade. He uses blackmail, not to gain a big payday, but to buy his way into a more or less straight job in corporate America.

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  10. says

    Great article! I love reading stories with great, richly detailed villains, so it only makes sense that we make sure to develop our villains as fully as our protagonists. It sure was a wakeup call when I realized a while back that the villains in my fantasy WIP were as one dimensional as the words on the screen. Even the worst villains don’t have to be truly evil–they just have to be human.
    Baby June´s last blog post ..Big blue minivan cake

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  11. says

    Fantastic post! I haven’t thought of the villain as a “trickster” before, but that makes sense, especially since tricksters can sometimes do good for selfish reasons and evil for noble reasons.

    I think Loki of the Thor movies has to be my favorite villain at the moment, because he is destructive and evil and cruel, and yet he manages to to have this level of regret and humanity that makes (lots and lots of) people care about him and secretly root for him.

    A great non-human villain is found in the movie “Run Lola Run”, in which the villain, or trickster, is time. Lola finds herself racing through the streets attempting to defeat time and save her boyfriend and it works fantastically, because time itself definitely has a personality in that movie. It’s a character in and of itself.
    Andrea Blythe´s last blog post ..Thoughts on The Arabian Nights, Vol. 1

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  12. says

    I’ll have to stick with Hanibal Lechter as my all time favorite villain. There’s nothing like loving a guy who would gladly eat you for dinner.

    In my current WIP, I’ve gone with the layered approach. The U.S. Government is the ultimate villain (no jokes…I’m not writing a documentary). But my more direct villain in the story is a local city councilman, who is also struggling to apease the U.S. government and keep his town’s independence. So my hero and his villain both share a bigger villain. Clear as mud? I’ll work on that elevator pitch.
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..What Are We Celebrating?

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  13. says

    Thank you for the reminder of the importance of the opponent and the insights that you bring to that topic. I was struggling with my WIP’s protagonist and turned to his opponent (even though that opponent is hidden for most of the story). Doing that opened my eyes to what would make my protagonist stronger (and more interesting).
    J W Nelson´s last blog post ..The end of Stan…

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  14. says

    The more you give the villain of yourself – the secret other self we all hide – the easier it is to get into a deep villain.

    And you get to work out some of your reasons for not letting that side take over your brain: consequences.

    I like to get down deep – and watch at the same time from the outside – when I write from her point of view. If I can fascinate and horrify myself, I’m doing my job.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt´s last blog post ..Added PRIDE’S CHILDREN – Chapter 12, Scene 4

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    • says

      Alicia, it’s a great sign when we make ourselves uncomfortable while we’re writing. I once knew a woman who couldn’t handle conflict–her fledgling novel was so dull. We (writing group) couldn’t get her to understand that she needed to dig in deeper. She got confused because she was writing a literary novel. I thought, And literary novels can’t have great conflicts in them?
      Lisa Alber´s last blog post ..MARTHA STEWART, HAH! | Secret Life of a Chaotic Writer

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  15. says

    Excellent post! I just went through the experience of having to rewrite the entire 2nd and 3rd acts in my book because my villain was not fitting the bill. I went back and re-tooled him using a lot of the things you mention here and now he’s an unforgettable character.
    Simone´s last blog post ..Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Round Two

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  16. says

    Great post! I am working on the first draft of my first novel, and working on the plot. The villain is where I seem to get stuck. I’m not sure who s/he is going to be yet, but since it is a dual murder mystery, I need to plot for 2 villains, due to two different timelines. It has been the hardest plot point for me, but it makes sense. If a protagonist has a sidekick, then why can’t the villain as well? Since s/he has to remain hidden until the end in a mystery, then s/he could also have someone that is helping their interest, whether or not that person knows this. They could be the catalyst. Thanks for the ideas now swarming around my head! :)
    Rebecca Vance´s last blog post ..ANNOUNCEMENT: CONTEST #2 ENTRIES

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    • says

      You’re welcome, Rebecca! I had that same challenge for KILMOON. Dual timelines and subplots. The past and present for my novel. Villains can definitely have sidekicks, that’s for sure!

      Here’s what I bet: I bet if you start creating their characters, some aspects of plot will become clear. Once I have the initial story idea, I actually start with character development rather than plot outlining. You’ll be surprised what plot ideas can occur. Great book for this: Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY.
      Lisa Alber´s last blog post ..MARTHA STEWART, HAH! | Secret Life of a Chaotic Writer

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  17. Tina Goodman says

    “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” Mary Shelley

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  18. says

    Great tips here! Thanks, Lisa. I relate to your last thought on setting as character. True for so many great stories. Setting can be the villain, or at least help showcase your characters struggles. Mordor in LOTR; the castle school itself in Harry Potter. I tried to use the Orange Grove in my YA “Birds on a Wire” to serve as a villainous setting. Love your thoughts! Fun read.

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  19. Poeticus says

    Though I understand the importance of fully-realized villians, I also appreciate that villains are but one of several possible agonists (contestants) antagonizing a protagonist and enhancing a narrative.

    Nemeses are not villains, per se. The literary convention for a nemesis is an agonist competing for a single outcome that only one agonist may accomplish. Both nemesis and protagonist may be noble characters, no overbearing ignoble villainry needed, hence neither a villain. For example, if a love interest is the dramatic complication want, a competing suitor is a nemesis and a dramatic complication problem.

    Allied agonists may be neither ignoble villian nor contending nemesis, though still antagonizing. For example, a concerned acquaintance who sincerely believes the love interest is no good for the protagonist’s well-being advises against the relationship.

    A protagonist may, and should be, also a self-antagonizing agonist. A protagonist knows some of her or his antagonizing faults, not all that others know or believe or feel. For example, a love interest may realize a protagonist suitor is emotionally high maintenance and alienating for it: needy that the suitor doesn’t realize. No villainry nor nemesis necessarily needed for entertaining dramatic action in that circumstance, per se. Might the protagonist suitor come to that revelation and adjust accordingly in time?

    How deliciously exquisite, though, when an agonist is a natural, comprehensible, and appealing meld of two or more roles: villain, nemesis, allied agonist, and self-agonist.

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