OtisTheBulldog's picture
OtisTheBulldog from Somerville, MA is reading your mother's diary. Your sister's too. November 5, 2012 - 5:44pm

I'm working away on my novel, and as I go along and start to figure things out - my villain is pretty much an asshole. Here's the deal - he has political aspirations and a lot of power (he's a police chief) and he has people in place that work for him, knowing they're going to benefit as well.

Because of a large scale event, he has the ability to operate without too many watchful eyes. Bodies going missing won't be much of an issue. He can and will get rid of the people that are in his way.

You're not going to like him, and I don't need the reader inviting him over for dinner. Early on you're going to understand his motivation. What I obviously want to avoid is the "oh, this is the bad guy. I hate everything he does." I want to make sure it doesn't have too much of a comic book feel.

One thing I show is his strained relationship with his daughter and that should gain him some sympathy, if I can do it right. 

Just looking for some thoughts and/or experiences on how I can humanize him a bit more. I've never really done a straight up villain. He's fun to write.

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Acceptance November 5, 2012 - 6:00pm

My first book utilizes a villain as the main character. What I learned from that is that you can have a bad dude be your main guy...he doesn't have to be likeable or relatable. He does, however, have to be interesting. 

With mine it was the issue of him not being able to experience physical sensation on any level: temperature, pressure, etc.

Naturally, that brings up questions:

-how did this happen?

-what are the advantages/disadvantages?

-what's the acclimation process?

What I learned is that despite using a character of low morale, it was actually how he handled the situation/his actions that ultimately defined him and made people want to keep reading. If this were just a bad guy doing bad guy things, I'm not sure I would have had such luck. So yeah, you need to introduce some vulnerabilty, put something at stake, but don't get caught up in trying to make your guy relatable. Instead, make this the guy that people love to watch. Give the reader questions they have to answer.

If you know we're not going to like this guy, you're going to have to beef him up in other areas to compensate for it. 

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands is reading Brian Evenson's Windeye November 5, 2012 - 6:15pm

Don't make his motives too black and white. And just give him likeable qualities. 

OtisTheBulldog's picture
OtisTheBulldog from Somerville, MA is reading your mother's diary. Your sister's too. November 5, 2012 - 6:39pm

@Brandon - good point on likable/relatable vs interesting. 

@Bradley - could you clarify that a little more? For example, this character motives are black & white - there's no getting around that. He's angling to be Mayor and he's using a catastrophe to get away with some things (like getting rid of the guy who's already mayor). He has a very clear motivation and he's power hungry, in that regard, there's not a lot of grey area.

 

I keep thinking of The Govenor in the Walking Dead. He wasn't likable. But he had some vulnerability, (I don't want to spoil anything for anyone). But he also was power hungry, taking advantage of a situation and was clearly ready to do some dastardly shit in order to get what he wanted.

While I'm not writing a zombie novel, there are some strong similarities between my character and The Govenor, at least as far as motivations go. I think what made him so interesting and such a great character was the "what the hell is he going to do next" factor.

So...yeah...that's my challenge...to beef up some other areas to make him more human, less villanious, meanwhile he's actually one underhanded motherfucker willing to do whatever it takes to get him the power he craves.

Mess_Jess's picture
Mess_Jess from Sydney, Australia, living in Toronto, Canada is reading Perfect by Rachael Joyce November 5, 2012 - 6:41pm

Is this the novel you're writing for NaNo?

Give him a rottweiler pup hat he dotes on. Instant likability. 

OtisTheBulldog's picture
OtisTheBulldog from Somerville, MA is reading your mother's diary. Your sister's too. November 5, 2012 - 6:49pm

It is.

I was thinking about giving him a pet cat that strokes and carries around while he explains to the main character what it is he's planning on doing and exactly how he plans on achieving it.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts November 5, 2012 - 7:00pm

Assholes aren't self-aware. There has to be an angle that if you look at correctly this dude is the good guy, right? You just have to find a way to incorporate his rationalization without telegraphing his internal conflicts, if you did he would just seem an incompetent arch nemesis. Or maybe play on mirroring the Protag, maybe in some aspects the baddy's more of a stand-up guy.

Seb's picture
Seb from Kent, UK November 5, 2012 - 7:25pm

Look at Jack Nicholson in The Departed. Full on villain, but also becomes a father figure, initially to Damon, later to DiCaprio (as does Martin Sheen, whereas Baldwin fathers Damon for the good guys).

Great villains are real people. Don't give some stupid sympathetic back story (like crap horror films), instead make him a charismatic and excitable prescence. Gary Oldman in Leon. Christopher Walken in King of New York.

Also, avoid it being so black and white, like Bradley said. He wants power, yes. He tells his family it's so they can have a better life. He tells his subordinates it's so they can be rich. He tells everyone what they want to hear. He's a leader, make him inspirational. Hitler was a great leader. His people thought he was great.

Most of all, make him honest with himself. A real villain knows who they are, knows they are evil, knows they are a sociopath (or whatever) and they either accept it or fight against it. That's very important. Maybe he knows and accepts his nature, at one with his rotten core, then as the story progresses he starts to fight against it and realise his humanity (Darth Vader, anyone?). Or maybe he's in denial, but the further he goes the more he comes to realise who he is and come to terms with it, making him more evil as he begins to enjoy it (Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, for example). Two polarised character arcs, potentially for two villains who start together then come to odds as the apprentice becomes the master.

Most of all, enjoy it. Love it. He needs to be appealing, everyone loves a great villain.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. November 5, 2012 - 7:40pm

Some of my favorite villians have a really strong motivation.  They are driven to achieve sometimes noble goals, but through horrible means.  They often highlight the weaknesses of the protagonist in contrast - making the hero a little less heroic (and, in a way, humanizing both of them).

The villian should be better than the hero in some way.  Stronger, smarter, more well connected, etc.  Something has to give the villian an edge over the protagonist, or else the threat of a conflict will be lessened.  

He also has to do really cool things that everybody wishes they could do.  He has to have a few 'oh, fuck' moments where the reader really wishes that he/she could get away with whatever awesome thing the antagonist/villian has just done.  

Those are the things off the top of my head that I usually like in a bad guy.  

Matt Attack's picture
Matt Attack from Richmond, Va. is reading As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner November 5, 2012 - 8:18pm

I heard about a technique filmmakers use to make nihilistic or dark protagonists and antagonists more likeable. It's called: save a cat. Basically (and it only has to be done once at the beginning) you show whoever it may be doing something nice, like saving a cat, or doing something relatable and then for some reason our brains imprint. 

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands is reading Brian Evenson's Windeye November 5, 2012 - 8:48pm

@Bradley - could you clarify that a little more? For example, this character motives are black & white - there's no getting around that. He's angling to be Mayor and he's using a catastrophe to get away with some things (like getting rid of the guy who's already mayor). He has a very clear motivation and he's power hungry, in that regard, there's not a lot of grey area.

Don't do that. Give him a benevolent reason why he wants to be mayor. Make it so significant that there's nothing he won't do to achieve his goal, even evil shit.

Mess_Jess's picture
Mess_Jess from Sydney, Australia, living in Toronto, Canada is reading Perfect by Rachael Joyce November 5, 2012 - 8:56pm

@Matt - that's great advice. I love tips that have an explainable influence on our brains. 

Bob Pastorella's picture
Bob Pastorella from Groves, Texas is reading murder books trying to stay hip, I'm thinking of you, and you're out there so Say your prayers, Say your prayers, Say your prayers November 5, 2012 - 11:32pm

Your villain is a real person, and has goals just like a hero. No matter how crazy those goals are, as long as your villain cares about those goals, and is passionate about them, and believes beyond a shadow of a doubt that he/she is doing the right thing with those goals, you really don't need to make him likable. If you make him/her likable, your gaining the reader's sympathy, which is not the same as empathy. Unless your villain is a victim, which is a different kind of story, and your reader had better be able to relate and sympathize if that's the case. And definitely don't give me a 'pet-the-dog' scene to remind me your villain is human. Like Brandon said, you want him/her to be interesting. Hannibal Lector is an interesting psychopath, and he sometimes does things to people you wish you could do, and those things are wrong, so you can relate, a little, but you certainly don't want to eat dinner with him either.

Interesting=compelling. 

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks November 6, 2012 - 2:36am

I have to disagree about it not mattering if they're likeable. I haven't watched enough Weeds to like Nancy Botwin even the slightest bit and it's stopping me from ever watching it. Same with Rescue Me for my boyfriend -- he hates Tommy Gavin so fucking much that I swear he would punch the TV if it would make me change the show faster.

Luckily for you, most people don't read their books by starting in the middle. Begin with a reason to like him -- "save the cat," like Matt said. I love Tommy because the first season makes you understand him. My boyfriend hates him because all he knows is that he's a roaring douche.

Bob Pastorella's picture
Bob Pastorella from Groves, Texas is reading murder books trying to stay hip, I'm thinking of you, and you're out there so Say your prayers, Say your prayers, Say your prayers November 6, 2012 - 3:14am

I see your point, but both Nancy and Tommy are protagonists. They're conflicted and flawed. Someone must 'like' them, or at least find them compelling, because they are very popular. With Nancy, it's the same as 'liking' Michael Corleone. No one really roots for the bad guy, but when everyone else is more evil, you've got to root for someone. It's like watching a trainwreck; you don't want to see it but you can't take your eyes off of it. 

 

Ha, I didn't even realize Matt said the 'save the cat' thing. Hmmm, well, everyone has their own opinions. I'm more of the Greg Stillson school. Stillson was the villain in The Dead Zone by Stephen King. No spoiler, but at the beginning of the book, Stillson does not 'pet the dog'. 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. November 6, 2012 - 4:20am

Well, that's if you want a likable bad guy or a despicable bad guy, I guess.  But if the bad guy is simply evil-evil-evil, then he's probably going to be a little bit flat.

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks November 6, 2012 - 6:06am

This is arguing semantics, but if everyone is more evil than this character, he is likeable. Because it's all relative. So you're good.

Although Howie is right -- characters who are only terrible are terrible characters. Give him facets. He's evil, but he likes cats. Whatever. Just give him something the reader can have as a redeeming trait and you'll be good. Think Dexter -- even though I hate the show, I will acknowledge that it's possible to like a serial killer who kills terrible people.

Matt Attack's picture
Matt Attack from Richmond, Va. is reading As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner November 6, 2012 - 7:45am

Alright, so I'm a nerd. I love Star Trek. In the last movie the villain was named Nero. He was kind of a evil dude, but seemed a little flat, until they went into his back story and explained his wife, along with everybody on his planet was dead. Revenge and all. At one point and this really stuck with me, they show him looking at a hologram of his family, THEN he starts torturing Captain Pike. Tada! Save a cat. It was just a way to make him seem like he has depth and to make him want something.

Riddick is another example, at one point you learn he was basically a dumpster baby and boom, he now has depth. Save a cat. It's about avoiding cliche and growing depth more than it is making them likable.

In all honesty, you would HAVE to have a tremendous amount of depth and intelligence to be an honest to god villain, which is why alot of them are artists in history. The NASCAR Dad just doesn't have the depth needed to do fucked up shit on that level.

Hitler- failed painter

Stalin- failed priest and poet

Pol Pot- his primary caretaker was a ballet dancer, went to Catholic school, enjoyed painting and majored in engineering

Kim Il Sung- raised in a Presbyterian family, that his maternal grandfather was a Protestant minister, that his father had gone to a missionary school and was an elder in the Presbyterian Church, and that his parents were very active in the religious community. ---That is until the Japanese invaded. 

TADA! Real life save the cat. 

 

 

Save the cat is simply a way to make people seem relatable, no matter how evil they are. They say the same circuits that light up in our brain for domesticated animals, are the ones that light up with save the cat. 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Lexington, Kentucky is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 6, 2012 - 10:31am

I'd say forget making him likeable, just make him awesome. No one liked Darth Vader in the old school movies, but lots of folks wanted to be him. Give him tons of force choke the annoying guy at work moments, someone who completely gives in to the dark but understandable urges almost all of us have.

Bob Pastorella's picture
Bob Pastorella from Groves, Texas is reading murder books trying to stay hip, I'm thinking of you, and you're out there so Say your prayers, Say your prayers, Say your prayers November 6, 2012 - 10:45am

Okay, Matt's 'save the cat' is not the same thing as my 'don't pet the dog'. Nothing wrong with a little background. What I'm talking about is the villain that's as bad as they come, bad to tha bone, and there's that one scene thrown in where the villain encounters a dog, or cat, or llama, and gives the animal a kind of gesture as a way of showing that yes, this is the bad guy, but he's just like me and you, he's human, and he has feelings. Sure he has feelings, and there are probably damn good reasons he's like he is, and you should investigate those feelings, but don't give me a throw away scene where he pets the dog, or gives the baby a lollipop, etc, as a way to show those feelings which make me like your villain. King could have done that with the Stillson scene, but chose the other direction, which completely sets up Stillson as the main villain. You already suspect he's a little off, then WHAM, everything is confirmed in one logical yet unpredictable scene. 

 

But, if you're going to have a 'pet the dog scene', make it work, like in Red Dragon, where Dolarhyde brings the blind girl to check out the tiger. That scene works because it relates to his own psyche, and how he longs to be touched by a woman. Dolarhyde is the tiger in that scene, the beast, being touched and, uh...fondled, by the blind woman. It's not a throw away scene, but an important scene that brings a little more depth to the character and advances the plot at once.

Matt Attack's picture
Matt Attack from Richmond, Va. is reading As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner November 6, 2012 - 10:49am

What I'm talking about is the villain that's as bad as they come, bad to tha bone, and there's that one scene thrown in where the villain encounters a dog, or cat, or llama, and gives the animal a kind of gesture as a way of showing that yes, this is the bad guy, but he's just like me and you, he's human, and he has feelings"

@Bob- A prime example of save the cat would the new Sherlock Holmes movie. Moriarty loves good music, he sings, he feeds pigeons (which he calls his dirty secret) and is genius. He even seems like a gentleman. That's saving the cat. It's all over the film industry and we don't even notice it. I think we're talking about the same thing. 

If you want to make your antagonist human and even likable, give him some trauma in his past and then have him save the cat/pet the dog. 

The only villain I can think of, that I absolutely loved, despite no STC/PTD would be the Joker in the new Batman movie. That guy was fucking epic and somehow never did one nice thing. Shit he didn't even want anything, which is totally contrary to storytelling. 

 

Seb's picture
Seb from Kent, UK November 6, 2012 - 11:13am

Read this: http://thescriptlab.com/screenwriting/93-villains?catid=41%3Acharacter-roles

You're villain sounds like a Dictator...

A cruel and malicious leader, the dictator rules over his territory without mercy or compassion. More so than many other villains, the dictator does not consider himself to be particularly villainous by nature, and what we perceive as his villainous actions are more the product of his vicious attempts to maintain order to his liking within his realms of power.

Don't get confused with multiple villain types. The Joker was a great villain but wouldn't work for someone running for Mayor. Remember to make your character real - who were his parents? What was his first pet? What's his favourite colour? What would he order from a coffee shop? It doesn't matter if you write the details in or not, as long as you know them. He needs to be real to you before he can be real to the reader. One dimensional villains are bland.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. November 6, 2012 - 11:21am

I love the "make him awesome" statement.  It's so true.  

Alright, so I'm a nerd.

Yeah, join the club.  My first instinct was to write a big thing about Magneto and how he might do evil things, like threaten genocide occasionally on the human race, but he's doing it for a goal of liberating the mutant race from being oppressed, rounded up, and executed.  He was a holocaust survivor, so that makes his methods (genocide) even more conflicted because he's trying to prevent the genocide of mutant-kind.

He's an incredibly kind leader to his people, but also ruthless when they disappoint him or turn against him.  He tries not to kill his own kind, but he's not above it.

He also does incredibly cool stuff - once, he ripped wolverine's adamantium skeleton right out of wolverine's body.  He's the second most powerful mutant in the world (well, until his daughter, scarlett witch, really stepped up her game).  He can stop bullets mid-flight, keep a space-station in orbit, and fly using the metal in his outfit.  That's just the start.

Shit, he was played by Gandolf in the movies.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Lexington, Kentucky is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 6, 2012 - 6:01pm

@Howie - Thanks. I am of the mind set it is true on a lot of levels about writing. We get so caught up trying to make something (characters, heroes, villains, plot, sentences structure, chapter length, etc.) not bad that we lose focus on making it great. Which considering we can delete anything that turns out poorly there isn't any reason to not go for a homerun every time we put words to the page.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading Dark Places by Gillian Flynn November 7, 2012 - 7:24pm

even hitler was a child. most villains aren't born monsters, they evolve into them due to environment, the people around them, major life-changing events, and constant abuse or encouragement. shades of gray.

think of Dexter, Hannibal Lecter, etc.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. November 8, 2012 - 11:17am

I keep reading this thread title as "Making your vanilla a little more likable".

I love vanilla.

OtisTheBulldog's picture
OtisTheBulldog from Somerville, MA is reading your mother's diary. Your sister's too. November 8, 2012 - 11:59am

So do I, actually. And my answer is "add some hot sauce." 

AJ's picture
AJ from London November 8, 2012 - 5:33pm

It's great that you're thinking about this. And important, too. I guess just be careful of the cliches in this area - you know, the villain who loves his mum etc. I mean it can work, but do it honestly. Tony Soprano, for instance: total shit bag, awful person - but we like him. He does love his family, but he's noty perfect in this realm - he cheats on his wife, he's tempramental with his kids, not around enough and so on. But he does love them - just not in a saccharine way. Also, he's loyal and he's brutally honest. Both good qualities. Another thing with Big T, is he's vulnerable, he's stessed, struggling, in therapy - all traits that make him human and authentic - and they help us sympathise.

Other good qualities that give you plenty of room for creativity are intelligence and any kind of skill, wit, cultural sensibility - Lecter, for instance.

 

Hope this helps

AJ

 

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Lexington, Kentucky is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 8, 2012 - 5:37pm

But isn't Tony Soprano more of a anti-hero and less of a villian? 

AJ's picture
AJ from London November 8, 2012 - 5:43pm

Yeah, maybe - can you be both? Either way, the priciples are the same: how to make us root for a character who is essentially, and fundamentally, unpleasant. Give 'em a life, give them some redeeming qualities, but be honest and consistent with their basic nature. Make them rounded, complex, conflicted.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Lexington, Kentucky is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 8, 2012 - 5:47pm

Well, I'd say no. A villain is doing evil for whatever reason, a anti-hero is doing good (mostly) for the wrong reason. It works to have a anti-hero who people want to see win since he will at least sort of win, but not so much with a villain who is probably going to die nameless.

R. Leo's picture
R. Leo from Grand Rapids MI is reading Damned November 8, 2012 - 6:31pm

Have him kill a maimed animal, like a squirrel, by backing up and driving over it again or a little girls cat...to put it out of it's misery but in a cruel fashion...a necessary evil but you aren't sure if he enjoyed it.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. November 8, 2012 - 7:02pm

I thought you said "have him killed or maimed by an animal, like a squirrel" which made me think of this:

Click the picture for the whole story of Wolverine vs. Squirrel Girl.