Thursday, July 12, 2012


 I was talking to Elizabeth over at Myself Without the Shell the other day and we had a great conversation about villains and plot, and it occurred to me that I’m very lucky. Whenever I hit a snag in my stories, I bounce them off my resident psychologist who is an avid fan of Joseph Cambell’s works. So much so that we have two copies of a Hero with a Thousand Faces, one hardbound for reading, one paperback for marking up.

The reason this makes me luck is that when I get stuck, gems of absolute brilliance rain down from the sky. And the gem that fell out of the sky and nailed me in the head was this “Make your villain smart.”

Smart. Intelligent. Thinking, planning, scheming, conniving and competent.

It’s strange how we will not tolerate incompetence in our main character, but incompetent villains are sort of expected. And when they’re not, they are scary.

I have some friends who spent time in law enforcement, and the number one issue they have is with smart criminals. If you don’t believe me, read the arrest reports for any given weekend and you’ll laugh your tail feathers off because the criminals who get caught do so because of the stupidest things. The arrest report is like a comedy of errors. But the smart crook? That sends people into a panic for weeks or even years. Serial killers? Usually very intelligent. The DC sniper? Smarter than the average criminal. The UniBomber? College graduate. Ted Bundy? Really smart. Leonard Lake? Working on a college degree at the time he was caught (my mother ran the computer programming lab where he went to school; that’s creepy scary stuff).

These thinking people are the stuff of villains. My examples are all criminal cases, but the villains should be at least as calculating as these people. When our villains start thinking for themselves, planning, and thinking of the future, something happens to the story. The outcome becomes uncertain. If we know that the bad guy is smart, maybe smarter than our MC, we aren’t sure who’s going to win.

You’ve seen this before. It’s fun to watch a football match where your team scores two goals (touchdowns for American football) in the first quarter of the game. You’re already secure in the win. There’s a cushion. Life isn’t as tense. And even though it’s fun, the win doesn’t have much of a pay off. It was easy, and you sort of already knew it was going to come. No big deal.

Oh, but take that same match and have each goal matched by the other team, and the clock is ticking down, and the gold medal rests on the outcome, and you hate the other team because they are {insert silly reason to hate the other team, but we’ll go with known cheaters}, and your team has the ball with twenty seconds left on the clock.

Man, that’s a nail biter full of hope.

Give the opposing team the ball with the score tied up and twenty seconds to go, put all your star players on the bench, and suddenly it’s your second or third line up against their aces with only seconds on the clock and that’s another game too.

Then the rookie with a checkered pass steals the ball from team villain and chips it up to worn out, told he’d never play again due to injury fading star, and he heads the ball into the far corner of the net.

Crowd goes wild.

That’s what you have to do with a story to make it feel like a victory. Sure, winning is fun, and a nice secure win is great. But a win you could only hope for that you manage to scrape together in the last seconds? That is the stuff of dreams.

But to show our readers these places of emotional highs and lows, we have to have someone to play against. We have to have team Villain.

So, I don’t know about you all, but I’m going to head back to my WIP and see how much harder I can make the journey for my MC. I’m off to go build up my villain, create his plans, and order up his army of faithful minions (who really need to have a great reason for being faithful).

Got a favorite villain? I’m pretty fond of Loki right now because he is one interesting bad guy, and I can’t shake the feeling that he let the Avengers win so he could fly back to Asgard in First class… Now that’s the kind of planning I’m talking about.


  1. I always plan out, step by step, what my antagonist is doing (Maass has a great exercise in Writing the Breakout Novel), but I don't always make sure it's the smartest move for them. So thanks for that extra step. You're so right about the smart antagonist.

    My all time favorite villain, to the point of actually rooting for him over the protagonist, is Prince Nuada from Hellboy II. Sure he wanted to destroy all of humanity, but he was so sympathetic and driven, I wanted him to win. And then there be a sequel where someone shows him the error of his ways and there's a compromise and everyone rides off into the sunset. That didn't happen, but you know...

    1. Oh, Prince Nuada is a good one. Great costume, great plan, excellent all around bad guy. (funny how you need a great costume to be a great bad guy in my book)

  2. These are all such great points. I'm going to have to go back and look at my villians :)

    1. I'm always nervous that I've forgotten this, and I'm always picking through my WIP saying "Is that really in his best interest? Would he be lured in by this plan?"

  3. Excellant advice! I love a smart, evil villian. Definitely more scary.

    1. Yes, the smart ones are scary. That's why I'm studying so hard.

      Knowledge is power,
      Power corrupts,
      Study hard become evil. (Mwha ha ha ha!)

  4. This is a fantastic post! I loved the villains in Hunger Games - specifically those in district 13. I watched one of those dateline, "Catch a Killer" shows this week - the murderer was wicked smart, and it was chilling.

    Definitely double checking my villains now! Thanks!

    1. Yes, those are perfect examples. Those guys in District 13 really know how to put the screws on Katniss. Brilliantly done.


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