What makes an effective literary villain?

When a good villain is bad… but there are nuances

By Jeff Salter

The specific question this week is: “what makes a good villain” in a book or story?

As some of my co-bloggers have already noted, the word GOOD in this context can be confusing. Not to rehash what they’ve already said, let me state it this way, “What makes an EFFECTIVE literary villain?”

Movie Monsters

Before I talk about good guys vs. bad guys, let’s talk about silver screen monsters who broke the mold.

I mean the Frankenstein monster was ugly and dangerous, but by the end of the film, you also felt sorry for him. It wasn’t HIS fault he was given a criminal’s brain. And why did Igor have to terrorize him with that torch?

And look at King Kong. Yeah, he was enormous and destructive. But they kidnapped him from his own home and dragged him across the ocean to put him in chains to “entertain” high society. No wonder he got ticked. And who wouldn’t be attracted to Fay Wray?

Clear Lines

In films (many of which were based on books), there used to be clear lines between the good guys and bad guys. The good guys usually wore white hats and behaved nobly as they manifested impressively high ideals. The bad guys, typically in black hats, were cheaters, liars, thieves, and killers — all nasty business. Those literary characteristics made the individuals easy to identify, but it also meant they were rather one-dimensional.

Anti-Hero

Not certain when this began, but I think it was during the 1960s when the hero of a tale was also demonstrably flawed. I don’t mean the 1960s invented the flawed hero – because that goes back at least as far as Shakespeare and likely farther – but I mean it had a resurgence.

Somewhat later – at least in my memory – we began seeing film villains who also had a soft side. [Consider the No. 1 boss of SPECTRE – in the early James Bond movies – who sat there softly stroking a cat as he ordered executions.]

So now the good guys had some debits and the bad guys had some credits. That’s a lot more realistic… and considerably more interesting to the viewer/reader. After all, which of us is perfectly good? And how many are totally bad?

Fuzzy Lines & Gray Areas

There are still a few villains who seemingly possess NO virtues. One example is Cruella DeVille, who abuses her hirelings, deceives adults, hates children, and tries to kill Dalmatians. Nobody’s cheering for her.

But most of the best villains, in my opinion, also reveal at least a sliver of humanity. One of the most fascinating screen heroes I’ve seen is ‘Popeye’ Doyle of the French Connection. Obsessed with solving the case, he’ll run roughshod over anybody – including other guys in law enforcement – to catch his man. And he’ll break 97 traffic laws to do it. Dirty Harry is cut from the same cloth, but he carries a bigger gun.

Walking Dead

Let’s take a look at some of the fascinating characters in the TV series, “Walking Dead.”

Some characters, like Shane (Rick’s former partner), started out as good guys but gradually “turned” into creeps. By the time he’d completed that transition, you forgot all about Shane’s scenes of leadership and affection and consideration. All that was left was irrational jealousy and hatred.

Then there are characters like Darryl (the crossbow guy), who begins on a questionable note – seemingly an insensitive renegade – but proves himself reliable and loyal… and eventually transitions into a likeable guy. Still rough around the edges, but he’s one I’d want to watch my back in a zombie fight.

WD-Rick-2

So Shane starts good and turns bad. Darryl starts shady and turns good. What about Rick?

Ah, Rick is an excellent example of the anti-hero protagonist. Bent on finding his family, he’ll do anything – I mean anything – and nobody stands in his way. After he finds his family, he’ll do whatever it takes to protect them. I mean WHATEVER it takes. Some of what he does would land him in jail, if there were any laws left… or anyone else to enforce those laws. Finding himself in a leadership position and now responsible for the survival of a growing band of humans, Rick has to rule with an iron hand and some of his decisions are mistakes. Yet his motives remain reasonably pure — survival for himself and family, and protection of the humans who have collected around him.

As we switch to the WD antagonist, bear in mind, a considerable number of Rick’s actions would be considered unethical, immoral, or illegal — in anything but their drastically altered society.

WD-governor

Now to the chief antagonist: the “Governor” (Phillip… later called Brian). The Governor starts out as a cleaner, better dressed, and more classically handsome version of Rick. And he wants the same things — to survive and protect those who have collected around him. Through his rigid leadership a small community has survived and even shows signs of relative normality. But beneath the surface, the Governor is a very sick man with twisted psyche who is vengeful, amoral, and brutal. So evil, that he perceives a distant settlement of stationary humans – Rick’s group at the prison – as a potential threat (somehow) and cannot rest until he either controls them or kills them (preferably the latter).

Remember the unethical, immoral, or illegal behavior of Rick, the protagonist? Nothing he’s done could be considered selfish (except in the sense of self-survival). Therefore, the audience presumably sees Rick as a beleaguered hero.

Yet the Governor’s actions – also unethical, immoral, and illegal – include cold-blooded murder of innocent humans (with no apparent justification). Besides which, the Governor is a bald-faced liar who deceives his collection of frightened humans with fear and propaganda.

Rick hardly lies at all and the only humans he kills are those directly trying to kill him or his group.

So what am I saying about the Governor — one of the “best” villains I’ve seen recently? Just that he does a lot of good for a lot of people (despite his twisted behavior and actions)… and the fine line between him and Rick is one of motive and degree. The Governor’s motives are more twisted and selfish and his actions go much farther into psychopathic crime. The Governor is a villain with nuance and layers and complexity. You can’t like what he’s done or HOW he did it, but you have to admire (somewhat) his ability to lead and protect those in his little surviving community.

Conclusion

Want a good villain? Give him/her complexity and nuance. In addition to his criminal deeds and psycho behavior, show us some softness, some virtuous results.

Want a great hero? Give him/her complexity and nuance. In addition to his/her sacrifices and accomplishments, show us some anger, some irrationality… some emotion.

Question:

Who are some of your “favorite” villains? How multi-faceted are they?

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About jeff7salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Twelve completed novels and five completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015, "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015, "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015, "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014, "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014, "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014, "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014, "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013, "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013, "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013, "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012, "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012. Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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13 Responses to What makes an effective literary villain?

  1. jbrayweber says:

    I am a HUGE fan of the anti-hero. (I write pirates…duh…) I like when the lines are blurred. Because that’s they way it is in real life. Even the best intentions by a good-hearted person can be skewed given the right motivation. This is the same only reversed for those with black hearts.

    You put it so well, Jeff. And I love your examples. I don’t watch The Walking Dead, but I’m sure I would like the show.

    One of my favorite villains is Achilles played by Brad Pit in Troy. Besides the undeniable fact he was smokin’ hot, he was driven by his loyalties and then by love. Bad guy with admirable qualities.

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My kids love Mr. Gold/Rumple in the Once Upon a Time series. I think they did great with his character. He switches back and forth between good and bad. When he does do not so great things he is doing them to try to save someone he loves and while you know it is wrong you want him to get his happy ending.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jeff7salter says:

      not familiar with that series or that character, but certainly individuals who show potential for either good or bad are “deeper” than those for whom everything is so clear-cut. I think some of us can look at villains (of one sort or another) and say, “There but for the grace of God, go I…”

      Like

  3. Laurie Ryan says:

    Villains…complex is definitely good. Even Darth Vader was complex. (Okay, so I’m a bit of a sci-fi geek.) Of course, there are some completely unredeemable villains. Look at Lord of the Rings…Sauron was unredeemable, but Saruman, well, he just lost his way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jeff7salter says:

      absolutely, Laurie. I’m not familiar with those two particular characters, but many experts say all of us have the potential for villainy. So the characters who have one foot on each side of that fence are more intriguing (to most) than individuals who seem to have no internal conflicts

      Like

  4. Wow! I thought my Friday contribution was going to be deep and long …It’s “See Dick run” compared to yours.
    We may have a few differences of opinion, but you did an outstandingly complex piece of work and thought here.
    [For the record, Fay Wray does nothing for me!]

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Anyone named Fay would be more your type than mine, Jeff! Just as anyone named James would be more my type than yours.
    Thanks, I know you’ll check in with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Patricia Kiyono says:

    Since I don’t watch much television I’m not familiar with the villains in Walking Dead. But I enjoy your analysis. If I ever watch it I’ll refer back here for a tutorial!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jeff7salter says:

      I wasn’t expecting to like it. I mean, how many hundred zombies can you watch being shot or stabbed in the head? But the characters are compelling and the view has to wonder, “what would I do in a situation where society has totally collapsed?”

      Liked by 1 person

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