What Makes a Good Villain?

novel worldbuilding Apr 16, 2024
close up shot of Hannibal Lecter, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins

by Philipi Schneider

It's been a while since I last wrote on this blog! Well, some things have happened in my life. The main one is that I had a child!

Having slightly overcome the madness of the first few days, and knowing that I won’t get the nap I so desperately need, I sit down to write a few lines about the progress of the book. And it might be a bit longer than usual, so bear with me.

I wanted to talk about something that elicited reactions from some readers of the first drafts of the book. One of the characters, intended to be one of the villains, was described to me by one of these readers — whose identity will remain confidential — as an absolutely despicable and irritating character. The kind that makes you want to skip the page whenever they appear.

I still don’t know if this is good or bad. On one hand, you want your readers to like your characters. On the other, a story is as engaging and impactful as its villains. This has led me to think a lot about this specific character, and about villains in general.

The first thing I notice about villains, which seems to be a general misunderstanding, is that it’s not enough for a character to do bad things to be a villain. On the contrary, stories are full of heroes and protagonists who commit many atrocities. The first example that comes to mind is Paul Kersey from Death Wish. After his family falls victim to a terrible crime, the once quiet architect goes out at night, seeking revenge—not only against the criminals who killed his family, but against other random thugs.

Under the moral and legal criteria that order life in modern society, Paul Kersey is undoubtedly a major criminal. He kills random people in cold blood, assumes the role of judge and executioner himself, and deprives his victims of one of the most basic rights of modern justice: the right to a fair trial, with a lawyer.

Is Paul Kersey a villain? Not at all.

His movies show the tragic context that leads him to seek revenge, depicting a society steeped in violence, and authorities that are incompetent and obtuse, paralyzed by bureaucracy and unjust laws. The narrative makes it perfectly acceptable for the viewer that their hero goes out at night shooting thugs.

And this is the very mistake of great creators, who are surprised to see that the audience loves and roots for characters who, in theory, should be detestable. When the creators of Breaking Bad reinforce that Walter White is a great villain, they seem to be lying not only to the audience but to themselves. Walter White is an anti-hero. He starts his journey humiliated by his students, unsuccessful in his profession, and unsupported in his marriage. As the series progresses, White develops a taste for power, becoming impulsive, uncontrollable, and capable of the greatest atrocities. Yet, we want to see him rise in the crime hierarchy and subdue his enemies. We know his fate will be only one—not so much because of cancer, but because the narrative cannot forgive his sins. We mourn his downfall, we lament his fate—even longing for his final downfall, so we can say: Walter White, go in peace—, but we are not truly able to root for his fall, as we do for true villains. In this case, doing so seems to retrospectively validate all the initial humiliation, sending the message that, in the end, all those bullies from the start of the season were right. And this is something the series' viewer cannot do.

So, what makes a villain hateable? It’s not merely evil.

Joffrey Baratheon is, undoubtedly, one of the most detestable villains ever created. Hannibal Lecter, on the other hand, is one of the most terrifying villains—Anthony Hopkins transformed him into a true satanic entity. But Hannibal is many things: intriguing, frightening, scary, but not hateful. Why?

Hannibal Lecter is cold, logical, and even has what can be called an internal ethical code: he values kindness, delicacy, and genuinely takes an interest in Clarice Starling, even saving her life in his last appearance. His extreme intelligence, ability to manipulate, and psychological acumen turn his confrontations with the police forces into a kind of duel between gentlemen. Duels in which innocents may lose their lives, which, for Hannibal, are just minor collateral damage in a game. Hannibal Lecter scares us—he eats people, after all—but we do not despise him.

Joffrey, on the other hand, is sadistic, arrogant, impulsive, cowardly, and—perhaps this is the exposed nerve of our sensibility—stupid. Heavens, how stupid that kid is. It’s impossible not to see that wretch on screen and not hope he is immediately run over by a truck, or devoured by a shark thrown at him by a tornado, anything.

Petty, stupid, and arrogant are more detestable in fiction than pure evil. Better to be satanic than pathetic. For this reason, in the universe of Hannibal Lecter, characters like Frederick Chilton, the director of the Psychiatric Hospital where Doctor Lecter was interned, or Paul Krendler, the careerist Attorney General, are more despicable than Hannibal himself—even without ever having killed anyone. They are closer to Joffrey than Hannibal Lecter ever will be.

I remember I started the text talking about a problem with one of my characters. It happens, in my path, I found a small detour that I decided to explore, and it turned out to be much richer and more interesting than the main path. It’s natural; it's much more interesting to talk about the great villains of fiction, than to discuss an embryonic antagonist, unnamed, faceless, still in formation.

The reader of this blog who checks out the final novel will identify, without a doubt, the problematic character, the problem I am discussing here—and for which I accept suggestions to solve it.

My intention with this character is not to create an ambiguous figure, whose acts and passions are clouded in the shadows of morality. No, I want to create a character who is evil. Cruel. Sadistic. Who enjoys watching suffering, who delights in others' pain, who commits evils even when they bring him no benefit. But I don’t want to create another Hannibal Lecter. I want to expose in this character a more banal, arbitrary, and absurd facet of evil. Like Joffrey Baratheon.

However, unlike Joffrey Baratheon, who is weak, cowardly, and stupid, this character has at least physical strength and martial skill; he is a fearsome presence in his own right, not depending on circumstantial advantages, such as being elevated to the position of king, to exercise his evils. Not that this character is particularly brave. No, he may turn out to be quite cowardly, but, due to his physical size, he has not accustomed himself to hiding and running. In summary, he is a big, strong, and evil guy.

And stupid? Well, I don’t like stupid characters, and I think my reader will agree that characters who make dumb mistakes to move the story along should be avoided at all costs. This character is not particularly intelligent, but neither is he an idiot. At least not too much of an idiot.

And why not? Crowning him with a birdbrain would tick all the boxes on the list of characteristics desirable in a detestable villain.

I want the reader to believe in this character. And the minimum necessary for this is that the character be capable of surviving on his own in a violent and hostile world, as is the universe of Flesh of Gods. A quite observable characteristic of our world is that violent, aggressive, and stupid people end up finding even more violent, aggressive, and stupid people and getting into trouble in the process. This triad of characteristics is not good for health. How will I convince you that this guy has been evil to the bone for so long without having encountered someone more sadistic, more cruel, and stronger to have given him a good beating, at least?

Being smart enough not to be aggressive all the time, being able to contain himself when circumstances are unfavorable—but exercising all the cruelty possible to him.

And here lies the contradiction. When I introduced the character, he seemed wild as a force of nature, something untamable, like a tiger or a storm. When I introduced him in the plot and inserted him among the other protagonists of the book, the tiger seemed like an irritated cat. In both circumstances, some readers even said they seemed like different characters. The same character went from a terrible assassin to a high school bully. I tried to combine Hannibal and Joffrey, and I couldn't. And here I find myself divided.

Cutting—or reducing—the petty and spiteful side of this character, making him save himself for the Great Atrocities, ironically, might make him more worthy, even capable of some form of redemption. In the book La Bas, by the French writer Huysmans, there is a biographical account of Gilles de Rais, a medieval serial killer, while the protagonist investigates the presence of Satanism in French society of the 19th century, even witnessing a black mass. The book ends with the narration of Gilles de Rais's conversion before his execution, with the population, victim of his atrocities, pleading for forgiveness for his soul. If Gilles de Rais can have some kind of redemption, my humble scoundrel might as well. I may be being stubborn here, maybe I should indeed review this point of view, but heavens, I don't want to redeem him. On the other hand, making him less terrible in the great villainies will empty an important element of tension from the story. I don’t want to make him a fool for the sake of the coherence of his character.

A measure I intend to adopt, which involves rewriting a good part of the beginning of the book, is to reduce the scale of the atrocities committed by the character in his introduction in the plot. This character is introduced in a scene where a group of soldiers is found decimated on a road. We are informed that this character is the leader of a group of criminals, feared in the region for his unbridled violence. We do not see the criminals in action; we see only the aftermath of the massacre. Pools of blood on the ground, bodies wounded and mangled, and so on. In the first draft, I think I exaggerated the number of bodies. Thirty-four dead soldiers. This number alone already creates the impression of an over-human malevolent force in the reader's mind. When we finally meet the man behind it, as much as he is a formidable man of arms, it's hard not to be disappointed.

How many people should I kill in this first encounter for my character to be coherent and plausible? Five? Ten? Fifteen? I have not yet decided. It’s a minor detail in the overall picture of the novel, but one that I cannot and should not neglect.

Perhaps this detail will only be resolved in the revision of the book, after the story is finished. Perhaps I will only be able to 'balance' his initial attack correctly after all the character development during the book. Only after the last atrocity of my character may it be possible to correctly dimension his initial violence, so that it does not clash with the rest of his crimes.

Or maybe not. One of the objectives of this blog is, precisely, to present and discuss ideas during the development of this novel, receive feedback, generate debates... I think, indeed, that the quantified aspect of RPGs, with their skill levels and chances, may offer a perspective that I am not seeing now.

What do you think, folks?