Creating villains we love to hate
Updated: Nov 26, 2018
It’s a given − mystery writers have to create good villains. The villain doesn’t have to be a maniacal goofball who wants to take over the world. In fact, I’d argue there are too many of those. Nor, does it have to be the evil psychopath who would rather eat your brain than pick it. It just has to be someone who wants something so badly (money, love, power, reputation, change) that they’re willing to steal, or better yet, kill for it.
As a writer, the trick is to not only make the villain believable, but likable. No, I don’t mean you have to like the villain as a person. But, readers must like the villain as a character. The villain has to be interesting. Much like the popular Disney movie, “101 Dalmatians” with Glenn Close, if readers (in that case, gamers) don’t connect with the villain, if they don’t “like” the villain, they may not connect or stay with the story.
In Agatha Christie’s day, villains tended to be fairly simple. The stories focused more on the search for, and discovery of, clues rather than the villain. Today, mysteries, and their counterparts, thrillers, often rely on villains with very complex personalities and motives. In many cases, the villain takes on enormous proportions, which then creates a new challenge for the author. Because, regardless of how big a footprint the villain leaves, it’s important that there be a balance between the protagonist and antagonist (villain). Unless, of course, you want the villain to win. Here’s an example: In both The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, author, Dan Brown, created very complex thrillers with antagonists that were large, international, well-funded groups who perpetrated horrible crimes based on complicated “puzzles” − puzzles the average person could never solve. These types of villains (and subsequently, their crimes) would normally overwhelm the common police detective or amateur sleuth. So, to maintain balance, Brown employed, Robert Langdon, a highly intelligent university professor and symbologist as the protagonist, someone whose training gave him the specialized skills needed to solve the puzzles, and therefore, the crimes.
If you’re a mystery reader (or writer), take a look at popular mystery/crime novels, and you’ll find that the protagonist is always well-matched to the villain by either skill, intelligence, creativity, tenacity, and/or the ability to garner help from others. The story just wouldn’t work otherwise. Even when the villain(s) seem to have all the advantages of money, political connections, firepower, planning, and more, the protagonist will at least match them in sheer tenacity and resourcefulness. Think Bruce Willis in Die Hard, or Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis, Moriarty.
Today, a common literary device is to allow the reader into the mind of the villain. This wasn’t allowed in the old days. In Agatha Christie novels, the villain was hidden amongst the regular cast of characters until the sleuth summed everything up at the end. Today, authors often give you a glimpse into the villain’s mind and motivation through a change in point-of-view − usually through separate chapters devoted to the villain. Something unheard of before. I made the decision to employ this device in my own mystery novel, Mass Murder because I felt it added depth to the story I couldn’t get any other way. By using several short chapters in the villain’s voice, I was able to reveal a great deal about the murderer’s past, what made him tick as an individual, why he was living in disguise, and why he felt the need to murder, not once, but twice. In this way, I hoped to create interest in the villain and a sense that readers knew him before his actual identity was revealed.
My point is, that writers have to take as much care in creating their villains as they do their protagonists. After all, good villains are not only the characters we love to hate, they create the conflict that moves the story forward, a necessary ingredient in any good mystery.