by | Aug 26, 2016 | The Writer's Life | 7 comments

S. Lee Manning: The topic for this round of blogs for Rogue Women Writers is creating a great villain. (If you haven’t already, sign up to subscribe to our blog here.)   

In honor of the current topic, I am sharing my recipe. Caution: this recipe is for international or political thrillers. It should be modified for serial killer or domestic thrillers.


What is the underlying reason or concern that the villain thinks justifies his or her actions? (For purposes of this recipe, I will be referring to the villain as “he.” Not that women don’t make wonderful villains, and not that I don’t believe in equal opportunity for female villains, but the villains I’ve created have been male. And it gets confusing to switch back and forth.)
In international and political thrillers, the villain often justifies whatever he’s doing because of a higher goal – in other words, he thinks he’s the hero. And, villains who imagine themselves as heroes are those most likely to commit the worst acts.  Think Hitler. Think Pol Pot. In their minds, they weren’t mass murderers whose very names would become an evocation of evil. In their minds, they were heroes. They did what they perceived as necessary to achieve a goal. Pol Pot thought he was creating a socialist new world order where everyone would be equal. Hitler thought he was bringing the German people back to greatness after the humiliation of World War I.

 And in the realm of international espionage, that’s where the greatest villains come in. Because they think what they’re doing is for a higher purpose, even if achieving that purpose requires terrible or despicable acts. And the acts committed for that higher purpose are more likely to be far ranging, affecting hundreds, or thousands, or millions.

Of course, the motive and the justification can be more mundane, even in international thrillers. The desire for revenge, the desire for money or power. What is important in this ingredient is that the villain believes that he’s justified, that somehow he sees himself as the hero of the story. In my work in progress, one of my villains is primarily motivated by revenge. But in his mind, revenge is a noble righting of a wrong.
What is the underlying reason for the villain’s actions, despite whatever he may tell others or himself is his real motive?
This motive comes from deep within: an insecurity, a twisted childhood, a belief in his own superiority, lust for power, even a sadism born of abuse. It’s the psychology behind whatever allows the villain to think that he has the right to act as he acts.
This needs to be a little more carefully diced than the above. The villain may say he wants to protect the German people but is really motivated by the fact that he’s a little man who failed at art and wants to get back at people who mocked him. Chop finely and sprinkle as you stir.
How is the villain pursuing whatever his stated goal may be? Yes, some stated motives may themselves be despicable, but ultimately, it’s what the villain does, not why he does it. The motive explains the villain; the bad acts make the villain.
It’s not that Pol Pot wanted to equalize Cambodian society, it’s that he murdered a million and a half people in seeking that goal. It’s not that Hitler wanted to raise Germany up after World War I and the depression, it’s how he went about doing it.
In my novel Trojan Horse, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with Mihai Cuza wanting to increase the standing of the country of Romania, and improve the standard of living for its people. There is not necessarily anything wrong with wanting power to achieve what he believes is his goal. It’s how he plans to achieve that goal, and the acts he takes along the way.
Because the villain’s and the hero’s motives may not be that different. They may even be the same. Both may want to protect their own people. Both may want to exact revenge for wrongs.
It’s the lines that are crossed – and how far they are crossed.
There are heroes who sometimes tread on the line between good and evil. In a novel that I read recently, the hero summarily executes a bad guy who is responsible for slowly killing hundreds of people, even though the bad guy has surrendered. It doesn’t necessarily make the hero into a villain. It’s over the line, but it’s only a step over.
The difference is that a great villain doesn’t just step over the line. He drives over it in a Mack truck.
He doesn’t just kill one guy. He’ll kill an entire village of innocent people in order to get one person he thinks needs to be killed. And if it’s one person that’s killed, it’s a person whom the reader thinks does not deserve to die.
The great villain in the international thriller needs to violate our sense of morality and our sense of fair play, and he needs to do it in a way that appalls us. Trojan Horse starts with my villain killing an American intelligence agent by impaling her so she dies slowly and in agony.
Pinch of humanity
Not every villain has it. Certainly not the Terminator types. But a pinch of humanity adds a richness to the stew. Show something about your villain that the reader could actually relate to – that he is stuck in a loveless marriage with a drunk, nagging wife, that he likes German shepherds, that he loves a woman who died. My villain, Cuza, appreciates birds and is gentle with his horses. My taste is for the villain who, despite his evil, is three-dimensional.
Soupçon of charm
Not every villain has this, either. Wit, cleverness, an ability to charm can add flavor to your novel. Add to individual taste.
Gently stir the mixture so that the ingredients blend together. Pour generously over the other ingredients of the novel. Bake for anywhere from a few months to a few years.

Serve warm.

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Gayle Lynds

    What a glorious stew, S. Lee. Love the ingredients. They're so true. I particularly like your admonition to add humanity. Those are the most scary villains of all!

  2. Karna Bodman

    Terrific summary of so many different motives of villains we have seen throughout history as well as in some great novels! In fact, your piece is an excellent "primer" for aspiring thriller writers — with so much food-for-thought on how to craft a very realistic and scary scenario. Thanks for posting.

  3. S. Lee Manning

    I agree, Gayle, that the more human the villain, the more scary, perhaps because he's not an unknowable alien creature. Thank, Karna, I was trying to create food-for-thought for the thriller writer.

  4. DP Lyle

    Love this post. To carry on the food metaphor—Hannibal Lecter comes to mind. He was voted the number 1 villain (Atticus Finch the number 1 hero) in a poll I once saw. Why was Lecter number 1? He hit on all the points you discuss here. Yes he had a deeply psychological motive and he definitely performed many despicable acts and of course charm was his stock in trade–along with profound intellect—but he also had humanity. We see that is the fact that he helped track down Dollarhyde and Buffalo Bill but mostly because he, on some level, loved Clarice. As she said, he would consider harming her "rude." Now that's love.

    Great article.

  5. KJ Howe

    Absolutely love this blog. Totally agree with you about a fully developed villain being the cornerstone of a good book. And the cooking analogy was wonderful. Well done, Sandy!

  6. S. Lee Manning

    DP, Hannibal Lecter would be on my list of top ten all-time villains for the reasons you mention. Thanks for the kind words.

    KJ, glad you liked the cooking analogy. I was actually having trouble coming up with this post, and then I woke up one bright Vermont morning and decided to go with a recipe.

  7. Sonja Stone

    Great post, S. Lee. You touched on something I strongly agree with: the bad guy doesn't think he's the bad guy. Hitler was absolutely the hero of his own story. One might argue, as you mentioned, that his motives (to rescue Germany from the depression) weren't bad. His methods, however… That's the difference, I guess, between hero and villain. Hitler's genocide (to get his people ahead) versus, say, Martin Luther King's methods to promote equal civil rights.