by | Sep 5, 2016 | Chris Goff, The Writer's Life | 2 comments

by Chris Goff


 The easy definition of a villain

We all instinctively know who the bad guy is in a novel—it’s the person who’s going to stop our hero from getting what he wants. He doesn’t always have to be evil, but in a thriller he usually is. In a thriller, it’s usually the guy who is perpetrating the most evil.
We’re talking Hannibal Lecter, the cannibal from Red Dragon (in Silence of the Lambsit was Buffalo Bill); Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ old nemesis; Mr. Hyde from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Nils Bjurman, Lisbeth’s guardian, the rapist, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; Norman Bates in Psycho; Annie in Stephen King’sMisery. All of them despicable villains. And we love to hate them!
We’ve been taught to love villains since we were little kids. Think of the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians; Agatha Trunchbull from Matilda; the un-named villain who shot Bambi’s mother. We derived such satisfaction when the bad guy suffered defeat.

Why the fascination with villains?

Psychiatrist Carl Jung believed we need to confront our hidden nature in order to grow as human beings. Sigmund Freud would have said it’s the id still dwelling inside us that would have loved to be a super villain. Others believe that we live vicariously through our heroes—we fight the good fight, vanquish evil, and find justice for those wronged. But let’s toy with what Jung and Freud thought. If what they believed has any basis in reality, then villains must also satisfy some basic need in all of us. 

What darkness or secret wishes do you share with a villain?

A desire for:

Freedom – It seems to be a consensus. While our heroes are constrained by the edicts of society, a villain is free to do whatever they want. Admit it, that’s sort of liberating.
Moriarty by Sidney Paget

Power – While heroes want to triumph, they don’t want to take over the world. Villains, on the other hand, want to dominate. Secretly, it might be nice to be in total control.

Payback –When you were a kid and someone picked on you, did you ever dream of that bully getting his due? A hero can only take things so far. He’ll stop the bully, and then try and teach him a lesson, while a villain is all “eye for an eye.” Unacceptable maybe, but secretly it might be nice to exact a little revenge.
A desire to:
Triumph over fears – Through fiction it’s easy to make that trek to the basement, to brave the dark, to stand up against evil. Living vicariously through our heroes confrontations with the villain, we test our own bravery and experience the worst without ever actually facing a knife-wielding maniac.
Live vicariously – Villains don’t let anything get in the way of what they want. Often they drive nice cars, live in nice houses, like the finer things in life. They have a “devil-may-care” attitude that we can’t help but admire. This villain is willing to put it all on the line just to get what he wants.

But how can one justify a villain’s behavior?

Chalk this up to Human Nature. Some will blame the victim. No one really wants to believe that “bad things happen to good people,” so we twist what’s happening. We say the victim asked for it. I mean, only a moron goes down to the basement when the lights go out and they hear a strange noise. A sane person gets out of the house and calls the cops. 

Or maybe we can rationalize the villains behavior. I mean, he’s only killing other bad guys. Murder’s a little extreme, but is it really so bad if a serial killer kills another serial killer? 

Basically, as villains go, the more evil the better. That’s because it takes a really bad villain to make a really good hero. Our main man only shines if he triumphs over someone who is as bad as he is good.

A little charisma goes a long way.

Cruella De Vil

While villains are evil and crazy and scary, most of them have traits we admire, traits that make them real. The truth be told, a lot of them are charismatic individuals. Think Ted Bundy. And many thriller writers will admit to basing villains and victims on people they’ve known. But I digress. Suffice it to say, if the villain has some degree of humanity, we like him better. The vicious serial killer who loves puppies, somehow makes him more endearing. 

The truth is, most villains have some admirable traits, and they’re the same traits used to create today’s latest trend.

Anti-heroes are their own kind of bad.

Lately, in books and on television, it’s the bad guys who are taking center stage. Why? Again, chalk it up to human nature. Of course, the good bad guy must face an even worse bad guy, but sometimes that worse bad guy is yesterday’s hero. Confusing? Yes! But let’s look at what makes the anti-hero so compelling.
They’re flawed.People are more realistic these days. We all make mistakes. We’re all selfish sometimes. We all know that people don’t always make the right decisions. Rooting for an anti-hero can make us feel better about ourselves. And we’re not so sure we like those who are being judgmental.
They’re complex.Again, anti-heroes are just people. We all have different reasons for doing the things we do, making the choices we make. Besides, it’s interesting to see what motivates other people.
They’re strong.Anti-heroes are not going to just rollover or go quietly into the night. Just like the heroes of old, they are going to fight tooth-and-claw for what they want. It’s admirable.
They have good intentions. As some wise writer once told me: the villain—or in this case anti-hero—is the hero of his own story.While we might question their methods, we don’t question their motives or intent. Anti-heroes—and for that matter today’s villains—aren’t evil for evil’s sake. They believe in what they’re doing, and believe it’s the only thing they can do to right a wrong or level the playing field. 

Villains, anti-heroes and heroes usually have one thing in common.

They’re smart. And the smarter the better. After all, I believe what readers want in the end is a good contest between the “good guy” and the “bad guy,” and to see justice—however that looks—prevail.

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  1. KJ Howe

    Good psychological analysis, Chris. I often ponder why we find villains so enticing and entertaining…and I think you hit on several excellent points. Thanks for the great blog!

  2. Karna Bodman

    Lots to think about here, Chris! You are right when you say that readers love a good story that pits the "smarts" of the villain vs. the often similar brainy hero — when both are intelligent and clever, we can't wait to turn the pages to see what ploys and twists might be coming as the hero rushes to stop the villain from succeeding in his often lethal plan. When aspiring thriller writers read your article (and I certainly hope they do) — they will get many great ideas about how to create their own villains. Good job – thanks!