Friday, July 3, 2009

Five fun things to do with villains

I enjoyed reading the Evil Overlord list when I first saw it years ago, and I’ve always wanted the antagonists of a story to be as intelligent, resourceful, creative and tough as possible. The higher the dice are stacked against the protagonist, the more enthralled the readers will be. With that in mind, here are a few interesting things that could be done with villains.

1. Have him save the heroes at the start.

This could happen before he knows that they’re going to work against him or pose a challenge to him. While he might later be frustrated to realize that he inadvertently helped his enemies, it’s likely to create a problem for the heroes too, since now they’re in his debt. And they’ll lose reader sympathy if they don’t acknowledge what he did.

2. Give him someone he genuinely likes and admires.

This isn’t the Mad Scientist’s Beautiful Daughter, or the James Bond villain’s cat – these are more like prized possessions, stereotypical status symbols who tend to be kept safe from harm. Instead this is a friend or subordinate, preferably the latter since this means the antagonist will have to order him out on missions or assignments, any of which could be his last.

The death of the antagonist’s loyal officer or trusted confidant will carry much more of a punch than a hundred nameless redshirts being wiped out.

3. Let him perform small, casual acts of mayhem or malice.

Make these as amusing as possible, and the readers will perk up the moment the antagonist is on stage. Some villains get sarcastic comebacks, but few of them get to do funny, petty things like using a little magic on the beautiful heroine’s portrait to make one of her breasts look bigger than the other (no, that’s not from any fantasy that’s been written yet; I just thought it up for this post).

4. Give him some unusual detail of appearance or object.

In Tanith Lee’s Delusion’s Master, Chuz, the lord of madness, keeps the jawbones of an ass and uses them as a ventriloquist’s aid, sometimes carrying on a conversation with them. That kind of thing is unforgettable.

5. Make him really, really attractive.

Even when villains are physically appealing, the heroes and heroines are never attracted to them. Either they sense the darkness lurking beneath the fair exterior or they’re so much in True Love with a good person that the villain’s appearance never sways them.

But what if it does? That’s one thing I liked about Matthew Woodring Stover’s debut novel Iron Dawn; when the heroine meets the villain for the first time, she’s literally dry-mouthed and blushing because he’s so handsome. He’s a murderer, a rapist and a pedophile, true. But he’s got amazing beauty and physical presence, and she can’t help feeling the effects of those.


fairyhedgehog said...

I think it's Kim Harrison that makes her villain attractive in her series that starts with Dead Witch Walking.

It's very effective to have the villain be in many ways a great guy - except that you see him callously kill off someone who threatens his business and make it look like an accident. And then he makes excellent provision for the man's family. Lots of mixed feelings there.

Unknown said...


I loved it--and laughed out loud!

Anonymous said...

Nice work as usaul, Marian. Number three makes me think of Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Notingham. Evil, but funny.

writtenwyrdd said...

There are a number of really good villians that I've read over the years. One of my favorites is in God Stalk, where the evil bad guy is also being used and sort of warped into that mold, albeit willingly. In the end, he sacrifices himself for the heroine, sort of redeeming himself. He dies, she lives, and although you know he wouldn't have been a good guy, the fact that he somehow sort of loves the heroine and saves her makes him utterly remarkable as a villian.

I think that I prefer the attractive villian that the hero hates to be attracted to. That struggle against attraction is what makes bad vampires fascinating, too.

But when they do some funny bits of evil like your suggested boob warp, that's great stuff.

Marian Perera said...

Hi fairyhedgehog,

That's a great detail - the villain killing a man but taking care of the bereaved family afterwards. Mixed feelings are a wonderful thing to evoke in the reader, IMO. I'll keep an eye out for Dead Witch Walking.

Maria Zannini said...

Excellent suggestions. I love the ventriloquist act with the jawbone of an ass. You are right. Unforgettable.

colbymarshall said...

because everyone lves a hot bad boy ;-)