An editorial in the Houston Chronicle on March 23, 2018 described the conditions that female (and only female) firefighters in Houston have endured over the years. Career professionals are being harassed like this: male firefighters have taped fireworks on the inside of a toilet in the women’s bathroom; they have spit tobacco juice in the drawers of women’s desks; they have disconnected the speakers in the women’s dorm so that the woman on duty misses emergency runs; they have sprayed urine around the dormitory on the walls, sinks, mirrors, carpeting, and countertops.
This set of facts could be the background for an interview of the aggrieved or the HFD, or both, if a journalist wanted to get at the truth. (Though these behaviors seem so juvenile, they wouldn’t warrant much attention from journalists until the reaction of higher-ups and multiple lawsuits made the news.)
To a writer of fiction, as repulsive as this behavior is, it brings up several interesting questions: How bad is your villain? Can he or she carry the story? Does this story have emotional strength and compelling action because the hero has no choice but to deal with the villain? Have you created a worthy opponent for your hero?
The villain you choose for your story may be one evil individual or a group of people who act in common with evil intent. That character gives your readers the opportunity to observe and experience transformation as the story moves through conflict to resolution.
Villains sometimes exhibit unusual attributes that mask their intentions, so that a murderer may sing while he stalks, and a kidnapper may pat the hand of the child he snatches and may even try to amuse her. This does not diminish the reality that the villain is evil through and through, even if positive attributes show up and the villain takes pains to seem charming and benign. Inferences about a person’s motives are usually based on observed behavior, but with an evil character, the observations of others can be manipulated to hide malevolence if the villain is very clever.
From one culture to another, what is “bad” can change in type and degree. “Evil” behavior in one religion is acceptable in others. Context is important: who is making the judgment, against whom, can be determinative of the degree of “bad” the audience expects. For example, in the thriller Se7en the villain will never feel shame or remorse; he thinks he’s doing the world a service.
What is called “bad” also depends on the time and place. In modern countries of the Far East, it’s still forbidden to leave home without wearing underwear. One who does so is hardly a monster that will hold the attention of the audience, though; readers want to be taken on a journey with real challenges. In the U.S. in the ‘40s and ‘50s, women who smoked, wore pants, or spoke their minds were considered scandalous, but today they aren’t out of the ordinary at all.
There are plenty of examples in literature of men (not usually women) who lead a life without moral sensibilities, not restrained by even the most basic rules of society if a rule gets in their way. Shakespeare’s villains have set the standard, and we easily think of Richard III, Cornwall, Cassius, and Iago as being utterly without scruples. Their perspectives and arguments are sometimes slow to emerge but they are prize roles for actors and beloved of audiences everywhere for the evil they try to do and the tension their actions create.
Contemporary villains whose context is part of what makes them distinctive include Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, Lord Voldemort, Annie Wilkes, and Nurse Ratched, all of whom come across as profoundly malevolent. A reader can predict bad behavior from such characters, but when their intent is revealed, the depths of degradation associated with them may still surprise. They usually attempt to live a life that looks ordinary to outsiders, keeping their real feelings and plans secret except to their victims, but they are completely aware of the immoral choices they make. They find them justifiable, if not commendable.
These short lists of exceptionally bad people offer clues on how to construct the villains in our work. First, writers can have confidence that they need not restrain themselves: audiences everywhere love to see the schemes and plots and murders and betrayals that villains bring to the story; so while the evil-doer may not be the character with whom the audience identifies, he or she could be the most intriguing person in the story—morbidly fascinating.
TV audiences of a certain age may not remember all the beautiful women who breezed through South Fork, but they will never forget J.R. Ewing. “Who shot J.R.?” was an icebreaker for months, and the mystery brought in an even bigger audience to Dallas at the start of the next season, to see what the answer was.
J.R. is also an example of a second observation: it’s clear that these characters are evil, through and through, and always. If they smile, they are calculating how to defeat others who stand in the way of their objectives. If they show a weaker, more vulnerable side, it’s more likely to be a play for time or a trap than a sincere invitation to relate. They see other people only as obstacles to their success or as tools to be used. To survive them, others must never let their guard down or get in their debt.
There’s a third similarity among the best-known villains in literature: they positively enjoy their status in life. They plan to win at all costs, especially if it means destroying order and structure and predictability.
So how do we pick what kind of villain we want for our story? First, we analyze the primary conflict. What is the basic story we want to tell? If there’s already a theme, an argument to examine that the characters will debate among themselves, then the protagonist may take one side and the antagonist the other. But one antagonist may not be enough to show all the ways a belief or value will fail. To satisfy the reader’s rational engagement with the story, it’s important to show the reason every plan won’t work, by coming up against people who are not the main, evil one. If these issues are not addressed, the reader may go off on a rabbit trail wondering why the hero didn’t try X, when it seems so obvious. A plan’s failure is frequently because the hero underestimated the villain or the opposition from others, or had bad information that was taken as true. It’s only after every conceivable ploy has been considered and tried, but failed, that the main character will have to confront the source of evil in his world and come up with something new (to him or her), or die.
Finally, a villain may lie within the main character himself. That Shadow may be what prevents the character from maturing, and what slows or stops the hero’s progress along the story arc. One such character is Hamlet, endlessly debating what to do and finding excuses not to murder the King after deciding he should.
A writer’s own Shadow side sometimes emerges in retrospect, if all his stories seem to expose the same private struggle, coming at it repeatedly and from all sides. A character’s internal conflict can be the central problem in the story, or in a subplot, and sometimes both.
A story that features monsters, demons, and seductive evil can get readers to explore and redeem the darkness inside themselves. It may actually protect an individual if taken as a defense mechanism. Deathbed conversions are familiar, where an evil character finally asks for forgiveness. Evil can also trigger destruction, which can have a positive effect in the long run. Struggles over conflicting ideas can be the most injurious to a society; and an embodiment of evil can be used to illustrate the superior power of a belief and the futility of hoping to eradicate it.
A balance of inner and outer obstacles can create a fascinating story, helping readers and audiences see that our natural impulses toward indulgence of Self can justify sacrifice or demands.
A last thought in passing: it’s important to align your characters’ outer obstacles with their inner flaws. Use a sliding scale with extremes at each end, then work your characters along it, from evil to good, or from wounded to healing. If a character clearly finds evil attractive, it often begins with very small steps, starting with curiosity, moving to fascination, then to endorsement, and ultimately to happiness or sorrow at carrying out evil acts.