It’s been said that the villain makes or breaks a thriller novel.
I think that could be said about any fictional story. Antagonism makes plot work. Just as a body builder uses a gradual increase in weights to create the resistance that strengthens muscle, so does a story hero need an opponent in order to change, grow, meet and surpass challenges, and ultimately win.
Often in class, I utilize the term antagonist or opponent to get students thinking about the principle of opposition. I want them to understand that a scene antagonist doesn’t have to be the story villain. Friends, for example, can disagree about how to achieve a common objective.
But for this post, I want to discuss villains and villainy. In the current era of often-sappy political correctness, we may find ourselves squirming, uncomfortable with the perjorative term of villain.
Fiddlesticks! Get over your civilized squeamishness and face it squarely for what it is.
This person is bad. This person does bad things to others. This person has embraced evil and likes it.
Or . . . this person has embraced evil and feels guilty about it, but not enough to stop.
Writers can play all day long with the motivations for evil. They can design lengthy, psychologically intricate profiles and back story for such characters. They can decide whether they want to side with “nature or nurture” as a reason for such bad behavior.
I was talking with thriller writer Eileen Dryer several years ago at a writer’s conference in Denver, and she defined evil as “banal.”
Meaning, in other words, that evil is the stupid, trite, ill-planned, impulsive behavior that harms others.
That’s certainly a form of it, one that’s so distressing and hard to deal with in real life. An example would be the half-drunk boyfriend who shakes his girlfriend’s baby too hard to stop it from crying. In the subsequent trial, the man may weep and mumble, “I didn’t mean to do it.” And we feel disgust and anger at the careless waste of an innocent life.
Certainly banal evil can play a useful role in fiction, but I think it’s most effective in combination with planned, intentional villainy.
The hit television drama DOWNTON ABBEY turns heavily on the machinations of two bad servants: Thomas Barrow and Miss O’Brien. Their evil-doing is often banal, and their villainy mild: thieving from the house to supply a wartime black market business, sabotaguing a new footman from motives of petty jealousy, hiding the earl’s dinner shirts so that his valet looks like a fool, abducting the earl’s beloved dog in order to pretend to find her and perhaps gain promotion from a grateful employer … most of these actions are designed around gaining a promotion or getting a work rival fired. That’s serious enough: in the 1920s, being fired without an employer’s reference meant no chance of a job elsewhere and subsequent ruin or starvation.
We laugh at their pranks, yet these characters are capable at any time of crossing stronger lines, of doing real harm with shattering consequences. SPOILER ALERT!!!!! O’Brien causes the miscarriage of a baby, and her guilt over that is something she has to live with. She also wages a long, clever campaign of trickery with the intention of putting Barrow in prison.
We can’t feel sorry for O’Brien with her sour outlook on life and her restless resentment of her privileged employers. If she’s ever pushed too far, just how ruthless might she become? Writer/creator Julian Fellowes nimbly skips back and forth over the line of what is a prank and what might become villainy, keeping his audience tuned in every week.
Another example: Bobby is a teenage football star of his high school, caught up in the jealous angst of his first relationship going sour. He catches some dweeb with “his” girl at a party. Outside, the boys argue. Bobby loses his temper and knocks the other boy down. The boy lands awkwardly, hitting his head on the curb, and dies.
Up to this point, Bobby Banal is just acting on his emotions. He’s committed a wrong, but it wasn’t intentional–at least not to the extreme of manslaughter.
Now, Bobby has a choice. Is he going to run into the house and get others to help him? Is he going to whip out his phone and dial 9-1-1?
Or is he going to hide the body in his car trunk, mop up the blood, and drive away to stage an “accident?”
The line where Bobby crosses the boundary into villainy is very clear here, isn’t it? Do you also see how Bobby Badguy just became more interesting?
We don’t like him. We don’t want him to get away with this. Yet we can’t help but feel an illicit thrill of curiosity. How far will he get before he’s caught? No, no, Bobby! Don’t do this!
A fiction writer will then put the squeeze on Bobby (to use old hardboiled detective parlance).
Because Bobby Badguy didn’t quite get away with hiding the body. He thought it happened in the dark where no one saw and no one heard over the music and noise of the party, but what if the girlfriend was watching?
Now what choice will Bobby make? Does he fold, start crying, apologize to Mindy, and let her call the cops?
Or does he coerce her into keeping his secret? What hold might he have over her? What might he do to create such leverage?
And so Bobby can continue to devolve as a human being into a villain. Until he becomes a hunted, cornered, pathetic, broken individual who’s either arrested or shot down by the police.
One of the best devolvements (is this even a word?) in storytelling that I’ve ever come across is the character trajectory of Michael Corleone as depicted in Mario Puzo’s novel and the masterful Francis Ford Coppola films.
Michael begins the story looking fairly clean. He knows what his father and brothers do, but he’s been kept out of the business. He’s above all that. He’s a war hero. He has other plans for his life. His father wants him to be a senator, and you see him making the first tentative steps in that direction by his wooing the beautiful WASP girl who has the right looks and background for a politician’s wife.
When you’re watching the film you may be distracted by his good looks and the persuasive way he expresses himself to the girl he’s interested in. You may believe what he’s saying.
Once you look at him more closely, however, you realize his introduction is that of a man who’s lying, who’s living in denial. He’s pretending that he’s untouched by the criminal activity, yet he knows about it and has never acted against it. That’s the first false step.
As soon as Don Corleone is ambushed at the street market and seriously injured, Michael’s true nature is revealed: one of an intense, determined, ruthless killer out for revenge.
And by the end of the second film, Michael has ordered his brother’s execution. He’s far more ruthless than his father, a far more dangerous villain, and now someone capable of fratricide. There have been many choices he could have made to truly change himself for the better, but Michael put himself on this path. He wasn’t ever forced into it, no matter what he might claim.
A book sparkles when it has a well-designed villain, someone who wants to do bad things to the sympathetic characters. You don’t have to write about Mafia dons or some Hannibal Lecter clone. You can stay at a much milder end of the spectrum if you choose.
Let’s examine the character Sara Crewe, protagonist of the children’s classic, A LITTLE PRINCESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Sara’s nemesis is the strict, regimented Miss Minchin, proprietess of the girls’ school that Sara attends.
As long as Sara’s bills are paid, Miss Minchin pours on the phoney charm. She has a business to run. Wealthy pupils like Sara are cultivated and catered to in order to keep child and parents happy. Happy parents will recommend her establishment to others. Every business owner understands the need for good PR.
But as soon as Sara’s father dies and word comes that Sara has no inheritance at all, Miss Minchin is furious. Not because she hates Sara, but because she chose to purchase many luxuries for the child on credit, expecting Sara’s father to pay for them. Now, Miss Minchin must return the items or swallow the loss. It’s a blow she doesn’t expect, and she blames the child.
In the Victorian world, sentiment, sweetness, and compassion toward children extended only so far, only if they could be afforded. Miss Minchin turns Sara into an unpaid servant, using her labor as the means by which Sara can repay the debt her father owed to Miss Minchin. And in fact, Miss Minchin believes that she’s been kind by not throwing Sara out into the street to starve.
Where Miss Minchin becomes a villain is through her angry blame of Sara for the problem, her unkindness in telling Sara of the father’s death in a harsh way, her casting Sara into a belowstairs world of poverty and neglect. There are any number of ways in which she could handle the situation with more understanding and compassion. If she treated her servants fairly, they wouldn’t be so stressed and cruel to Sara in turn.
It’s important to remember that wickedness puts verve into a story. Don’t be timid in making your antagonists into villains. Let them see the line and cross it.