Monday, April 8, 2013

The Creation of an Effective Villain

One of the things I often hear from readers is that the Commander truly scares them. He's been called one of the worst villains in literature by several who've written to me, and this pleases me. Naturally, I live to scare my readers. *cue maniacal laughter*

Actually, I live to write effective stories, and that requires pushing my characters to their limits. If the villain isn't worthy of my heroes, then the story no longer matters. Readers don't sign on to read a story about characters who are kind of facing a few irksome problems that are easily dispatched if only they would simply communicate with each other and decide to do the right thing. Readers want stories that sink into their minds and whisper their secret fears. They want stories where the heroes have a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding. Stories where the victory costs nearly as much as it would cost to fail.

To deliver that, the villain must be effective. Being evil for the sake of being evil is boring. Every effective villain has a defined agenda. A cause that he is fully committed to, no matter how much collateral damage he might cause himself and others on the way to achieving his goal. Conflict happens when the hero's agenda runs perpendicular to the villain's.

But having a defined agenda and a fanatical devotion to his cause (even if his cause is himself) isn't enough. For a villain to be truly effective, readers must BELIEVE that he will follow through on his threats.

That was the secret to creating the Commander. I knew he was a brutal man who didn't truly see people as anything other than pawns in the chessboard of life. And I knew the secret fears that drove him to covet absolute power (and to be so afraid of having his word challenged). But all of that was useless if he was the kind of villain who stopped to have long threatening soliloquies, making grandiose promises of violent consequences if my characters didn't bend to his wishes. The secret of the Commander's reign of terror (both over my characters and over my readers) is that he always keeps his promises. And I had to write the scenes that proved it.

That was the hardest thing. To bring to life on the page the absolute disregard he has for human life, and the lengths to which he'll go to force people to bend to his will. His very first threat toward Rachel and Logan is instantly accompanied by a brutal murder right in front of them to drive home how easily he will keep his promises to destroy them if they try to double cross him.

I had to escalate it from there, though, because the other ingredient to a truly effective villain is to make the consequences of his actions PERSONAL to the hero, and therefore to the reader. The Commander had to hurt my characters where it really mattered, and he did it in the cold, efficient style that is his hallmark. No emotion. Just brutality so that he would get his way.

For those who've read the book, I'm talking about the wagon scene. It was a horrible scene to write. I cried all the way through it, and then I couldn't write another word again for three days. But I knew that with that one scene, I'd solidified the Commander as an effective villain because now the heroes and the reader knew without a shred of doubt that the Commander would keep his word. Instantly, the stakes in the novel rose. Failure now carried an impossibly tragic consequence, and everyone believed it.

In Deception, a new villain is added to the mix (though the Commander is still very present). This villain has a very different agenda, very different motives, and very different demons driving the actions the villain takes. But one thing remained consistent: this villain keeps his/her word. The methods are different, but the outcome is the same: the reader believes that the villain is fanatically devoted to his/her cause and will do what it takes to reach his/her goal. I had to prove it all over again. And yes, I had to make it personal because if it isn't personal, then it isn't really frightening and it doesn't truly matter. So yes, there's a scene that broke me. I still can't read it without sobbing. I guess I should apologize ahead of time to my readers, but I'm not truly sorry because for the story's outcome to matter, the villain had to be effective.

And besides, if you've read Defiance and decided to come back for more, you know what you're getting into. ;D

So, that's my recipe for an effective villain:

*A defined agenda
*Total devotion to his/her cause
*Makes the consequences for disobedience/failure personal
*Demonstrates that he/she keeps his/her promises


  1. *prepares stack of tissues for August 27th*

    There are two kinds of villains, the one you are properly scared of and also makes you want to stab them, and then the other kind, that you hate but also sort of feel bad for, the sort of misguided one, that you wish you could redeem.

    The Commander is the stabby, scary motherf*cker one!

  2. Great post, CJ! And you just gave me an idea of something I need to do with the villian in my YA thriller, so thanks!

  3. Oh my gosh. When I read DECEPTION basically features Wagon Scene II, my stomach twisted. *hides face*

    I still am curious what would happen if the Commander met King Leck (Graceling) and Billy Dent (I Hunt Killers). I think I'd be so scared, I'd throw up.


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