What makes an effective villain?
As a mystery reader, I crave nasty villains. I want them to be despicable. In Ian Fleming’s James Bond mysteries, for example, there was never a question about who was the “bad guy.”
As a mystery writer, however, I’m not so sure that being despicable is all there is to an effective villain. A review of effective victims in books and film suggest other criteria. When writing my own mysteries, for example, I explored different techniques and in my latest novel, HILLTOP SUNSET, I feature two villains from two different angles, so readers get the benefit of variety! One is obvious and the other we don’t know until we’re well into the novel.
So what makes an effective villain?
First, identifying the evil-doer early in a mystery story determines the plot and restricts the use of that identity as part of the puzzle that makes the mystery. So when we read Sherlock Holmes, we don’t need to guess that Moriarty will cause Holmes and Watson to solve a case. He’s already identified as a villain.
Contrast that approach to the easing of the identification by Grisham of The Firm as a villain. It takes us a while to know that the firm is the “bad guy”, and Grisham uses divulgence of that information as part of the mystery. And Stieg Larsson’s characters Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo spend most of the novel figuring out who is the villain, which contributes to the suspense.
So my first criteria of an effective villain went quickly by the wayside. Author after author has proven that whether the villain wears a black hat to clearly distinguish himself as the bad guy or blends in with the story does not determine effectiveness. Both approaches work. A villain can be effective whether he is plainly identified or cleverly obscured.
So, what characteristics should a villain exhibit to engage readers? Why do we relate to the James Bond nemesis Goldfinger or appreciate Loci, the evil brother to Thor in The Avengers? What makes us applaud the villain but welcome the actions of a hero to overcome their opponents?
One of my favorite lines in a movie is when Goldfinger has James Bond tied to an electric saw with the hero moving ever closer to the whirring blade—how more villain-like can that be? When Bond asks Goldfinger if he expects him to talk, Goldfinger responds, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!” and walks away. Here is a villain capable of matching wits with the “Stirred-but-not-shaken” hero. Goldfinger is a villain with substance. He is interesting, amusing, and outsmarting our hero frequently—which is probably why the movie and book were titled “Goldfinger” after the villain. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Goldfinger is a villain—from the moment we meet him.
So what about a villain that’s not so obvious? One where our hero doesn’t know the identity?
An unknown villain has to behave just like everyone around him for much of a story. He will have redeeming qualities. He cannot be “all bad,” or we readers would peg him from the beginning. He must engage with the other characters as if he is an everyday person, not the impediment to their happiness. Yet, there must be clues dropped so that when he is revealed, we say, “Oh, of course.”
And maybe, just maybe, a more interesting villain has redeeming qualities regardless of his villainous actions. Maybe we’re all villains at one time or another and occasionally heroes. Perhaps a more effective villain might be more or less a villain.
Or, there are the anti-heroes—those who are essentially bad but for some reason we appreciate them. The unlikeable House on the TV series of the same name, where we find the doctor reprehensible but we follow his every move to diagnose a patient’s rare disease. Or Walter White in “Breaking Bad”—chemistry teacher turned drug-maker. Or Tony Soprano, a mobster who we root for.
And does a villain have to be a person? Can a disease or a natural disaster play the role of villain and create a hero working to overcome its effects?
If so, we can refine the definition of a villain to be that of any impediment to the accomplishment of the goal of the protagonist. And our hero is the one who overcomes those impediments. We want the villain to be compelling and interesting. We prefer that the villain be mostly bad, but will allow some favorable attributes, such as a sense of humor. Or, we’re OK with a bad guy sometimes winning.
Regardless, a villain must draw us into the story. We must care about the protagonist and his goal or it won’t matter what the villain does to stop it from happening. Some readers favor a more complex villain—or even an antagonist who they would not label as a villain at all, preferring more real-life stories with people who move in response to every-day events.
Many of us, however, do prefer a clear-cut villain. It’s OK to incorporate a villain’s identity as part of the mystery. And we may accept a rascal of a hero but a villain must be just that—someone who prevents our hero from accomplishing what is clearly “good.” And that villain must be defeated to our satisfaction.
About Joyce Strand:
Joyce T. Strand is the author of who-done-it mysteries set in the San Francisco Silicon Valley and Napa-Sonoma wine regions of California.
Her most recent novel, HILLTOP SUNSET, is the first of a new series featuring protagonist Brynn Bancroft, a financial guru in transition to winemaker from corporate executive. Brynn Bancroft is a minor character in Strand’s novels ON MESSAGE, OPEN MEETINGS, and FAIR DISCLOSURE—three mysteries solved by Jillian Hillcrest, a publicist whose boss was Chief Financial Officer Brynn Bancroft.
Much like her protagonist Jillian Hillcrest, Strand headed corporate communications at several biotech and high-tech companies in California’s Silicon Valley for more than 25 years. Unlike Jillian, however, she did not encounter murder in her career. She focused on writing by-lined articles, press releases, white papers, and brochures to publicize her companies and their products.
Strand lives with her two cats and collection of cow statuary in Southern California, and seeks out and attends as many Broadway musicals and other stage plays as possible.
She received her Ph.D. from the George Washington University, Washington, D.C. and her B.A. from Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.
About Hilltop Sunset: A Brynn Bancroft Mystery
A mystery set in wine country pitting financial exec Brynn Bancroft against a determined stalker, a troubled love interest, and career clashes.
Brynn Bancroft learns that a former employee who beat her nearly to death has returned to stalk her and her friend, Jillian Hillcrest, also a former victim. Recently divorced, Brynn turns to a new love interest only to encounter additional unwelcome issues. Meanwhile, short-timer Brynn, who has resigned from her Silicon Valley company, becomes bored fulfilling her remaining responsibilities there. She begins to prefer supporting the launch of her ex-husband’s new hilltop winery while waiting to move to her next position. Between her stalker and her new love interest, Brynn faces a series of life-changing events.
Where to Purchase Joyce Strand's books:
Hilltop Sunset : Pre order on Amazon
Jillian Hillcrest Mysteries 3-Book-Bundle-ebook Kindle
Jillian Hillcrest Mysteries 3-Book-Bundle-ebook Nook
FAIR DISCLOSURE – Kindle and paperback
FAIR DISCLOSURE – Nook
OPEN MEETINGS – Kindle and paperback
OPEN MEETINGS – Nook
ON MESSAGE – Kindle and paperback
ON MESSAGE – Nook