Ever come across a book whose villain doesn’t quite cut the mustard? I was given to read recently a novel in which the protagonist––a 15-year old female––chooses to become a warrior. Her parents and others were concerned for her, but they needn’t have worried. The author made this character invincible. She defeats all comers, despite often suffering wounds that would kill anyone else. In so doing, he reduces the fear factor of the villains to zero. He made them into comic book characters and took all tension and suspense out of the story.
How important is a “good” villain? What makes a villain memorable? Should authors make an attempt to explain what motivates the villain or can they get away with a stereotype?
The typical story requires a villain who battles the good guy or gal to the last page of the book. Although the reader knows in the back of h/h mind that the good guy will win, a good writer makes the reader wonder if perhaps this time, the villain will prevail. Sometimes, however, the villain’s success is based less on his wile and craftiness than on the lack of courage of the good people to fight him.
In Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound, Laura has a hard time coping with her evil father-in-law, resulting in his making her life miserable and then following a brutal display of his moral compass pushing the good guys in the story to finally put a stop to his evil ways. Pappy is believable because he personifies a system we believe truly existed. His kind of evil can only be overcome when people take a courageous stand. Other villains are less representations of a system than examples of a class.
In my recent review of three books by Elizabeth Brundage I made a point of questioning her portrayal of her villains. In The Doctor’s Wife, a group of evangelical Christians attempt to kill an abortion doctor. Brundage doesn’t spend much time helping us understand their motivations. Rather, she empowers their leader with cult like capabilities to help explain how he is able to bend the group to his will.
In Brundage’s second book, Somebody Else’s Daughter, the primary villain is a private school headmaster, but there are other bad guys in the story––local men who gamble, frequent prostitutes and enjoy dog fighting. The headmaster’s wife, who could be considered one of the villains for hiding her husband’s past, is not fully condemned. By taking the time to show us how she views the world Brundage seems to want to excuse her behavior by virtue of her relationship and her gender.
What the two books have in common is a stereotyping of rural people––primarily men––as cruel, violent and without redeeming value. Brundage assumes she doesn’t need to tell us very much about these people. We’re supposed to recognize them and understand who they are.
But it is in her third novel––A Stranger Like You––where she creates the least believable villain. Hugh Waters is a middle-class insurance company employee who goes off the deep edge when a screen play that he’d written is trashed by a female producer. This story needed a villain, but rather than make it a Hollywood big-wig, Brundage chose an average Joe American––you know––the type who has lost his moorings and is capable of harming the most innocent among us.
Contrast Brundage’s stereotypical villains with how George R.R. Martin treats good and evil. In A Song of Fire and Ice, the fantasy series on which the HBO TV series is based, readers find out that good guys don’t always come out on top and bad guys might not be all bad. In other words, Martin throws out the traditional good guy-bad guy dichotomy for a richer, albeit troubling, worldview.
Villains don’t have to have a good side to make a good story, but given the depth of experience the modern reader brings to the table, I do believe authors need to go beyond stereotyping in order to create villains who have the power to threaten the protagonist with believable consequences.
Another way to treat villainy is for it to create a context where the protagonist must choose the correct path.
In Rowing in Eden by Barbara Rogan, the heart of the story is protagonist’s struggle––not with a villain, but with his own demons. There is a villain whose acts help move the story along and they give the protagonist the opportunity he needs to rise above his lesser instincts.
That was my intent in Making the Grade, a police procedural that I published in 2012. Shannon Lynch has to defeat the villain, but first she has to decide who she is and what she stands for.
What examples of creative villains have you come across lately? If you’re a writer, how are you handling your villains? Use the comment box below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.