What makes a compelling villain?
The following is a guest post by Urban Fantasy author Emmett Spain. You can check out his novel Old Haunts here
Having watched a copious amount of films and read a few hundred books in my 30 years on this planet, I have read/seen some absolute shockers, been compelled and terrified by the best of the worst, and endured a great deal that were more ho-hum than horrifying. And when you see that many, you start to notice some fairly obvious commonalities.
Let’s start with the scene where the villain gets introduced.
You’ve seen it before. The obligatory bad guy torturing or killing someone. The expository philosophical rant that comes before torturing or killing someone. Action movies thrive on this kind of scene in particular, and one suspects they’ll never entirely grow out of it.
For example, I saw “The Losers” recently, and watched another of these obligatory scenes. They tried to mix it up with the bad guy having an “I’m so laidback and ironic in the face of evil deeds that I’m totally cool” attitude, but sadly the performance fell flatter than a pancake dropped from a 30 storey building.
Now look at two of the villain introductions that really, really work.
Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter is slowly revealed, standing still and statuesque behind fibreglass.
The Dark Knight. The Joker wreaks murderous havoc in a bank, then slips off his mask for a massive close-up as he mutters in his twisted drawl, “Whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you… stranger.”
So we have two ways of setting up a villain - one with quiet poise and the other with wilful chaos. Both are hugely effective. But what really makes them work?
To find out, we need to go back a step.
In both instances the villains are mentioned before we meet them, and both times there is a sense of reverence toward them, as though they are each figures of legend to be feared and revered. Lecter we are told is a very dangerous man, and before we wind our way through to his lonely little cell we hear of his atrocities, his tendencies, and the danger he represents. These words are like salt on our palettes, kindling our appetites.
Why is that?
Because there is a part of every person that is curious, that wants to solve the mysteries of life, however small or large they may be. It’s those mysteries that keep us interested, that keep us reading or watching or paying attention. Setting up a character in hushed or reverent tones makes us eager to see them for ourselves. We want to solve the mystery.
On another level, a deeper level, there is a part of us that wants to reach out and touch the darkness, to be sickened and enthralled by the possibilities that lie within that infinite void of the soul. These characters represent a safe way to explore that darkness – a morally free way we might explore the urges buried within our collective psyches.
Does the Dark Knight take the same approach as Silence of the Lambs with the Joker? Think of the great establishing line relating to the Joker’s makeup.
“Yeah, you know. To scare his enemies. War paint.”
Of course, the Joker’s legacy followed him into the film, so I can understand the argument that the character was set up long before audiences entered the cinema. But this only serves to enforce the overall point – if you set up your villain properly before we meet them, then you can have them produce a lasting impression on readers/viewers without the need for torture scenes or pompous soliloquies.
Think of your favourite villain from books. Were they set up well before you met them?
In my novel Old Haunts I took a similar tack—I built up the idea of one of the key villains before I introduced him. Threaded throughout the novel are snippets of information regarding the vampire’s previous interactions with the characters, and their fear at the idea of running into him again. With this built throughout the novel the character has a presence before we meet him… and when we do it’s as cinematic as possible:
The archway curtain fluttered once more, revealing a hunching man draped in loose hanging rags. He looked tired, greasy, unwashed. His cheeks were sharp and sunken, his eyes deep and sad-looking. Around his eyes were dark, purplish circles that offset his pale skin. His short, roughly shaven brown hair was matted with blood and dirt, as were the patches of bare flesh exposed through the rags he wore. I spotted dark clusters of bruises at his ribs, and identical pale scars at both wrists that may or may not have been self inflicted.
He looked beaten and fragile, like a wounded animal in need of shelter and care. Yet when his sad eyes spotted the trio of vampires ahead of him, I registered a reaction from them I did not expect. Fear. In their eyes, in the way they stopped moving, utterly and completely. They were afraid of him. The man’s expression had not changed, had not come over menacing or dark in any way. He just looked at them, sad eyes regarding them with a pitiful, wounded expression. I watched as most of the vamps slowly backed away, making their way off the upper tier and toward the exit. The man turned to me and lifted his head, his brows knitting together in a pleading expression.
As his back straightened with a wince of pain, my heart fell into my stomach.
Around the man’s neck was a collar of metallic silk, an alloy pliable as fabric but hard as Kevlar. It’s the alloy of choice for mystical types—or at least it is for those who can afford it. It’s most often used as a focus for binding spells, to create a barrier that is strong yet malleable, but this … I had never seen anything like it. It wasn’t latched against his neck, wasn’t held in place by any sort of fastening or catch. At either side of the collar were small, dark holes in his neck where the alloy was sewn into his skin, leaving the surrounding flesh blackened and dry. I looked up from the collar and into the man’s pleading eyes. He looked to me for relief, for safety. To be taken away from this place, from this life. He looked at me with the desperate eyes of a man who wanted to die.
I watched as the metallic collar shimmered from dark grey to bright, reflective silver, as the metallic thread sewn into his skin tightened as if pulled upon. The man winced and keened, his neck and body stiffening as he knelt to the floor. As he settled into the ground I noticed a second shimmer in the doorway, and spotted a similar piece of metallic silk strapped to the wrist of a tall, middle-aged man wearing grey suit pants, leather shoes, and a black button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows. The alloy was not sewn into his skin but loosely clasped, and as he very slightly tilted his fist the shimmering stopped as if by command, and the collar at the kneeling man’s neck loosened ever so slightly.
As he stepped forward, the curtain of shadow that concealed his features peeled back up his arm, then slowly over his chest and head, revealing his face to my eyes.
Old Haunts is available now.