In Search of Villains

Why is it so hard to find a truly bad guy (or gal)? In our efforts to render multi-dimensional characters, have we gone too far down the road of understanding and/or excusing wrong behavior?

Fiction needs conflict in order to test the protagonist and advance the story from its opening to its closure.

Conflict comes from the antagonist. For years now, I’ve been carefully using the term antagonist most of the time because I wanted to convey to my students that the opponent in a scene need not be Snidely Whiplash.

However, I’ve grown weary of that namby-pamby approach. What I’m looking for is a well-designed villain, someone who’s evil and intent on harming or thwarting the protagonist.

Serial killers qualify, but they’ve outworn their welcome. Let’s get over the psychotic insanity and find a motivation that’s a little more clever, shall we?

How can a villain harm an individual? Let me count the ways ….

Embezzlement? Blackmail? Ruin? Identity theft? Robbery? Abduction? Emotional slavery? Abuse? Bullying?

On the surface, embezzlement seems rather tame. A bit dusty. Certainly dry.

But is it? It was, if you recall, the underlying motivation for the villain in the film GHOST. Patrick Swayze’s best friend electronically transferred a few million and got himself in trouble.

John Sandford’s novel, BROKEN PREY, features a trio of geeks that electronically drain the bank account of a powerful Mexican drug cartel.

Real-life crook Bernie Madoff siphoned off the pensions of so many people who are now facing uncertain futures and impoverished retirements.

This year, I assumed management of one of my father’s business accounts. It only took a quick comparison of my checkbook balance versus his to show me how easily a person in financial trouble could stumble down the road of temptation.

Embezzlement is more than taking someone’s money. It breaks trust as well, and that hurt can stab deep.

Blackmail? Oh, tosh! No one can be blackmailed these days. Modern society no longer deals with guilt or its sister, shame. People behave as they please. All kinds of indiscretions float through Facebook, and even a princely scandal fades fast.

There is, however, emotional blackmail. One family member coercing another within the entangled webs of dysfunctional families. A wealthy, elderly relative can force her children and grandchildren to put up with her demands in order to inherit her money.

A rebellious teenager can manipulate his parents, pitting them against each other and possibly even pushing them toward divorce.

Blackmail operates best on a foundation of guilt, but it’s really about the inequity of power between two people.

Robbery? Muggings happen. These days, the fear of having your identity stolen due to a robbery preys on people’s peace of mind–less for the inconvenience of losing cash in the wallet and more for the supreme nightmare of juggling bureaucratic red tape to restore everything.

But what if you’re a courier entrusted with the formula for a remedy that will cure cancer? The formula has been sold to a pharmaceutical company, and you’re supposed to deliver it. Only you never arrive.

Robbery, in today’s world, needs to have enormous consequences.

Wait! Let’s define what “enormous consequences” means.

Consider a little girl in the year 1900 that’s given a dime–all the money the family has until payday a week away–and she’s sent to buy a loaf of soft white bread because that’s all her ailing grandmother can eat.

If the dime is stolen, or if the loaf of bread is stolen, aren’t the consequences to that child and her family also dire? What happens to the grandmother if she can’t eat anything? She will weaken and possibly die. If they love her, they’ll be devastated. The child will blame herself. What if no one helps her understand this isn’t her fault? Or what if a grieving parent does blame her? How can she make restitution?

There are so many ways for characters to hurt each other, and so many paths of evil that the bad guy can take. In writing, remember to think through why an antagonist selects the course of action he or she chooses. The motivation doesn’t have to be one that will activate compassion in the reader. Sometimes, villains are just mean because they enjoy it. Effective story conflict doesn’t always require readers to feel that the villain is justified in some way. As my father would say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” The bad guy’s mother may beat him black and blue every morning before school, and that won’t justify his bullying a scared little first-grader out of her lunch.

No matter why, he’s practicing extortion. We can understand where it comes from, but we don’t have to paint it a sympathetic color in an effort to have a complex character. Wouldn’t it be better to keep reader sympathies with the six-year-old who has nothing to eat all day?

Or, if we want to make a protagonist out of the boy, then he should not let the beating drive him to commit wrong. It takes a mighty strong character to break the cycle of violence and abuse. If this boy has that kind of character, then how will he defeat the abusive mother without degenerating to her level?

Fiction needs villains in order to keep story conflict going. Study James Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY for examples of how banal evil can be.


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2 responses to “In Search of Villains

  1. You’re correct, of course. When we create a villain we want to make him so nasty his mother would want to move and not tell him where she’s going. There’s always a temptation to go too far but what happens when we don’t go far enough? Now I’m confused. 🙂

    • Deb

      Please don’t be confused! Take your villain as far as the story’s stakes require. You can always tone the character down a bit in revision if you feel he’s becoming too over-the-top. Chances are, though, that the character will be about right as a nasty if you push the boundaries of your comfort zone.

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