Creating a Villain

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by Joe Stephens

As a reader and writer of detective fiction, one of the things I pay attention to and struggle with is the creation of a believable villain. As a reader, some of the best villains I remember have been complete sociopaths, with no remorse whatever. The comic book equivalent would be the Joker. Those can be entertaining, especially when they lose. An example from literature I’ve read recently was from James Lee Burke’s Light of the World. The killer was, based on some veiled backstory, messed up as a child. But, regardless of how he got there, Asa Surrette was a demon who gained joy from inflicting pain on others and had no mixed feelings about it. I did enjoy seeing him go down at the end of the book. And I was glad it was a painful death.

An example of that kind of character from my writing is a man named Antonio Bezaleel. He’s a pedophile in my upcoming book, In The Shadow.We know little of his history, and that’s on purpose. I didn’t just forget to tell you how he got to where he was at the beginning of the book. The reason is that there’s no amount of childhood trauma that can justify the unspeakable things this man does. It’s hardly spoiling things, consideringwindow, blinds, raining, lights, blurry, night, dark what I write, that his end is ugly.

But for me, the most satisfying villains are the ones where we can see how they see themselves as the victim. They are flawed but relatable, at least to a degree. We can at least understand how they see the world. A good example of this from my recent reading is in Robert B. Parker’s last Spenser novel, which was actually finished after his death by his literary agent. The bad guy is a horrible man, but there’s a logic to his evil. And, though they are hard to find, there are even limits to it. He loves and is dedicated to his family. And we understand that much of his darkness comes from a very poor childhood that taught him that might makes right. So yes, we’re glad he loses, but we see in him not a complete monster but a flawed human being that, if he’d been caught early enough, graveyard, cemetery, tombstones, dark, night, death, dead, scarymight have actually been a decent person.

From my writing, an example of someone who ends up on the wrong side of the law, as well as the struggle between good and evil, is Johnny Tuttle from my first book, Harsh Prey. He becomes entangled with the mob and does awful things, but I hope readers will see him as a man who is simply in over his head because of one terrible mistake. He’s a man who truly does try to do right by his family but is so sullied by the ugliness, which, to be fair, he has brought upon himself that we are saddened though not surprised by how things end up for him. And ultimately, though we see him as a person who was predominantly good and whose influence on my hero, Harry Shalan, remains powerful, we feel that he deserved what he got.

So what are your favorite villains? Why did you find them compelling as a reader?

Joe Stephens is a teacher at Parkersburg High School. He is also the author of Harsh Prey and Kisses and Lies, both of which are available in paperback and Kindle formats. The paperback may be purchased from
Amazon, from J & M Used Book Store in Parkersburg, and from the author’s trunk.

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Take a look at Harsh Prey on Amazon 

Kisses and Lies Cover Michele croppedTake a look at Kisses and Lies on Amazon

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26 Responses to Creating a Villain

  1. Mike Staton says:

    I ‘do’ sword and sorcery fantasy, so my villains often love power and control over others. Of course, in a medieval fantasy setting, nobles by their nature are that way, but most keep their basest instincts in check. Villains can’t. What’s fun to write is the guy or gal who considers his or her self ‘good,’ yet will occasional commit an act others would term ‘evil.’

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joe Stephens says:

      Yes! My main character does something terrible at the end of third book, something for which he can’t forgive himself. It will change everything from then on.

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  2. I don’t care for mysteries anymore, but my late husband did, and I’m sure he would have enjoyed your villains. Good luck with your books.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t written a villains yet, but one of my works in progress has a “semi-bad dude” and I am still working on his character development. There certainly is an art and a science to writing, making characters believable. Good luck with all your projects!

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    • Joe Stephens says:

      Yes, it is a little of both, isn’t it? If it were all science, anyone could do it. But the art half is really tricky. I struggled with making one character too evil in my second book. I wanted him to be someone who felt real and I wanted us to see he felt genuinely hurt by his family and justified in what he was doing to his little brother. But at the same time, I didn’t want him to be sympathetic because he really was a terrible bully. Too far one way or the other and the character doesn’t work.

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  4. Doris says:

    Joe, I have always said a story is really only as good as its villain. That ‘creature’, whether internal or external is the key for me. In my mind, the villain has to always believe they are right, no matter what. I always think of “Watchers” by Dean Koontz as ond of the best villains, and you don’t really even meet it until later in the book. A very thoughtful and useful post. Thank you. Doris

    Liked by 1 person

    • Doris says:

      Joe, I forgot to say, I love Robert B. Parker!!!! Doris

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      • Joe Stephens says:

        Parker is my writing hero, though I must admit that many of his later Spenser books were little more than novellas. I suspect he wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to admit it. His grasp of irony and pacing were just the best. And he really understood people. He really saw that we’re all bent with the potential to be completely broken.

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  5. Wranglers says:

    I have a suspense story on the back burner, and it has a very evil villain. Someday I hope to finish that story, it’s off to a good start. Your villains sound very interesting. Thanks for sharing. Cher’ley

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joe Stephens says:

      I hope they are. It’s really hard sometimes for a writer to say, as you know, because we’re so close to our characters that it’s hard to be objective.

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  6. katewyland says:

    I’m afraid I’m not into seriously evil villains–psychopaths, serial killers, etc. I tend to read mysteries and romantic suspense, which usually don’t have really nasty characters. In my books my bad guys are much more ordinary–a corrupt cop trying to pay for his wife’s cancer treatments or a mobster following orders. Of course they think they’re right, that their actions are justified.
    I like Parker too and agree that his later books were disappointing. Love Spenser and Hawk.

    Have fun with your villains. I’m sure you can come up with some really unique ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joe Stephens says:

      Yes, the truly satisfying villain is often the most ordinary person, stuck in an untenable position, even if it’s of his or her own making.

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  7. S. J. Brown says:

    Since I write nonfiction there are no nasty villains in my stories. I never knew so much thought went to developing a nasty character. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Travis says:

    I’m not a fan of pure psychopaths because the prey without reason. If possible, I like things to be murky so that greed, insecurity, and other flaws give villains unreasonable justifications (but in their own mind it is logical) to commit violence. For some reason my mind is going to Jim Thompson novels with narrators who were awful humans (Killer Inside of Me, Pop. 1280) yet wanted to be understood to their audience. In Thompson’s The Get Away there was villain named Rudy who had vicious scars from childhood all over his body, but I don’t believe the history was explained. His actions were repugnant even though he had been double crossed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joe Stephens says:

      I agree completely. I think pure psychopaths may make good storytelling in the sense of the chase and how their actions affect good guys, but they often don’t make good characters themselves.

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  9. Nancy Jardine says:

    Sorry, Joe – I don’t often read the really dark side of mystery fiction so I’ve no immediate psychpopathic villain examples to offer. In my own writing, I have a few nasty secondary characters who – for twisted reasons – make the progress of the story difficult for my main protagonists, though their villanous deeds don’t rank up there with the direst of those in some crime thrillers that I’ve read. Even making my secondary characters nasty has taken a good degree of thought and planning.

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    • Joe Stephens says:

      It’s kind of odd, but I sort of fell into creating darker villains. In my first book, the villains were kind of the run-of-the-mill mobsters. But by the third, I had delved into child molestation. And I had no plan to do that. It was just the story that came. And I have to say, the writing of it had an effect on me. I was depressed through the whole first draft.

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  10. sarahmchb says:

    Loved your post. I write crime fiction but don’t think of it as “mystery” per se. I don’t like to categorize characters as “the good guy” and the “bad guy.” I like to write about people who are ordinary but flawed; some much more so than others. An example I’m thinking of – only because I just finished it – was “Bury Me” by Andrea Portes (similar to Tartt’s “The Secret History” but much more rural and brutal). There was an unsolved murder that took place over 20 years ago and some college kids reignite interest in the case because of their documentary. It held my interest not because of Portes’s rat-a-tat-tat writing style and her uncanny ability to get into multiple characters’ heads but because there was such a blurred line between the heroes and the villains. No one was truly either and I could see any of the characters as the killer. By the way, Robert B. Parker was one of the reasons why I started writing crime fiction. One of my favorite books is “The Godwulf Manuscript.” I love the early Spenser novels.

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    • Joe Stephens says:

      I like books like that too. Even the “good guys” in my books are flawed. At the end of the book that’s coming out this fall, the protagonist does something that breaks many of his own rules and is destroyed by it. Not destroyed from outside–he actually gets away with it. He tears himself apart emotionally.

      I just found an old copy of THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT in a used bookstore. It was in great shape, dust cover and all. I bought it. I don’t care if it’s worth anything to anyone else because that’s the book that started my love of the genre. I would have really loved to have met Parker before he died just so I could tell him that, though he probably heard a million times.

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  11. sstamm625 says:

    Each kind of villain is satisfying in their own way, but I prefer the complicated ones with motivation for their evil. I don’t know if I’m very good at creating them though.

    Like

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