What Makes a Great Villain?


by Alexandra Sokoloff

Allison beat me to this one with this excellent post last week, and I wasn't going to post it, but you know, while we're on the subject, why not?  It's a HUGE subject! Plus I'm out of town – out of the country, technically, so I need to go with what I've got.

Here's a strange thing. I don't think I've done one dedicated post on character, yet – hero/ine, villain, supporting, or otherwise.

That’s probably because while I feel comfortable expounding on how to create and structure a story, I am not so clear about how to explain how to create character. To be perfectly honest, it’s not a very explicable process, for me. I think what I do is create a space for them – a situation, a theme, the beginnings of a story – and pray that the characters will show up to inhabit it. Which, thank God, they always do. And then from there they do most of the work.
In other words, it’s magic – or possibly Dusty is right, it’s mental illness – and I don’t know how to explain magic OR mental illness. Quite possibly I don’t WANT to know.
But I think – I’m pretty sure – most writers have characters in their heads from a very early age. Maybe ALL people do – because that’s what fantasy is, and we all daydream being other people, or superfantastic versions of ourselves. So in a way we’re all creating character all the time.
I do think there are things that are teachable about creating character. My best advice is always – take an acting class. Take a lot of them. Read books on acting and creating character – Michael Shurtleff’s AUDITION, Stanislavski’s acting series, Michael Chekov. Learn how to develop and play characters yourself, and it will translate to writing.
All that being disclaimed, I want to start talking about character, and I’ll start today with great villains and how one might – MIGHT – go about creating them.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a villain will just come to you whole, right? I’ve dreamed a few. I love that, when your subconscious does the work for you.
Sometimes you have a real, heinous person in mind, either a criminal you’ve read about who sparks such an outrage in your soul that you have to create him on paper just to destroy him the way he needs to be destroyed. Sometimes it’s a heinous person you really know – in the novella I recently finished I took great pleasure in detailing all the banal viciousness of a producer I know and then bashing his brainless head in.
But other villains I’ve written have been more conscious creations, have grown out of the specific situation of a story. So, while allowing for the pure magic of it – it’s not purely magic, is it?
I’d like to suggest that you can develop a great villain – or any other character you create – through the same process that I’ve been advocating for creating the structure of your story.
Make a list.
Who or what are your top ten villains? And I don’t mean make a list for the ages, or for popular consumption – I mean FOR YOU. What is it about these particular characters that makes them so delicious, or terrifying, or both? What turns YOU on in a villain? What particular qualities are you responding to?
You don’t have to think too hard about it, either, when you’re listing. It might be more useful to do it fast and see what comes up, because that non-thinking list will be more relevant to your present project, or a brewing project. These lists are never written in stone, either – you can make a whole different list tomorrow.
Breaking it down, analyzing the specifics, is like doing scales on the piano, or doing dance technique exercises at the barre. It gives you the foundation and the strength and mental coordination for the magic of art to happen.
My favorite villains, off the top of my head.
Hannibal Lecter.
Atia of the Julii in the HBO series ROME.
Mary Tilford in Lillian Hellman’s THE CHILDREN’S HOUR
Tony Perkins in PSYCHO.
“Julian” in Brad Anderson’s SESSION 9.
Stringer Bell in THE WIRE.
Al Swearengen in DEADWOOD.
Now, I can look at that list and already identify a lot of patterns going on. I like my villains sexy, perverted, bizarre, insane, diabolical, and preferably a combination of the above.
But now it’s time to go deeper. What is it about each of those villains that really works for me?
Rumpelstiltskin. The twisted dwarf is an archetype I particularly respond to. In Jungian psychology, the dwarf, or perverted little old man, is a strong recurring archetypal figure for women who have been sexually abused or have sexual trauma issues. I haven’t been, but with all my near-misses with predators, I can relate to that analysis. And studying Jungian and other world archetypes is great fodder for brainstorming interesting villains.
Dracula. The sex thing, obviously. Vampires are supposedly about addiction issues. I can relate to that, too. Marion Woodman has some hugely intriguing books about these archetypes.
Hannibal Lecter. The devil archetype, my absolute favorite. Thomas Harris created a monster for the ages by turning a serial killer into a mythic archetype (although for my money he should have stopped with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). But what really does me about Lecter is the magician/mentor aspect of him. Here’s this evil, psychotic genius – who sees something in Clarice that makes at least part of him want to mentor her, even protect her. More than that, he UNDERSTANDS her – better than any other living soul. That to me is the ultimate seductiveness of the devil – that he GETS you – right down to your very soul. There’s no greater intimacy – and that’s a lot of what I was exploring when I wrote THE PRICE.
Atia of the Julii in the HBO series ROME. Gorgeous, sensual, ruthless schemer, played by one of my favorite British actresses, Polly Walker. Her relationships with her son and daughter are completely perverted and I love it. I understand her, because living in such a patriarchal society would twist any intelligent woman, and I love seeing her WIN.
Mary in Lillian Hellman’s THE CHILDREN’S HOUR – one of the most chilling portraits of a sociopathic child that I’ve ever seen. The final scene with the grandmother taking responsibility for her is particularly haunting. I love stories about evil children. I have to admit, I find small children frightening. They are ruthless, narcissistic and irrational; they operate according to some inexplicable set of rules that they are constantly making up as they go along. And they wield enormous power, totally out of proportion to their actual physical strength and stature. Is that not the definition of a villain?
Norman Bates in PSYCHO. The concept of multiple personality fascinates me even though it’s been done so badly so many times that I’m not sure I would ever attempt such a character myself. But you feel such poignant sympathy for Norman even as you fear “Mother” – it’s a terrible portrait of an imprisoned soul.
“Julian” in Brad Anderson’s SESSION 9. Is he a demon? A fragment of personality in a multiple personality patient which has assumed autonomy? It’s, well, mindblowing to try to wrap your brain around. And the slippery inexplicableness of evil is a theme that draws me again and again.
Bob Sugar in JERRY MAGUIRE – the blond, blandly sociopathic agent. Not hard to see why I respond to that! But I love Sugar as an example of an effective comedic villain. He’s pitch-perfect – there are hundreds just like him in Hollywood, soulless, narcissistic, casually malevolent. But he also makes a perfect foil for Jerry because he is a mirror image of Jerry – this is what Jerry is on his way to becoming before his attack of conscience in the opening scenes – Sugar is the thing we don’t want him to become. A villain’s story function is often to be the dark mirror of the protagonist, and Sugar is a stellar example.
Stringer Bell in THE WIRE. Oh, all right, that’s pure sex. No, also I love the reversal that Stringer is trying to get out of the drug lord business – that he’s taking business school classes, investing in real estate – and it’s the far greater sociopathy of the politicians and city developers that destroys him in the end. As with Atia, this is a man who has been forced toward villainy by the ruthless inequities of society.
Al Swearengen in DEADWOOD. Also pure sex – I’ve had a crush in Ian McShane forever. But there again, the devil archetype – a powerful, brilliant, sexual, violent man who has his own occasional staggering moments of morality and transcendence – the kind of man that draws women like moths to the flame. As with Lecter and Clarice, there’s a Beauty and the Beast undercurrent here – the monster that we just might be able to tame. I will never forgive creator David Milch for ending that series before Swearengen could have his way with Mrs. Garret – and she with him.
You see how that starts to work? I truly believe that taking the time to analyze what you love and respond to in a villain in the stories you love will get your subconscious working on crafting that perfect villain for YOUR story. So much of creativity is the DESIRE to get it right. Make your wishes specific, and the magic will start to happen.
Next post I’d like to talk more about villains and get into not just the story functions of single villains, but the idea of forces of antagonism, and non-human villains, since the opponent in a story can be multiple, animal, environmental, historical or societal, as well as just the classic single bad guy.
But for today – you don’t have to give me all ten, but who are some of the villains that really do it for you, and why?
– Alex


Previous articles on Story Structure:

12 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Villain?

  1. Allison Brennan

    GREAT blog, Alex! And actually, it complements my blog because mine was more general about villains motivations, and yours is more specific.

    (And you have sex on the brain . . . )

    I don’t consider Al Swearingen a true villain. He’s a bad guy, true, and despicable in many ways, but he has some truly noble moments that are ironically completely in his character. He’s incredibly complex. The real villain was that guy who owned the other casino/brothel, and his name completely escapes me. I miss DEADWOOD. I have season three and I haven’t watched it yet. I’m so behind . . . Why I think I loved Al was because everything he did he had a damn good reason. (For him.) That you could completely understand and almost identify with on some level.

    Of course Hannibal Lecter–he’s very complex and truly evil.

    Scar in THE LION KING. Killed his brother in order to take over the pride, and then convinced his nephew that it was his fault and attempted to kill him. All for power and to force the pride to respect him, which he didn’t understand is earned. A classic theme in Shakespeare and other classic texts.

    Dolarhyde in THE RED DRAGON.

    The Emperor in the STAR WARS trilogies. (Classic villain who wants power for powers sake and enjoys turning others bad.)

    Matt Damon in THE DEPARTED–Jack Nicholson was of course a great character and bad guy, but Matt Damon was truly the villain–how he changed on a dime to adjust to how information changed in order to protect his position. A great example of a true sociopath.

    Lilith in the SUPERNATURAL series.

    Agent Smith in THE MATRIX–I loved how he rationalized everything, it made him complex and believable as IA.

    Randall Flagg in THE STAND. (The book.) And Harold. I loved how he developed into the villain, how both childish and diabolical he was.

    Heath Ledger as The Joker. Truly a masterful representation. It was all a game to him, but he was cheating.

    I think the common theme that my favorite villains have is power, control, ego, manipulation. They tend to be larger-than-life with very destructive goals and no remorse for their crimes, but they can justify everything they do by turning the hero’s values and ideals against him.

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    I’d suggest one thing about child villains that they share in common with villains like Stringer and Atia: they become what they are because they start from a position of powerlessness. Being a child is SCARY. Everyone’s bigger and stronger than you are, their motives are unfathomable, and your very survival is entirely dependent on their goodwill, which, as any child learns quickly, isn’t always present. It’s amazing that anyone makes it out of childhood with their sanity intact. Which begs the question whether anyone actually does.

    As for my favorites, definitely many of the ones mentioned above, plus:

    Iago from OTHELLO: The master manipulator, who no one suspects (except the audience, who’s in on the plot).

    John Rider from the original THE HITCHER. He’s insanely cruel and apparently unstoppable. He’s the thing you’re running from in your worst nightmares, the thing that’s always right behind you or around the next corner, no matter how fast or far you run.

    Hans Gruber in DIE HARD. Smooth, sophisticated, and totally amoral, he’s a great villain because of his fierce intelligence. He’s always a few steps ahead of everyone else, including his own people. Plus, he takes pride in his work. I love the scene where Holly discovers that he’s not there to take hostages, but to steal the bonds in the vault. “You’re nothing but a common thief!” she says incredulously. “I am an EXCELLENT thief!” he snaps back.

    Moriarty from Doyle’s THE FINAL PROBLEM: what makes him a great villain for me is that you almost never see him. He’s always behind the scenes, pulling strings. Therefore, you have to fill in your own conception of him.

  3. Allison Brennan

    Okay, I missed John Rider. Good catch, JD. I remember watching a teen movie with my girls called DISTURBIA and it was pretty good, though the ending happened too fast and easy and I kept expecting something else, but it was decent. They thought it was uber-scary. So I put on THE HITCHER and they were bored, bored bored then WHAM! scariest movie they’d seen in their life. LOL. I guess I’m a meanie. Great villain and I love the dynamic between the smart psychopath and the kind of clueless “everyman” hero who we don’t think will be able to stop him.

  4. Louise Ure

    I’m not much for serial killer kind of villains, but my two favorite examples from the comments above are Cruella de Villa and Heath Ledger. There’s something in both of them that doesn’t conform to the norms of society and yet gives them great power.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yeah, Allison, I think the blogs complement each other, too!

    Re: Al Swearengen – if you remember back to first season, he definitely starts out as the villain of DEADWOOD. It was a huge twist, but a gradual twist, when whatshisname became an even bigger villain – I thought that was brilliant. And then of course the biggest villain of all came to fore – Hearst.

    But Al was a bad, bad, bad man. You can’t talk me into any pimp as a good man, and he beat the shit out of the women.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hans Gruber for sure, Dusty. Then again, anything Alan Rickman does, basically.

    THE HITCHER was too much for me, though.

    Lots of votes for Cruella, here. Is this a must-see Glenn Close performance, or are you all talking about the original animated Cruella?

  7. Allison Brennan

    Alex, I never said that Al Swearengen was good! He’s definitely a bad guy and a great “villain” but he’s far more complex than most traditional villains, and not wholly evil. I just didn’t say it well 🙂

    Cruella is evil and a great villain, she was acting purely for her own personal pleasure (dog fur coats) and because she’d been snubbed by people she thought were beneath her. I was looking at the villains who really stand out to me and why they stand out . . . Alex likes the sexy villains 🙂 and I think my favorite villains tend to be in it for power, control and world domination. 🙂

  8. L.C. McCabe


    This is the first time I’ve seen another writer mention one of my favorite books: AUDITION by Michael Shurtleff.

    That is my favorite reference book when I need motivation for writing. I wrote a blog post on my adulation for that book two years ago, but it still applies.


    As for villains, I am in agreement with you in regard to Hannibal Lecter, Dracula and especially Atia. She was “a wicked old harpy” and her viciousness made me laugh.


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