How to Create a Believable (And Terrifying) Villain

The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture. ~Alfred Hitchcock

The great filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock was certainly a master of creating very credible and terrifying villains.  In fact, after seeing his movie Psycho in high school, I was so frightened for a while that I’d peer out from behind the shower curtain to make sure that Norman Bates hadn’t followed me into the bathroom, his axe raised.

Hitchcock’s statement about villains can also apply to fiction.  Who will ever forget Daphne Du Maurier’s evil housekeeper,  Mrs. Danvers, in the novel Rebecca?  Or, the behemoth Moby Dick?  Or, the one-handed Captain Hook?   The bloodthirsty Count Dracula?  Or, J.K. Rowling’s dastardly Voldemort?

From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Good or Evil?  Shot in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston with my iPhone 4.

In the process of writing my novel, The Incident at Montebello, I had to work the hardest on Donato, my antagonist.   I knew the success of the book would hinge on whether he was believable and his motives were clear.  So, as I drafted the story and received feedback from other writers and agents, I developed a set of guiding principles for creating my villains:

#1.  Avoid the One-Dimensional Villain.

If you are like me, you are easily frustrated by a simplistic villain, who always acts in predictable ways.   That is why I follow the writer Ken Follett’s advice:

People are much more complicated in real life, but my characters are as subtle and nuanced as I can make them.~Ken Follett

it is essential to create in a multi-dimensional villain, who is not simply twirling his mustache and muttering, “Curses!” throughout the entire novel.  He or she has to be more than simply evil.  He or she may be married with children, have a high-profile job, watch American Idol, and even have lots of friends. This leads to the next point.

#2.  Remember That Evil is Subtle and Hard to Detect.

A quote from the Nazi architect, Albert Speer, illustrates this point.

One seldom recognizes the devil when he has his hand on your shoulder. ~Albert Speer

We can assume that Speer was referring to his leader Adolph Hitler, who could be charming and charismatic, as well as ruthless and calculating.   This means that your villain will conceal his true nature from many people.  In fact, he may have convinced most people that he is a good person.  How many times have we heard the sad TV interview with neighbors of a serial killer who say, “I can’t believe he’d do this.  He seemed like such a nice guy.”

#3.  Give the Reader an Honest and Balanced View of the Villain

This means you will need to work hard to understand your villain, so you can portray his positive and negative qualities.  It’s far easier to heap pejoratives on our villain’s shoulders and describe him as a “monster.”  But it is far more effective to let our hero have some positive qualities too.  Then, let him reveal his dark side to the reader.  How?  Through his dialog and actions.  Here’s an example from my book when the villain Donato returns to his tiny Italian town after years of living in the United States.  Here, I wanted to describe some of his positive attributes–namely, his good looks.

In the piazza, friends and neighbors exclaimed over Donato. The miller pinched his lapels and admired the cut of his suit, which highlighted his shoulders and trim waistline. The butcher complimented his black hair with hardly a trace of gray except around the sideburns and said, “Four years have passed and you don’t look a day older.”

So far, the reader has a positive view of Donato.  But here’s what happens when he sees his 14-year-old son, Charlie for the first time in years.

With a salute and a grin, Charlie stepped forward and extended his hand. “Papà,” he said, standing tall like a soldier. “A firm grip is the mark of an honest man. Didn’t they teach you that in school?” Donato said, releasing Charlie’s hand. “Yes, papà,” Charlie murmured, his smile fading.

In these few lines, the reader sees that Donato is an exacting and autocratic father, who is difficult to please.  This reveals Donato’s true nature, and sets up the later conflict between him and his son.

#4.   Let the Villain Surprise the Reader.

In other words, predictability is deadly.  Keep the reader guessing as to what the villain is going to do or say next to thwart the hero and achieve his own nefarious ends. This leads to the next point:

#5.  Figure Out the Villain’s Motivations and Make At Least One of Them Clear to the Reader.

In the villain’s mind, there is often a complex (and perhaps convoluted) rationale for his actions.   To us, these actions may be illogical or senseless, but nevertheless the villain has his own reasons for acting like the devil himself.   In Mario Puzo’s Godfather novels, for example, we can condemn Vito Corleone’s mobster ethics and his brutal use of force.  However, Puzo takes the time to let us see Vito’s devotion to his family and helps us understand that Vito acts out of the desire to protect his family.  We don’t share Vito’s justification for murder, but we can understand it.  Therefore, Vito’s actions are more credible to us and we are engaged with him and the story.

#6.  Make Sure Your Villain and Hero Are Evenly Matched.

Think of your novel as a battle between the forces of good and evil.  At some points in the story, the hero will win;  other times the scale will tip towards the villain’s side.  But in order for the reader to be fully engaged in the story, she needs to believe that the odds of winning and losing could tip in either the hero or villain’s favor.  This creates dramatic tension, which makes the reader keep turning the pages to find out who wins in the end. But wait….I hear you say.  How does this make the villain terrifying?  In Donato’s case, it’s the choices he makes, which have greater and greater consequences, until he is forced to choose between his loyalty to his family or to the Fascist government.

This quote sums it up very well:
No one just starts giggling and wearing black and signs up to become a villainous monster. How the hell do you think it happens? It happens to people. Just people. They make questionable choices, for what might be very good reasons. They make choice after choice, and none of them is slaughtering roomfuls of saints, or murdering hundreds of baby seals, or rubber-room irrational. But it adds up. And then one day they look around and realized that they’re so far over the line that they can’t remember where it was.” ― Jim Butcher, Cold Days

Who are your favorite literary villains?   Why are they memorable to you?   Have you had any insights when creating a villain in your novel? To read more about character development, I’d recommend Robert McKee’s book Story — an excellent source of information.

12 thoughts on “How to Create a Believable (And Terrifying) Villain

  1. I loved this post! Since I’m just starting out as an author (in the process of writing the first novel), these points are good ones to keep in mind. Thanks for the tips!

  2. Matthew L. Campbell

    This made me think of Cersei Lannister and Hannible Lecter, two of my favorite antagonists. They evoke such mental dissonance at times – awful in character, but with good reason.

  3. Definitely some things to consider as I edit my draft. Thanks so much for the post! It’s most helpful!

  4. Hi Christine. That’s great to hear. I was hoping it would be helpful.

  5. These are fantastic points.

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