Deb Susan Sees Villains Everywhere

When your novel features a ninja assassin as its protagonist, you have to think long and hard about what makes a villain.

Ultimately, villainy is usually a matter of perspective.

Real villains aren’t the mustache-twirling cardboard cutouts of Saturday-morning cartoon fame. Snidely Whiplash is funny, but not really frightening. Horror villains, like Nightmare on Elm Street’s infamous Freddy Krueger, are scary for a moment but not in a way that makes you think. (Sweet dreams the night you see it, though.)

The truly lasting, classic villains – the ones we love to hate (or hate to love) – are the ones which display humanity beneath their selfish goals.

(Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, image obtained from Wikipedia Commons, used for non-profit commentary under the U.S. Fair Use Doctrine)

J.K. Rowling’s Severus Snape (both in the books and as brilliantly portrayed by Alan Rickman in the films) is such a villain. He is hostile, dark, and blessed with both the power to terrorize Harry Potter and brilliantly-written lines with which to do so. Yet that alone does not make him a brilliant villain. His true strength lies in the fact that he also has reasons to love Harry Potter – and does, in a way – and yet hates the fact that he does so.

Snape’s villainy is born of personal conflict.

To write a lasting villain, an author must dive beneath the surface and understand the story from the villain’s point of view. In the hero’s world, the villain exists as a stumbling block, a threat to the hero and those he aims to save. But the villain’s perspective on the tale is different. In the villain’s world the hero must not succeed, for reasons the villain considers both legitimate and justified. The key, for the author, is knowing those reasons as well as (s)he knows the hero’s motivations to succeed.

Snape loathes Harry Potter because Harry had what Snape desired most of all – the love of Lily Potter – and because Harry wears the face of the man who guaranteed that love would remain forever beyond Snape’s reach. Severus Snape is wounded, not evil, and from those wounds (and some very bad choices) antagonism springs.

To me, the best villain is the one whose version of the story casts the villain as the hero. The one whose villainy springs from circumstances, choices, and an extra dash of selfishness (or sometimes bad intent).

The most frightening villain is not the one who springs out of a closet or ties a princess to a railroad track.

It’s the one who makes me stop and think “there, but for choice and circumstance, go I.”

What makes a good villain to you?

16 Replies to “Deb Susan Sees Villains Everywhere”

  1. Well put. I’d add, in Snape’s case, that he *does* turn out to be a hero after all. I was thinking about the book WICKED while reading your post – a very interesting take on the Wizard of Oz. Brain refuses to bring up the witches name just now, but she definitely doesn’t see herself as the bad girl in that story.

    1. A good point about Snape – and one I left out of the post itself – he does, in fact, turn out to be much more than he initially seemed.

      Stories like WICKED are fun precisely because they play on the idea of turning the villain inside-out and seeing the story from his or her point of view. Can’t do that with a Freddy Krueger – he’s one-dimensional. That’s why I like the complicated ones best – there’s just so much more going on beneath the surface!

  2. Oh, such a good question, Susan. I was just the other day thinking about how loosely we can use that term in books. It seems we always have to have a villain of some sort. There has to be a designated bad guy/girl–even if they aren’t of the evil lot, ie the ex-girlfriend/husband or even the nosy neighbor determined to stir up trouble. Invariably, someone has to be bad for a story to be good.

    As for my favorite, I have so many (Yikes–that doesn’t sound good, does it?) but I suspect my most favorite villains are those who come clean and are redeemed by the end, who start out as cold and soulless then soften (does that mean they are no longer villains though?) such as Darth Vader.

    1. Erika, I love that you brought up Darth Vader here. I almost wrote the post about him, actually (and might have if I’d liked the casting choice for Anakin in Episodes 1-3 a little better). It’s my opinion that the Star Wars series is actually a form of “uncovering attack” (my son informs me the modern chess term is “discovered attack”) by the author. The Star Wars cycle is not about Luke and Leia and Han – it’s the story of the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. Darth Vader is simultaneously villain and hero.

      Ironically, there’s a strong parallel with Snape’s story, which makes me wonder whether J.K. Rowling didn’t have a similar idea in mind. The Harry Potter novels are Harry’s story, without question, but they are also Snape’s story in many ways – and it takes a clever author to make us love an antagonist the way so many of us love Snape and Vader both.

  3. I like to understand villains – because most people are not all good or all bad. And like Susan said, sometimes I’ll wonder what I’d do in a villain’s situation, how I’d handle something, what would push me toward the edge. I don’t know if I’ve ever written a villain.

    1. Amy, you should totally write a villain. They’re great fun, particularly when you can’t expose them as villains right away. I have to spend a lot of time with my villains because I can’t reveal them as villains until the end of the novels (and yes, I’m exchanging “villain” with “antagonist” even though technically there is a difference between them). They end up being some of my favorite characters, even though I often have to kill them off in the end.

  4. Yes! Love the Snape character–as you say: the best kind of villain–and adore Rickman. (I have a crush on him, as Snape, actually–is that weird?) I agree with everything you wrote about villains. I love villains. I like them best when they’re regular people who are very messed up, conflicted, and so on, and who are convinced that they’re acting righteously.

    It’s interesting…I used to love serial murderer mysteries. But now, not so much. I’m not so interested in reading about psychopaths. Sociopaths–that’s another story. Sociopaths are fascinating, and they’re EVERYWHERE around us, everyday, and they are the heroes of their existence.

    Also interesting–have you ever asked yourself whether you could kill someone? After some soul-searching, I realized the answer was “yes” given the right circumstances (self-defense, me, my loved ones)…Knowing that about myself made it easier to write villains. I imagine personalities in which the “yes” feeling isn’t bounded by the same moral limits that I have.

    1. I’ve absolutely had that conversation with myself, Lisa – and yes, I could kill someone if I had to. Like you, there are a LOT of “buts” and conditions on that, but if my life was threatened or someone was going to kill my son or an innocent person – yep, I could do it if I had to.

      I’m also in agreement that a sociopath is FAR more interesting than a psychopath. Killers who kill for the joy of killing or because they are mentally disturbed to the point that they don’t really know the difference between right and wrong are sad and disturbing, but not really interesting. For me (as for you, apparently) it’s far more interesting to explore the mind of someone who knows the difference between right and wrong but decided to take a life even so. One of the best parts of writing mystery is the ability to explore the mind of a “villain” (probably “antagonist” is more accurate) and understand why he or she decided to choose killing over one of the other available options. It creates no end of interesting scenarios.

      And no, I don’t blame you for your crush on Rickman/Snape. There’s a reason I picked him to write about …

  5. So Susan, if Snape counts as a premium grade-a villain, what about The One Who Shall Not Be Named? Where does he rank in your book?

    Also, true confession time inspired by Lisa’s comment–I love me a good serial killer thriller. Talk about zero nuance–most of these characters are drawn on the premise “something just went wrong in their brains.” Is it any wonder that these unredeemable villains always wind up dying in a pool of blood on some lady’s kitchen floor? But yeah, one cannot survive on these mustache twisting baddies alone.

    1. Great question, Kelly. In my worldview there are really two types of villain/antagonists: the ones who qualify as “sub-villains” and the ones who qualify as “the big bad guy.” When you’re writing a single title, the two can be the same (though most good novels have more than one antagonist, and at least one of the antagonists is non-human).

      When you’re writing a series, you generally need at least one sub-villain in every novel, so the hero has someone to defeat/kill/bring to justice and someone else to draw the reader onward to the next installment. Star Wars is a great example: Vader is the sub-villain (or antihero, depending on the scale of your view) and the Emperor is the Big Bad Guy. In each film, Vader is “defeated” but the Emperor remains (until the very end).

      For Harry Potter, Voldemort is the Big Bad Guy. That makes him both more and less interesting as a character, because we have to watch him unfold over time rather than all in one installment. We don’t get the closeness to him that we get to someone like Snape who’s part of Harry’s daily life. On the other hand, we wait and watch with each installment to see whether this will be the one where Harry has to face him once and for all.

      I have a similar two-tiered villain setup in my mystery series (the books are simultaneously stand-alone and part of a larger cycle) so I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the way Voldemort and Darth Vader/Emperor Palpatine interact with the heroes in those two series. I’m fascinated by villains and the way they work (can you tell?).

  6. Fantastic post, Susan. One of my favorites of yours and that list is long. 🙂 I so love a good villain. This is a cheesy example, but for those of you who enjoy watching/reading the Vampire Diaries, Damon is the perfect villain. He kills without a care or seeks revenge because it is a large part of his nature, but like most villains, he’s wounded underneath it all by the lack of something–in his case, love. Umm, it also doesn’t hurt that he has hilarious snarky lines and is ridiculously sexy!

    1. A villain without “the good lines” is a missed opportunity, for sure. The stronger the villain, the stronger the hero can turn out to be in the end – and the more we pull for the hero in the process as (s)he develops into someone who can prevail!!

    1. Thanks Damyanti! I totally agree. I once heard another author say that the villain should be “stronger, more powerful and better equipped” than the hero at the beginning of the story, forcing the hero to grow in some way in order to overcome by the end of the book. I try to keep that in mind – and to respect the villain’s strengths despite the fact that (s)he loses in the end.

  7. Great post, Susan! I agree that the best villains are the ones with depth — the tortured ones, the ones with demons and a past. With those sorts of villains, you wonder, “If a few things had gone differently in my life…could that have been me?” I never think that about Freddy Krueger or the mustache-twirling sort, but that’s why, as you say, those aren’t the best villains. Sometimes the scariest villains are the ones we can understand.

    1. Exactly! Without that depth, we forget them quickly. With it, we find ourselves thinking about them (and sometimes even sympathizing with them a little). There’s a reason Snape had so many fans even before people read the end of the series and realized what he was really up to.

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