Writing Villains & Understanding Their Villainy
Cruella de Vil is such a great villain. Her image sticks in my mind throughout time as a creepy lady who scared the crap out of me. And the best part about her, and most villains, is the entertaining value of her villainy. She is sassy and flashy, visually exciting. While I don’t want her to get those puppies, it is also fun to watch her try. I don’t even like 100 DALMATIONS as a movie, but I love Cruella de Vil.
Childhood is where we learn about good and evil. Where our imagination gets the best of us and monsters live in the dark shadows of the closet/attic/basement. As the G.K. Chesterton quote goes “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” Good triumphs evil, Cruella de Vil does not prevail.
There are lots of great articles and thoughts about writing villains, but I’ve been thinking about writing villains less as a “how do I make this character real” exercise as looking at the villains in my own life for inspiration. Understanding one often leads to understanding the other. And I’m referring to human villains here not robots, aliens, or fantastical creatures, though I would think the same theories apply.
As a writer, the onus of writing a good villain is creating a multi-dimensional character. The villains of childhood are flat, literally. They are categorically evil in everything that they do. But as a writer, if I write a cartoony character, especially if it’s not a cartoon, it won’t be believable no matter how fun. There are all kinds of tricks and rules and guides to create a multi-dimensional character whether it’s hero or villain. But my approach to character development is that the more detail I can provide, the better the character. I may never actually let my audience know about a certain event or emotion or every detail of the character’s backstory. It’s better if I don’t. But knowing it from a writer’s standpoint means that I can root my character’s actions into something believable.
Hannibal Lecter was voted AFI’s all-time best villain in 2003, but when I look at the list and when I think about the villain in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, I think rather of the Jame Gumb serial killer character played by Ted Levine. Hannibal Lecter is not exactly a villain in that particular movie, yet he certainly is by definition a villain in society because of his past crimes. We get to meet him, though, when he’s fairly “safe.” My take-away from the movie is what Hannibal Lecter teaches me about the psychology of Jame Gumb. He gets me inside the head of what I consider the true villain of the story – the person committing the crimes and striking fear in my heart. Hannibal and Clarice show me the humanity of the villain, the human origins of the monster, the sad poignancy of his life that makes me feel compassion for a serial killer. Hannibal Lecter is much more like Cruella de Vil – Evil with a capital “E” and barely human – while Jame Gumb is someone I can picture sharing the sidewalk next to me, which makes Gumb far more frightening and compelling as a character.
So instead of thinking about fictional villains from movies and books, I look to villains in my real life. People who have hurt me and those I love. And as any crime statistic will tell you, the people who cause the most harm are usually the ones closest to home. Villains are people I love and hate, sometimes at the same time. These are people I depend on, trust, believe, who do things to betray that faith. Yet these are also people who foster, support, love, and believe in me. They do things that warrant my continued faith. And then there is the undying hope that, when things were good, they will remain so. And when things were bad, the good from the past gives me hope that it could change. For many children, monsters live with them in their own house, and good does not always triumph evil. I believe, though, especially for children, that the instinct for survival and the wonders of the imagination provide hope that someday good will win.
Our instinct for survival is at the root of all and makes us essentially selfish creatures. I believe there is and can be altruism, but I think that it still depends on a deep sense of self-regard. I read about children from concentration camps after World War II who remained in a group and took care of each other, making sure everyone had their fair share of food but the theory was that they wanted to be fair to others because they needed fairness to be given to them. It’s the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish to be treated. And yet if I treated others as they have treated me…
We don’t believe in monsters just because people do bad things TO us, we believe in monsters because we do bad things to OTHERS. I am both hero and villain in my own real-life story. I too have harmed those I love. There is good and evil within all of us. But when we have bad feelings, we want to act and we don’t know what to do. Some people just let them dissipate. Others act on those feelings, usually making situations worse. Some people are able to take those bad feelings and do something good with them. I think this comes down to another basic instinct: fight or flight. As a writer, it’s my job to show HOW my character chooses to fight or flee. Thoughts may turn into action but it is action that creates consequences and responses that create a plot.
Are real-life villains evil? No. Do they have mental issues? Probably. If not, there’s a personal history of choices and experiences that influences their actions. How does that manifest? I often find, in real life, that a person’s good qualities I particularly admire are also the root of the bad qualities I despise. Someone charming can turn manipulative on a dime because it’s essentially the same trait. And it’s not the mental instability that causes a person to do bad, it’s the inability to filter thoughts and emotions within a socially acceptable context. For example, Springhole.net cites the case of Jared Lee Loughner who was declared mentally unfit to stand trial after shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, but he also had a MOTIVE for his ACTIONS: “he hated the government, and he especially hated Giffords after he felt she had evade a question he once asked her. “
I have spent a lot of time in the last few years trying to see things from other people’s perspectives, and I find myself trolling through the past looking only for blatant representations of their villainy. It would be so much easier to just hate. It would be so much easier to flatten a person out and create a cartoon that I could enjoy being frightened by but not be real enough to have nightmares about. In my trolling, though, I have simply found a human being. I see how vulnerable these real people are, how scared, how sweet at times, loving, funny…I see the different sides that maybe I don’t ever benefit from but know they exist. In real life this has taught me to let go of what I wanted that person to think and do. I couldn’t fix them, but maybe I could understand them. And if I couldn’t understand them, I just had to let it go. As a writer, I find myself excited by that complexity.
It’s easy to break down a character when it’s fictional, but much harder when it’s a real person. Things are simpler in stories and our emotions and biases are more relaxed as an audience. In accepting an assailant’s humanity, we have to accept our own shortcomings and our own lack of control, all things that terrify us. But I think the exercise in understanding real people who commit horrors is helpful from a writer’s point-of-view. I know that it’s blasphemy to talk about the humanity of someone like Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer or other “evil” humans that committed atrocities in the world, but it is a fair point that villains are formed over time and there always seems to be someone who loves them, even at the height of their crimes. One of my students when I was a TA at USC made a video using childhood pictures of such people to underscore this point. I don’t think people wake up one day and say “I’m going to be an evil bastard” just like I don’t think people wake up and say “I’m going to hit my child,” or “I’m going to have an affair.” That forethought is usually lost to overwhelming emotional and psychological needs driving that person to act out in inappropriate/hurtful ways. And it only takes one step, and then another, and then another. And each step is easier than the one before and pretty soon it’s difficult to go back to something more innocent. When looking at the patterns of serial killers, they always start out small. Red flags go unchecked as time passes and things worsen.
Trying to write a good villain is trying to see things from the perspective of someone who hurt you. I have to become Clarice listening to Hannibal tell me about Buffalo Bill, and have it all hit home when faced with the screaming of the lambs. There is no reason or justification for committing atrocious crimes, but in order to write it you have to find that reason or justification within the skewed mentality of your villain. It doesn’t mean I agree with my character’s choices. There can be varying degrees of villainy, so depending on your character, what is the “something extra” that propels the character down a slippery slope from flawed human to monster? And what I said above about no one waking up and deciding to be evil? No forethought in action? At some point, for some villains, the planning and the forethought are part of the ritual, part of the power, part of the “reward” they get in their sickness. And that threshold to action becomes so low from all their previous line-crossings, they don’t even see it. They lose their humanity along the way, but that doesn’t mean they never had it. In fact, their humanity is what sent them into a downward spiral because if they hadn’t felt the crimes (perceived or real) against THEM and then acted out to cope with or shut down those feelings inside, they probably wouldn’t have committed the same crimes.
Ultimately, there’s safety in these mental gymnastics knowing that it’s fictional and not real actions in the real world that could harm people I love. It’s therapeutic and creatively inspiring all at the same time!