Dark Mirror

REFLECTIONS ON WRITING

VILLAINS

I’ll admit it, I love villains. Stories, especially those of a plot-driven nature, fall flat as a boneless body without them. If they are not a walking, talking catalyst all their own they are at the very least the source for story conflict. Nasty pot-stirrers, troublemakers, heartbreakers and death-dealers. One cannot deny the air of power a well-turned villain carries with them, especially in my genre of choice, be it Stoker’s central, iconic Transylvanian count, or Thomas Harris’ cultured, psyche-drilling and manipulative cannibal.

They can be garish and flagrant, brooding, or wild and untamed. Inhuman or even unhuman. I relish their effects on their story counterparts while I read but don’t get me wrong. I do not cheer them on. (As a writer, a certain amount of support for these monsters and meanies has a time and place. It’s part of the craft. We’ll get to that in a minute.) I find a certain dark beauty in the slither and swagger—mental or physical—of the villain when purveyed with logic and competence. I look for it in the fiction I read and expect it of myself when I sit down to write.

One thing I try to keep in mind as I write is that my villain is a character—not part of the scenery and not a mere plot device—and they should be treated as such. They require my empathy as much as my protagonist. And they require the application of logic on my behalf. All characters should exhibit an appropriate level of behavior, from the single mother in aisle 3 pleading with her toddler to put those Pop-Tarts back, to the doctor rounding up her emergency room patients as the end-of-the-world sirens begin to blare, to the priest flogging an army of demons into submission one by one  with words from his holy book. All believable reaction. Expected. Logical.


As a writer, I have learned to slip into the skin of hero or anti-hero, the villain and the side players alike to view the situation from each viewpoint to lend each character’s movement and motivation in the scene an honest and hopefully truthful resonance. It’s not as time intensive as it sounds. I do not dissect each scene and unspool its guts in five directions to analyze what sounds legitimate and correct. The process happens quickly and naturally for me as I feel it does for many writers. It is learned over time. Just part of the craft.

I find a point that sometimes gets missed, especially when it comes to villains, is portraying the logic of the character from the proper perspective. In terms of the antagonist, I call this the stinging wasp approach. Villains are not there simply to chew up the scenery and revel in their evilness, unless you’re constructing a cartoon character. Let’s look at it this way. People dislike wasps and hornets mostly because they can sting. This usually happens when the insects are provoked—perhaps swatted at—or when their nest is accidentally encountered and disturbed. The resulting sting is a reaction, a justifiable defense. The creatures do not go buzzing about saying “look, there’s a human, let’s attack it for no reason.” The sting is a result of “that flesh bag is a threat to what I know, what I want, where I live, and I must defend.”

Now, apply this to the villain in a story:  “Those wretched children are back in Derry, all grown up now, to interrupt my feeding once again? I’m so hungry and I just want to go about my business. How can I stop them?” 


Don’t forget, everyone is the hero of their own story. Is it not natural to stand against that which keeps you from your next meal, from your safety or sanity, or from your quest for much-deserved world domination? Van Helsing and company, after all, become the dark looming threat haunting Dracula’s coffin-bound dreams. Isn’t it therefore logical the Count, when provoked, delivers a sting or two to defend, deter or derail?


Love all your children equally, writers. Villains deserve the same depth and complexity you give to any other character. No need to condone their behavior, necessarily, but you owe it to them, and to your readers, to understand it.

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