On Villains: Perception is Everything
I’ve been thinking about villains today, and one thing that really stands out to me is this: hardly anyone thinks he is one. Take Darth Vader. He’s not out there thinking, “This is me, being the villain.” He’s thinking, “This is me, helping build an empire while getting even with all those jerks who didn’t appreciate me back when I was a Jedi.”
Or take Voldemort, the over-arching villain in J.K. Rowling’s best-selling series about Harry Potter. Voldemort doesn’t believe he’s evil. Heck, he doesn’t even believe in evil. He believes he’s entitled, superior, and above all, wronged. He’s just taking what’s rightfully his. The Harry Potter books are chock full of villains who don’t believe they’re villains. Lucius Malfoy thinks he’s preserving the purity of the pure-blood mages from the coarse Mud-Bloods. Toad-faced Dolores Umbridge (in my opinion, one of the most horrifying villains ever written) doesn’t see herself in the black-hat role. She’s standing up for order and tradition, defending the Ministry of Magic against the forces of anarchy. And you can bet that Harry Potter is not the hero of their stories. In Voldemort’s mind, he’s the hero. In Dolores Umbridge’s mind, she is.
In a literary or mainstream novel, the antagonist is anyone who stands between the protagonist and his or her goal, regardless of morality. He may be a perfectly nice guy who wants to drain the marshland to build an orphanage. But in crime fiction, the villain is usually what I think of as a true villain—a murderer, an arsonist, a terrorist. I don’t mean he or she has no redeeming qualities, only that the villain in a mystery very rarely acts for altruistic or noble purposes—except maybe in his or her own mind.
So how do you make an effective villain? It’s no good to make a Snidely Whiplash-style villain who twirls his curly moustache and thinks of wicked ways to kidnap the girl and foil the hero. This type of two-dimensional (or even one-dimensional) evil is rarely effective. Nor does it help much to show Snidely patting a stray dog on the head on his way to foreclose on a house he doesn’t even need. Such tacked-on “good qualities” are rarely convincing, because they don’t seem like part of the character.
On the other hand, Thomas Harris did a magnificent job of making the serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde, both terrifying and sympathetic. We feel for the child he was and are horrified by the monster he became, and Harris made us believe that one could easily have become the other. How? By showing us how the boy was tormented by his schoolmates because of his cleft palate, and later, how he was physically and emotionally abused by his grandmother. Harris made these scenes real, and later, when we see Francis’s tenderness toward a blind woman, we understand why he takes comfort in her company, why he needs what she has to offer, and why he inevitably misunderstands her motives. None of this excuses Francis’s actions. He’s a villain, but he doesn’t see himself that way. There are perfectly logical reasons (to him) for everything he does, even though any sane person could clearly see that his actions are evil. But because his actions grow out of his own perceptions, he is a believable villain.
That, I think, is the key. No matter how evil the villain, no matter how horrific his acts, he believes in what he is doing, and that makes us perceive him as rounded and real.
What do you think? Which literary villains do you think stand the test of time?
Jaden Terrell is the internationally published author of the Jared McKean mysteries and a contributor to Now Write! Mysteries, a collection of writing exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for writers of crime fiction. Terrell is the executive director of the Killer Nashville Thriller, Mystery, and Crime Literature Conference and a recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. The former special education teacher is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime. A graduate of the Citizen Police Academy and the FBI/TBI Citizen Academy, Terrell has a red belt in Tae Kwan Do and is certified in Equine Sports Massage Therapy. Website: http://www.jadenterrell.com.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at email@example.com.)