Like many women of my generation, I grew up reading Nancy Drew, moved on to Agatha Christie, and then the darker realms of Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz. With Nancy Drew, we had Ned and his roadster for romantic interest. Surprisingly, I found more romance in King and Koontz’s works than in Christie’s. However, I wanted more romance in my reading and my writing. After turning my hand at horror, science fiction, and mystery, I moved under the generous umbrella of romance which could accommodate my fascination with genre crossing.
Not the moustache twirling two-dimensional ones. No, I want my three-dimensional baddies to jump off the page and make readers shake their heads in dismay and their fists in fury. I want them to shout “You dirty rat!” at their e-readers and books.
Why? Because the bigger the villain, the harder the hero and heroine have to work to overcome him or her and the bigger the emotional payoff. Where would Batman be without the Riddler? Would Clarice Starling be a super FBI Agent without Hannibal Lecter? Would we have cheered as hard for Colin Firth in Bridget Jones Diary if Hugh Grant had been a less of a sleazoid? Our characters, like us, grow through overcoming obstacles and become stronger and more powerful with each challenge. Sometimes there are setbacks, and the villain wins a round. The hero and heroine must rise up, beaten, bloodied, and determined to destroy the bad guy.
What do I look for in a villain? Here are few of my favorite attributes (you may recognize a few from your own work):
- Smart, not necessarily genius level, but not Too Stupid To Live (TSTL);
- Passionate about his mission in life, whatever it is;
- Excellent at that mission/work;
- Larger than life;
- Manipulative; and,
In addition to all of the above, he or she must also have at least one redeeming quality. Perhaps the villain has a soft spot for stray cats and dogs. Maybe she works at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, not to hunt for her next victim, but out of the “goodness” of his or her heart. Maybe his mother was cruel to him, or her father abused her relentlessly. To make it work as an author, you must find that attribute, painful memory, the one thing you know will shift your perception about an evil-doer—and use it.
Villains can come in all shapes and sizes. Katherine Ramsland, an associate professor of psychology at DeSales University is a prolific writer on the psychology of serial killers. Her research is painstaking and her insights into the life and minds of these psychopaths are revealing. I am a huge fan of her work and have many of her books on my shelves. Ted Bundy personified the list above. Above all, he was charming. Able to manipulate women into believing he was trustworthy, Bundy murdered at least twenty women, possibly more. His redeeming quality, if you will, was that he was born to an unwed mother and raised as her brother until she married John Bundy.
Don’t discount women. They can be the worst villains because society expects the “softer sex” to be maternal and kind. We don’t expect sweet little old ladies to be killers. But, then again, look at Arsenic and Old Lace. We remember the movie and these characters precisely because they went against the grandmotherly stereotype. They weren’t one hundred percent bad. In fact, they were adorable, even as they poisoned their boarding house guests. The play and subsequent movie were based on a true female serial killer, Amy Archer-Gilligan.
Sometimes corporations are villains. New York Times columnist, Phillip Lopate, was one of the first to recognize a new genre of big business baddies in Erin Brockovich. There she is, this down on her luck woman with little kids and big bills, taking on a huge evil corporation. When she received that big check from the settlement, didn’t you cry? I know I did. She earned it. The problem with evil corporations is it can be difficult to put a face on it or to find a redeeming “quality.” In this instance, the author would do well to create a do-gooder foundation the corporation funds for an important issue, such as saving whales, trees, wolves, etc.
Secret societies and cabals make great villains, as Dan Brown discovered in his best-seller, The DaVinci Code. The key to his success with this villain was to put a face on the evil group in the form of the mad monk/assassin. The monk embodied many of the traits noted above: smart, passionate about his mission, excellent at his work, larger than life (seriously, he creeped me out!), untrustworthy, manipulative, and, controlling. He was not charming. However, he was loyal in the extreme to Opus Dei.
Look for ideas in the news and history books for truly evil villains. I’m read crime blotters, like others read obituaries. When I saw an article on human trafficking, which was literally in my back yard, I realized modern day slavery was not just in third world countries. I became obsessed, if you will, with the topic and discovered that it wasn’t just cartels and crime bosses that were involved in human trafficking, but also so-called religious organizations and cults. Then I had a crazy idea, sort of like F. Paul Wilson’s Nazi’s versus vampires out of the box thinking when he wrote The Keep. How about drug cartels versus cults? Which is worse: someone who tells you he is in the crime business, or someone who claims his or her evil actions are in the name of God?
I spent two years researching the background for Obsession before I began to write. Because of the sensitivity of the topics (near death experiences, cults, cartels, and human trafficking), I wanted to be accurate when I wove them into the story. I am obsessed with details and I wanted my villains to ring true. I read extensively and watched hundreds of documentaries. My husband began to dread turning the TV on, not sure what he’d find. I learned more about David Koresh and Waco and Jim Jones and Jonestown than I would ever use in the book. As the author I had to get into the heads of these zealots who were convinced they were on a mission from God to get the characters right. I loved writing them, so much so that when my editor read the first draft, she told me to give them less time on the stage.
Whoops! I did say I loved villains, didn’t I? Maybe you love villains, too. If you do, here is a list of resources for you to develop your forces of evil.
- Creating Villains People Love to Hate
- Crime and Science Radio
- For the Love of Villains
- How Not to Create a Villain
- The Forensic Examiner
- Time Secret Societies: Decoding the Myths and Facts of History’s Most Mysterious Organizations
- Top 100 Comic Book Villains
- Top 50 Movie Villains
- Top 10 Romance Movie Villains
After working in health care delivery for years, Sharon Buchbinder became an association executive, a health care researcher, and an academic in higher education. She had it all–a terrific, supportive husband, an amazing son and a wonderful job. But that itch to write (some call it an obsession) kept beckoning her to “come on back” to writing fiction. Thanks to the kindness of family, friends, critique partners, beta readers, and great editors, she is now an award-winning author published in contemporary, erotic, paranormal and romantic suspense. When not attempting to make students, colleagues, and babies laugh, she is herding cats, waiting on a large gray dog, fishing, dining with good friends, or writing. You can find her at www.sharonbuchbinder.com
A year after a barbaric childbirth, complete with a near-death experience and an encounter with her guardian angel, Angie Edmonds is just happy she and her son, Jake, are alive. She’s finally in a good place: clean, sober, and employed as a defense attorney. But at the end of a long work day, she finds herself in a parent’s worst nightmare: Jake has been kidnapped and taken across the Mexican border by a cult leader who believes the child is the “Chosen One.”
Stymied by the US and Mexican legal systems, Angie is forced to ask the head of a Mexican crime syndicate for help. Much to her chagrin, she must work with Alejandro Torres, a dangerously attractive criminal and the drug lord’s right-hand man. Little does she know Alejandro is an undercover federal agent, equally terrified of blowing his cover—and falling in love with her.