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    Posted: Mar-09-2015 at 7:05am
by Christopher Stires

The climax of our story has arrived.  The road of trials has left our hero scarred and battered but still standing.  The stakes are now, at last, clearly defined.  Failure means the loss of their galaxy … their country … their beloved … their cat, Sabrina … or whatever treasure the characters are after.  Only the villain can stop our hero from succeeding.  

Will good triumph over evil or will the bad guys win?  

The question: Do we-the reader, the audience-care?  

The answer: Not as often as we should.

Unfortunately, most of the time, the villain is a one-dimensional character that the hero defeats as if walking through a wall of tissue paper.  We know the hero will win and their victory is therefore diminished.  Also lessened is the pleasure in the short story, novel or film.

So here's the trick.  After developing a well rounded, sympathetic and memorable hero (or heroes), create a villain that makes us afraid for that character.  We want the reader to be asking how can the hero conquer or overcome this individual?  We want the ending not to be a forgone conclusion.  We want the audience to be on the edge of their seats as the story concludes.  

A well-created villain can increase the enjoyment of a story a thousand-fold.  And, more often than not, when done well, will be the character that is remembered long after the tale is finished.  Quick, who were the heroes who battled Dracula?  Name one, just one, good guy who fought Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) in the Nightmare movies or Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) in Blue Velvet.

These villains blew the heroes off the page and screen.

In Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry created incredible three-dimensional characters.  I thoroughly enjoyed being in the company of Gus, Call, Newt, Lorena, Pea Eye and the other members of the Hat Creek outfit.  I liked these people.  Then the renegade, Blue Duck, appeared.  The stakes jumped up several notches.  I was suddenly afraid for the people I had come to know.  It was a book I could not put down until the last page.

My wife Ann's favorite novel is To Kill a Mockingbird.  She reads it once a year.  Harper Lee's characters are wonderful and real.  Who would not enjoy being in the company of Atticus, Scout, and Jem?  But also inhabiting their world is Bob Ewell.  A deadly snake in the midst of the Depression-era Southern garden.  

In William Goldman's Marathon Man, the Nazi dentist, Doctor Christian Szell, captures Babe, our hero, and asks him, "Is it safe?"  At that moment, I broke into a sweat because I knew that even if Babe survived this man, he would never be the same.  Little did I realize how bad the encounter would truly be.  If I had only known, I might have put the book down.  Poor Babe.  This is one of my favorite novels.

All right, folks, get ready.  Pencils sharpened?  Electronic notepads booted up?  Cassette players recording?  

Because here we go.

The first rule for creating an unforgettable villain is: There are no rules.  None.  Nada.  Not a one.  

Yep, and that's what makes them such a cool character.  Villains can follow the rules, break the rules, make up their own rules, or all of the above.  They can be a force of nature; they can be man-made.  They can be an authority or an outlaw.  They can be utterly brilliant; they can deeply psychotic; they can be dumber than a box of rocks.  Sometimes they will not have a single redeeming quality.  Sometimes they will be sympathetic and even admirable.  

Villains only have one trait in common with other villains.  They stand between the hero and their goal.The shark in Peter Bentley's Jaws and the giant worms in Tremors are force-of-nature villains.  They are straight-ahead, no-sympathy destroyers.  People are lunch to them and no more.

"The alien from Alien (is a favorite villain)," said Allen Steele, two-time Hugo winner and author of Coyote and American Beauty. "Reproduces inside living organisms. Has acid for blood.  Can hide in almost any dark corner.  So tough that, even if you blow it out the airlock, it manages to survive.  And it just keeps coming at you."

Because of the way they are portrayed, I would also include Randall Flagg (aka the Dark Man) in Stephen King's The Stand, the Super Posse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the big rig truck in Steven Spielberg's first film, Duel, as forces of nature.

Villains created from mankind's technology may seem like a force of nature at times.  The cloned raptors in Michael Crichton's  Jurassic Park and the Robot Gunslinger in Westworld certainly appear to be single-minded and unwavering in their attacks on the hero.

"Unemotional and unstoppable."  The cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in The Terminator is a favorite of Geoffrey Landis, Hugo and Nebula Award winner, author of Mars Crossing.

"HAL (from 2001: A Space Odyssey)," wrote Daniel Blackston, Managing Editor of SFReader and Senior Editor for Pitch-Black, LLC. "'He' is more human than human, 'his'motivations are simply exaggerated human tendencies: obedience, ambition, the surrender of 'self' to the state…"

Dave Felts, publisher of SFReader and short story writer; and Blackston agreed that the replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner is one of the best. Felts said, "In his pursuit of knowledge on how to extend his life he is unmerciful, but in the end, having accepted his fate, he delivers a message we can all use." Blackston added, "Very sympathetic villain, so much so that the audience can't decide who to root for in the final fight scene, Roy or Harrison Ford's character (Deckard)…"

Some villains have the power of authority assisting them.  Nurse Ratched with administration approval in Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) in The Adventures of Robin Hood has Prince John backing him up.  Milady deWinter operates with the blessing of Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers.  Noah Cross (John Huston) in Chinatown seems to have everyone from the police to the government to the underworld in his rich hip pocket.  General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) in The Wild Bunch with his army.  And, of course, Darth Vader with the entire Empire (as if he actually needed them) behind him in the Star Wars trilogy.  

"Ever since I was 12 I have always thought that Rupert of Henzau from The Prisoner of Zenda was one of the best - handsome and with a sense of humor," wrote Anne Perry, author of the Victorian detective novels featuring William Monk and Thomas Pitt including Death of a Stranger.

"I think my favorite villain is Inspector Javert from Les Miserables, because, like a lot of villains, he's absolutely certain of his virtue," said Stuart Woods, author of Reckless Abandon and Chiefs.

Belloq, with the Nazi army backing him, is a favorite of Justin Stanchfield, author of Sisterhood of the Stone.  "…while neither fierce nor physically menacing, (Belloq) was the perfect foil for Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark … he is complicated and fully-formed. Although driven by greed and self-interest, it is a lust for discovery rather than personal gain. He shows genuine regret about leaving Marion to her fate, but none whatsoever over stealing from Indiana or trying to kill him. Belloq is, as he tells Jones, a mirror image of him, a dark reflection of what Indiana might become should he let himself stray too far over the line."

"Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth as the Scotland Marquis' lieutenant) in Rob Roy is beautifully sadistic while acting a fop," wrote Jay Caselberg, SF author of Wyrmhole and The Metal Sky.

Kate Dolan, author of Langley's Choice; Raven Li, author of Eyes of Glass; and Vivi Anna, author of Goddess of the Dead all agreed that the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was a cool villain.  Vivi added, "I thought his character was deliciously evil and sexy. He played it with such flamboyance that I couldn't help adore him, even while he ran around madly trying to kill Robin Hood. I cheered for him. If I was in those times, I would have definitely been hanging around with him, plotting evil schemes."

"Sauron was perhaps the very best villain ever portrayed, for in The Lord of the Rings, Sauron was offstage," said Dennis McKiernan, author of The Iron Tower.  "He never directly entered the spotlight, hence J. R. R. Tolkien played on the fear of the unknown when he used Sauron in his epic. We only know Sauron through his use of his surrogates."

Also included in this category would have to be Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost and Stephen Vincent Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster.  The devil inhabiting Regan MacNeil's body in The Exorcist.  John Milton (Al Pacino) in The Devil's Advocate.

The opposite of the authority villain is the outlaw.  Sometimes the outlaw is alone such as Max Cady (played by Robert Mitchum in 1962 and by Robert DeNiro in 1991) in Cape Fear.   Sometimes they have handpicked people supporting them like Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in Die Hard.  And sometimes they have huge organizations behind them such as all the criminal masterminds (Doctor No, Rosa Klebb, Emilio Largo, Elliot Carver) who face James Bond.

There is Calvera (Eli Wallach) in The Magnificent Seven; Mr. Jackson in David Baldacci's The Winner, Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in the Third Man; all of the bad guys in Elmore Leonard's novels, and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in the Godfather trilogy.

Allen Steele includes in this category, "Long John Silver (from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson): an often stereotyped classic (the wooden leg, the talking parrot, etc) but still one of the best, mainly because you develop a certain liking for the guy as the story goes along" and "Ernst Stavro Blofeld (from On Your Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming): he's even better in the novel than he was in the movies. And he comes up with one of the most original -- and plausible -- means of  blackmailing the world."  

While some of the characters already named are intelligent, there are others who appear frighteningly brilliant.  Captain Nemo in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Alex in Anthony Burgress' Clockwork Orange, the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) in Dangerous Liaisons, and James Bond's nemesis Auric Goldfinger in Goldfinger are such characters.  

"Dr. Moriarity (from "The Final Problem" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)," wrote Allen Steele, "he almost killed Sherlock Holmes. `Nuff said."

The most terrifying villain in this category, however, one of the most memorable ever created, is perched at the Number One villain spot on the American Film Institute's List of 100 Years … 100 Heroes and Villains.  He is a psychiatrist.  He is a murderer and cannibal. He is Dr. Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) in Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs.  From the moment he appears, the safety of our hero, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), is in jeopardy.  Most definitely.    

"Hannibal Lector …very menacing, with the nightmarish sense that there is no horror or outrage at which he would hesitate," writes Jon A. Jackson, author of Badger Games.  "Plus, of course, an air of implacable competence, the feeling that he's all but unstoppable. The very stuff of nightmare."

Some might argue that Hannibal Lector actually belongs to the next group of villains.  A few might argue that all the characters named belong in this group.  They are the psychotics.

In this group, we will find the touchstone of insane villains: Norman Bates in Robert Bloch's novel and, as played by Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock's film, Psycho.

"(One of my most memorable villains is) Peter Lorre as the child molester in M," wrote Larry Rochelle, author of Death and Devotion and Gulf Ghost.  "(And) Mrs. Danvers as the house servant in Rebecca."

Evan Marshall, literary agent and author of  Toasting Tina said, "My favorite villain is Ellen in the novel Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams … in the story, she goes to obsessive, deadly lengths to keep the man she loves all to herself. To me she is a fascinating psychological study of narcissistic evil. She is also a very unusual villain, as villains go."  

Jeffrey Deaver, author of The Bone Collector and The Coffin Dancer said,  "… one of my favorite villains is Robert Mitchum (as the Reverend Harry Powell) in Night of the Hunter. He was truly scary and creepy in that film!"

"Annie in Stephen King's Misery is very scary, for many of the same reasons as Hannibal Lector," wrote Adam Pepper, author of Memoria.  "She is believable. I've met people like her."

This list of villains also includes: Stephen King's Jack Torrance in The Shining, Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) in Taxi Driver, Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter) in Play Misty for Me, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction, and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) in Tombstone.  

The final group is the dumb villains.  The ones that "drying paint" has a higher I.Q. than.  A small but very scary group.   It would include the two backwoodsmen in James Dickey's Deliverance,  Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wilmer in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.

No matter what category they fall into, villains as with any other characters in your story, novel, or screenplay will be should be as well rounded and multidimensional as your heroes.  They need understanding, too. Captain Boucher, in my horror novel, The Inheritance, truly feels that the prisoners in his care deserve his punishment for their misdeeds.  Kate Guthrie, also in The Inheritance, not only wants to discover the secret behind the mysterious Claiborne legacy but also to have its curse removed from herself.  The vicious creatures in my screenplay and current novel-in-progress, Starbeast, only kill for food.  

But this needs to be clear, for me anyway, while I want a little understanding for my villains, what I want most is for the reader to fear for my heroes. Near the conclusion of my upcoming thriller, Rebel Nation, one of my heroes, Cullen Davis, is told by his grandmother that he must choose between the woman he loves and his younger brother.  Only one will survive.  If he doesn't choose, both will be destroyed.  Hopefully, during the course of the novel the reader will believe, completely and totally, that Victoria Talbridge can do what she has threatened.  Her orders will be carried out even if she were to die at that very moment.

So… the stakes for Cullen have been clearly defined.  Failure means the loss of the two people he loves the most.  Can he be smarter than his grandmother?  He's never beaten her before.  Can he defeat her this time when it matters the most?

Maybe, maybe not.

"A hero is only as great as his villains," said Brad Meltzer, author of The Zero Game and The Millionaires.  "That's how it works."

Below, in alphabetical order, are my ten favorite villains.  This list is subject to change at any time without notice.  
  • Norman Bates in Psycho
  • Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Calvera in The Magnificent Seven
  • Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy
  • Milady deWinter in The Three Musketeers
  • Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood
  • Hans Gruber in Die Hard
  • Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs
  • Christian Szell in Marathon Man
  • Annie Wilkes in Misery

Copyright© 2005,  Christopher Stires

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