The Villain Makes The Thriller

by | Aug 17, 2016 | The Writer's Life | 7 comments

Sherlock Holmes and his brilliant nemesis Professor Moriarty

by Jamie Freveletti

I love writing a villain. In fact, a brilliant villain will make or break a thriller, mystery or cozy. Without a frightening bad guy, the hero will have nothing to play off of in the story. Over the course of writing my books, I’ve come to spend a lot of time thinking about what makes an effective villain, and I usually think of villains in archetypes, because there seems to be a certain number of recurring themes that can be found in literature.

From the earliest stories found in Greek and Roman myths and folk and fairy tales, to the latest techno thrillers, the villains come in types (note, there are spoilers when discussing the movies below):
1.     The brilliant criminal. I I love this villain. Think of Professor Moriarity in the Sherlock Holmes novels, the Judge in Christie’s And Then There Were None. This villain frightens us because we all know that he or she is not only smarter than us, she is WAY smarter than us. The fact that we may never best this criminal makes the story all that more compelling as we watch the hero face off. I remember reading the Sherlock Holmes stories and loving just how much smarter Sherlock Holmes was compared to the rest of the world. Then when Sherlock claimed his brother Mycroft was the smart one in the family, I was impressed, and grudgingly decided that if Sherlock thought he was brighter, then he must have been. But I never believed that Moriarty was smarter than Sherlock. Craftier, perhaps, but smarter? Never! While the brilliant villain is a wonderful character to write, it’s a difficult one as well, because the villain’s intellect has to come through, but the writer can’t bore the reader in the process. Also, in the end the hero should win, or at least lose after a hard fought battle, and a battle with a brilliant villain has to be interesting and unique. The brilliant villain is tough to write,but satisfying when done well. 

  The psychotic criminal. Hannibal Lector in The Red Dragon, Randall Flagg in The Stand, Norman Bates in the movie Psycho, and Annie Wilkes in Misery. Bat shit crazy villains scare just about everyone, because they operate on a wavelength that a normal human being does not. It’s no coincidence that the great horror writer Stephen King is listed here twice. No one does villains better than King, and no one writes horror better. Psychotic criminals and horror novels go well together for a reason. They are scary as hell and those who love horror love these villains. 


4   The monster villain. Grendel in Beowulf, Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the zombies in I Am Legendby Richard Matheson. Same premise as the horror villain above. These villains have zero empathy and can’t be reasoned with by a normal person. Plus, they look awful. 

5   The robot villain.  A variant of the monster villain. The Terminator in the movies of the same name, HAL in 2001 a Space Odyssey, VIKI in the movie I, Robot, and Ava in the movie Ex Machina. Like the zombies and monsters above, these villains can’t be reasoned with on any level. Nothing can stop them (The Terminator) and nothing will change them. These are brilliant movie villains, because they make for some great special effects and we all are aware that the workings of these technological beings are beyond our comprehension. We can destroy the computer chip, but perhaps not before it wreaks havoc on the world. A satisfying villain to wipe out in a novel, because it’s not human and so the hero can just have at it.

  Play around with these archetypes for your villain. Add some characteristics, remove others, or focus on a key area. Run through each chapter and think if you can add some marker of the villain’s true nature. All of this will help bring a sense of the the twisted personality of the character. And sometimes, should you wish to make an evil character turn human, you can have the villain control their tendencies or use their formidable skills in the direction of good. Think of the “criminal gone straight” character. Villains are a key part of any mystery or thriller and getting them right takes time, but this character can make your book rise above and they sure are fun to write!
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  1. Gayle Lynds

    I love your breakdown of villain types, Jamie. Never thought of them that way. I bet you'd be the brilliant kind! 🙂

  2. Karna Bodman

    Terrific review of the villain types, Jamie. I have always especially loved the Sherlock Holmes stories — in fact, whenever I see that one will be broadcast, I record it — though when it comes to the movie versions, I like the older ones better than the updated "techno-type" adaptations. The big draw, as you point out, is the clash between the hero and the villain and seeing exactly HOW the hero uses his own skills to best the bad guy…which, of course, makes us wonder if we could EVER be that clever (and the answer is no). Thanks for that great post!

  3. Sonja Stone

    My youngest child and I watch BBC's Sherlock together, and we can't decide who we love more: Sherlock or Moriarty. It's so often true that a great villain makes the story!

  4. Francine Mathews

    My favorite Brilliant Criminal is Tommy Shelby of Peaky Blinders, the masterful British crime family show set in post-WWI Birmingham. He's subtle and ruthless and an adept fencer with myriad opponents–but he's sensitive, as well. A complex villain who feels more like a hero is the most addicting kind.

  5. S. Lee Manning

    Great blog. Yes, the villain makes or breaks the story.

  6. Chris Goff

    I love the brilliant villain, too. But I'd beg to differ on Hannibal Lector. Yes, he's bat shit crazy and psychotic, but he's also brilliant. He plays with Clarice Starling, which makes him even creepier. I would say he's atypical and is a amalgamation of two villain types. Great post.

  7. Jamie Freveletti

    Thanks all! Seems as though everyone likes the brilliant villain. I'll have to write a post analyzing which villains readers like more and why. (That's going to take some research).