Every story needs them, whether they’re human or animal, alien or supernaturally-conjured. The sweetest, kindest romantic story benefits from some kind of conflict, and that conflict is often cloaked in villainy.
Think of Snidely Whiplash, tying Nell to the train tracks while Dudley Do-Right and his horse (aptly named, ‘Horse’) rides against horrendous odds to save her. Snidely is quite the villain, cackling and twirling his mustache while trying to bleed Nell and her ailing father for their last pennies as he once again raises the rent on their ramshackle house. When he’s defeated, by the perennially steadfast and courageous Dudley (and Horse), the audience cheers.
Ah, those characters we love to hate. How they can mess up a good romance, toss danger into the midst of happiness, ruin marriages, friendships, affect family dynamics. Sometimes they want to do the right thing, but at their core, they’re just too evil. Sometimes they delight in their utter villainy, all through the pages of the story. I love to read villainy. And more and more I’m discovering I like to write it, too.
When I think back on the villains I’ve read over the years, some of the scariest, the creepiest, were all too human.
What people are capable of doing to each other often transcends anything Dracula, the Wolfman or others of their ilk could inflict. The human animal can be inhumanely cruel, vicious, utterly, frigidly cold and unfeeling. You think a great white shark has black, soulless eyes? Try looking into the eyes of someone like Charles Manson. A villain with an empty, yawning pit of a soul and dead eyes will scare me like nothing else.
The best villains aren’t necessarily wild and crazed, slashing with knives or chainsaws, skulking in dark alleys and waiting to pounce. They’re not always associated with a mob or a gang. They might not have ever smoked, gotten a tattoo, drank to excess or taken drugs. But they are lacking in the most basic of human traits. They’re the kids who pull the wings off grasshoppers and stomp on baby frogs. They’re the teenagers who think nothing of terrorizing other teenagers or torturing puppies, and they grow into the adults who present a calm, often charming and urbane face to the world. They graduate from college, come from old money, take on high-powered jobs.
They’re most often sociopaths in the truest sense of the word. They think what they do is completely acceptable, and you can’t teach them right from wrong because whatever comprises human decency was never included in their DNA.
I’m working on a new manuscript, and I find myself in need of a villain. Luckily for me, I’m fascinated by this charming, intelligent, cultured monster with the fab clothes and the winning smile. He preys on the weak, the naïve, the helpless. He will make an ideal villain because in his mind he’s superior to everyone else, and that self-declared superiority of his means that he can do anything he likes to those who are beneath him. He can use them, degrade them, hurt them, kill them. And act calm and sane while he’s doing it.
I hate him, therefore he’s perfect. I can hardly wait to start writing him. I’m still not sure what he’ll unleash on my unsuspecting hero and heroine. When I finally plot it all out, you can be sure I won’t be holding the evilness back. I’m going to let my villain run amok. I figure he’ll get to have his fun.
Or, she’ll have the fun.
Ah, you didn’t think of that, did you? Maybe the villain will be a woman.
So many choices, so many ways to go.
It’s good to be a writer.