Creating Likable Villains

  • Cop and villain

Creating Likable Villains

Because bad guys are such fun to write, or perhaps simply because they stand in the way of our hero or heroine, it’s tempting to make them uni-dimensional. Your villain is a serial killer? Make him eat children. He’ll be far scarier – and more compelling – if he’s pure evil incarnate, right?

Well, actually, no.

The scariest characters – in real life or in fiction – are those we believe, in the right circumstances, given enough love, held up to the light, could be good people. Consider Casey Anthony. Most of America hates her, sure – yet, somehow her lawyers managed to convince twelve honest, law-abiding jury members that, despite the astounding circumstantial evidence mounted against her, she was not guilty of murdering her child.

Although we love to hate her, we watched, partly because we were curious, we wanted to know the outcome, and also because we were compelled.

Why?

Because she’s pretty. Because – like it or not – her desire to party was appropriate, not for a mom, certainly for her age. Because, if she was a victim of incest, the monster she became may not be entirely her fault.

The same principles apply in fiction. Compassionately drawn villains are the most interesting bad guys, both because they are unpredictable and because part of us – sympathetic or empathetic – is rooting for them.

Todd Corbett, Leah’s badass boyfriend in my novel, In Leah’s Wake, is one of these villains. Todd comes from the wrong side of town. A high school dropout, he worked for two years as a roadie for a rock band. When he returns to Cortland, after his arrest for dealing coke, and Leah, a good girl, star athlete, falls in love, I thought readers might hate him.

Yet they tell me they don’t. Why?

First and foremost, because I don’t.

That’s right. To create a compelling villain, you, the author, must like – or at the very least – empathize with him.

Like Casey, Todd is extremely good looking. This works in his favor. Writing, I pictured a tall, blue-eyed blonde, who, as we see in the opening chapter, is gentle with Leah. Had I made him five-three, fat, balding and pock-marked – OK, I might have liked him then too, or taken pity on him because he was so ugly; the point is, like most humans, I’m partially swayed by appearance. The kid’s hot, gosh darn it. He reminds me of a boy I might have dated in high school (had I been allowed to).

Enough said.

Give your villain looks that you – and your characters – find attractive. Or make him or her so ugly that human kindness dictates compassion.

Second, give him at least one redeeming quality, one that’s not a cliche. You say your villain loves puppies? Nope. Rolling my eyes. Cliche alert.

As I’ve said, early on Todd is gentle with Leah. He feeds her hunger for independence. He accepts her for who she is. Kids at her middle-class high school have specific expectations. They want her to fit a mold they’ve created. Leah’s dreams be damned. The adults in her life, some legitimately (their goal is keep her on track) stifle her with their rules.

Todd has no expectations, no rules. With him, she can be a free spirit, the person (she thinks) she was meant to be. Let’s face it: he has very few expectations of himself. Why would he have any of her?

And yet.

She doesn’t see this. To her, he’s freedom, possibility, independence.

I may cringe at her immaturity, his manipulation, yet part of me – and, I daresay, the reader – identifies. We understand what she sees in him. We can’t help but feel attracted. If your protagonist sees the good in the villain – until you’ve shown them why they shouldn’t – readers will too.

If the villain has a positive effect on others or on his surroundings, he’ll also be more likable. Early on, among the high school kids in Cortland, Todd is a hero. He’s a rule flouter, the cool kid they wish they could be.

In one of the early chapters, I write a scene with Todd and Leah partying with his friends. Although drinking and drugging, the kids are relaxed, easy with one another. They tease and have fun. In a replay of that chapter, after Leah is dismissed from the soccer team, Todd and his friends rush to Leah’s defense. When Leah runs away from home, Todd’s friend Hope takes her in. These small kindnesses toward Leah, while they never completely absolve Todd, humanize him, make him relatable.

Later, Leah runs away with Todd. Because the stakes are so high – she risks completely alienating her family – to empathize with her, forgive her monumentally poor decisions, readers must have empathy for Todd. Otherwise, they’d simply view her as a nitwit or a jerk and lose interest.

Consider the sociopath. You’re reading a police procedural or a thriller – a classic story of good versus evil. When the cop confronts the villain, we clap, breathe a sigh of relief, finish the book and start on the next.

Suppose, rather than pure evil, the sociopath has redeeming qualities. He’s kind to a neighborhood child or he’s a staunch environmentalist or he’s honest to a fault. Because he doesn’t want the clerk to get in trouble or suffer in any way, he always returns incorrect change. Now when he and the cop have their showdown, instead of thinking kill him, we think wait. Maybe he lunges at the cop, forcing the cop to shoot – still, we feel a split-second of hesitation. Our heart stops; we wish for a different end.

I don’t know about you, but those moments haunt me. Long after I’ve finished reading, I think about the book, mull it over, wonder what was and what might have been.

Finally, consider your villains motivations. They may be warped, they may be weird, but let them be, from the villain’s odd point of view, well-intended. If your villain is not a pov character, this can be hard to pull off. We can’t get inside his head, so we, thus readers, must rely either on his actions or on the perceptions of the other characters, which, as with Leah, may be unreliable. This is why it’s so important to show some decency or positive behavior.

If you give your villain a point of view, you’ll have free reign. Don’t be afraid to show us his good side. Let him doubt or even hate himself.

These techniques, which worked so powerfully to generate empathy for Raskolnikov, the murderer-protagonist in Crime and Punishment, will also work for you.

This post originally appeared on the blog of the wonderful, lovable Emlyn Chand.

2014-06-19T17:28:24+00:00September 21st, 2011|Categories: Creative Writing|Tags: , , |

About the Author:

Terri Giuliano Long, a frequent guest blogger, with appearances on hundreds of blogs, is a contributing writer for IndieReader and also wrote for Her Circle eZine. She lives with her family on the East Coast. Her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, winner of the Global eBook Award, Popular Fiction, and Indie Discovery Award, Literary Fiction, has sold over 130,000 copies worldwide.

5 Comments

  1. TLOTP September 24, 2011 at 3:21 pm - Reply

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  2. Ken Consaul October 18, 2011 at 9:00 am - Reply

    I'm going to disagree with you. To me, a villain should be the bad guy. Readers should dislike the bad guy, not relate to them.
    I have no problem creating a villain that deceives the other characters into thinking he's a good guy. If he happens to deceive the reader at the same time, then so much the better because you can hate them even more.
    If the bad guy has some redeeming quality or something the reader can associate with, I think the reader sees the villain indifferently.
    Just my opinion
    Good article but give me bad to the bone villains.

    • Terri Giuliano Long October 20, 2011 at 8:10 am - Reply

      Hi Ken,

      It's fun to discuss these things and I particularly love to hear dissenting views! I understand your points. I write literary fiction; for this, black and white characters don't work well. For suspense novels and thrillers, or films in those genres, evil bad guys rule!

      Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation!

  3. Sally Nicoll December 7, 2011 at 11:07 pm - Reply

    In my new thriller, The Power Behind The Throne, there are three villains (who will stop at nothing to protect the future of the British monarchy). Like you, Terri, I grew kind-of fond of my bad guys.

    Their leader, Sir Gerald Akehurst, has more than a touch of OCD, but I began to find this endearing. His sidekick Barry Bell (the 63rd richest man in England) is squeamish about killing- at least, until a childhood friend is attacked. Mind you, the third member of the Sceptre Committee, Robert Dunstan, has no redeeming features – perhaps that's why he's the one I'd least like to have dinner with.

    Now I come to think of it, The Power Behind The Throne, also features two professional assassins – and I'd *love* to go drinking with both of them! What does that say about me?

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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