The Dramatic Villain*

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*Plus tips for writing villains in general.

Enough about heroes and ensemble casts – it’s time we take a break and talk about another fun subject: the villain. Specifically, the dramatic villain. You know the one – he swirls around in maroon capes with gold embroidering, probably laughs maniacally at everything he does, and says things like ‘I hope so, for YOUR sake.’ Are you rolling your eyes yet? You probably should be. Dramatic villains have been ruined time and time again by over-dramatization.

So you CAN have an acceptable dramatic villain?

Sure you can! In fact, the creepiest, most loathsome villain I’ve ever written is the Prince-Regent from The Dying of the Light and he’s about as dramatic as you can get. I’ll be using him as a personal example, but I’m also going to borrow a favorite villain from TV – Adam from Forever.

Adam is one of my favorite TV antagonists for many reasons, but one reason in particular: he is unabashedly over-the-top dramatic without losing his edge. He listens to loud opera music, stands on rooftops, lurks in the shadows, and speaks with Shakespearean flair – all without losing his credibility as a legitimate threat. This is no easy feat, and makes him not only dangerous, but fun to watch.

It’s hard to write a dramatic villain, for several reasons. They could be the wrong type of dramatic, and it falls flat. They could be too dramatic and lose all fear-factor. They might have loads of flair, but a scary personality doesn’t always cut it. So how do you make a dramatic villain work?

LOOK AT THE PEOPLE AROUND THEM.

Machiavelli said that you can tell much about a man by the people around him, and he was absolutely correct (unless your villain, like Adam, is a loner who doesn’t actually keep company). When my protagonist, Saizou Akita, first meets the Prince-Regent, I spend more time describing the two people on either side of the Prince-Regent than I spend describing the Prince-Regent himself.

The first figure sat on the top stair on the Prince-Regent’s left, and the first thing Saizou noticed was the leash running from the thick, leather collar around his neck straight to the Prince-Regent’s right hand, where he gripped the leash in a tight fist.

The man wearing the collar was a strange sight – not Japanese, Saizou guessed, but probably Korean. His hair was shaved close to his skull, and his wide cheekbones were nearly as sharp as his bared teeth. His dark eyes were narrowed not at Saizou, but at Shi; who regarded him with a neutral expression. The dog-man growled deep in his throat and shifted from a sitting position to a crouch, as if prepared to leap at either of the newcomers. He was dressed simply, almost carelessly, in nothing but plain black pants and two leather bracers from his wrists to his elbows.

The other figure stood on the Prince-Regent’s right, tall and slender, with his hands folded in front of him and his head tilted to the side. While not as strange a creature as the dog-man, he was a curiosity, if only for the thing fitted around the lower half of his face. It looked like a cross between a gas mask and a muzzle; a sleek, elegant thing still somehow barbaric when attached to a human’s face. He wore a split skirt over close-fitting leggings and boots, and a sleeveless jacket that went high up his neck was cropped high enough to show several inches of lean, hard stomach. His detachable sleeves were open carriers for knives; a long, thin blade decorated each of his forearms, and even more circled the sash around his waist.

TL;DR, the Prince-Regent keeps some creepy company. Describing the setting – the palace, the people, the atmosphere – is a good buildup to the high point of introducing your Big Bad. It helps build a sense of fear and suspense.

THROW THE READER OFF-BALANCE

When the Prince-Regent speaks for the first time, Saizou is a bit unnerved at the softness of his voice. The Prince-Regent has a flair for the dramatic and bold. He’s ruthless and sadistic, but his voice is soothing and soft. Throwing something unexpected into the mix is a good idea, because it means your reader will be on their toes from the get-go.

In Forever, Henry has been receiving stalker-like phone calls from Adam for months before Adam shows himself – but the first time we meet Adam, he’s so unassuming and chatty that Henry is clueless to his real identity. He has no idea this is the nightmare who refuses to leave him alone. This isn’t Adam’s real personality, of course, but he uses it to throw Henry off-balance, and it works.

YOUR VILLAIN MUST FOLLOW THROUGH ON HIS THREATS

Anyone can make threats. I could stand in front of you and threaten to rip your eyeballs out and feed them to the ones you love in a fruit salad, but chances are I’d never go through with it. Many amateur writers make the mistake of having  villain who makes a lot of threats, but rarely does anything about them. If you want people to truly fear your villain, then they must have a villainous integrity. They have to make good on their threats as often as possible, or their credibility as a baddie will rapidly drop.

“Look, mate – your Highness,” Oscar said, running a hand through his hair, “you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m not Victor Frankenstein, right? You’re asking me to make a thing, a person, from spare parts. From other people.” He shook his head vigorously. “That’s insane. That’s ludicrous. What would you even do with it?”

“What I would do with it has no bearing on my request,” said the Prince-Regent. He smoothed his long, black hair over one shoulder, combing it with sharp fingernails. They were painted gold, Oscar noticed. Probably real gold. “Please say yes. I’ll be so terribly disappointed if you don’t.”

Oscar had a brief vision of the Prince-Regent chewing him to shreds with those teeth.

“Just let me ask one question, if you don’t mind,” said Oscar, trying to organize his thoughts. This one goes in the ‘moronic’ bin and this one goes in the trash bin, definitely.

 The Prince-Regent’s eyes narrowed a fraction, but he said, “What?”

Oscar lifted both his hands. “Do I have a choice?” he asked, knowing full well what the answer would be, but asking anyway. Just in case.

“Of course you have a choice.” The Prince-Regent sounded wounded at the question.

Oscar rolled his eyes and lowered his hands. “Do or die, right?”

“I suggest the former option, but obviously the decision is yours. You have three seconds to make up your mind.” The Prince-Regent put his hands behind his back, watching with a look of genuine curiosity on his statuesque face. “One.”

Okay. Okay, think of the options. Obviously, you don’t want to die. That would be tragic. On the other hand, consider the consequences—

            “Two.”

Think, Oscar, think. The consequences of this – this thing – it’s wrong, isn’t it? It has to be wrong, so there you have moral problems and ethical problems, obviously—

            “Three,” said the Prince-Regent.

This scene wouldn’t be tense if the Prince-Regent hadn’t already made good on threats like this within the novel. As it is, by this point the reader knows that not only will the Prince-Regent kill Oscar, but probably make a painful example of him in the process.

There’s a flip side to this point – a villain should sometimes keep their promises as well, particularly if it’s the sort of Villain you may or may not want to slide into a Protagonist/Antihero seat.

In Forever, Adam notices that Henry’s adopted son, Abe, has an Auschwitz tattoo on his wrist. The next time he sees Henry, Adam promises he would never do anything to harm Abe, and he keeps that promise. In fact, he gives Abe a gift – a record of Auschwitz prisoners, including Abe’s previously unknown parents. What makes this even more interesting is that Adam viciously tortured the museum curator from whom he got the record, providing a beautiful mixture of emotions and situations.

If the villain makes a promise to the hero and keeps it, not only do you provide an interesting flavor to the mix, but from then on you have a consistent will-they-won’t-they scenario happening in the mind of the reader.

MAKE THE VILLAIN SYMPATHETIC

No, I don’t mean make all the readers feel bad for him. Rather, you should show your readers why the villain does what he does and is the way he is. Maybe he’s just crazy. Maybe he wasn’t hugged enough as a child. Whatever the reason, an understandable villain is always, always better. For example, the Prince-Regent’s manipulative, sadistic tendencies and sexual deviancy are infamous throughout Japan, but halfway through the book it’s revealed that the Prince-Regent’s uncle-slash-tutor provided the foundation for these habits. This annoyed my readers to no end because they didn’t want to understand the villain or feel sympathy for him – I received emails from betas asking how dare I; now they felt bad for the child-version of the Prince-Regent while hating the adult version simultaneously and that wasn’t fair. This is the kind of reaction you want – you want your readers to feel as much as possible (WITHOUT ruining your villain’s villainy. Remember that).

‘HE’S EVERYWHERE! HE’S EVERYWHERE!’

In Forever, Adam appears at unexpected times in unexpected places. In short, Henry never knows when he’s going to run into his nemesis. This adds tension to the story even when Adam doesn’t choose to show up, because you never know. The Prince-Regent never pops up unexpectedly, but his various assassins and associates do, meaning the heroes can never fully relax. This gives your story a real feeling of being on the run or in hiding and makes the risk of discovery feel very real.

REMEMBER THE GAME

Something far too common in novels – the young adult genre in particular – is the uneven ratio of wins to losses. The hero might end up in bad situations, but he almost always comes out on top. He might get captured, but he escapes pretty darn quickly. He might slip up, but it’s okay – the villain’s minions are stupid, and there’s no harm done. THIS IS A HUGE MISTAKE.

Think of your Hero and Villain as being engaged in a game of chess. The hero makes a move; the villain takes his pawn. The hero takes the villain’s bishop, the villain places the hero in check. You MUST maintain a balance of wins to losses, or your villain will begin to feel like a joke and your hero will feel Invincible (read: bland). In order to advance, more pieces must be captured by the other side. This goes for any villain, not just the dramatic ones. Many writers seem to be afraid of their own villains – they don’t want them to be too clever, or too scary, or too believable. They fear writing themselves into a corner – like if their villain is too good at Villainy, he’ll make it hard for the author to keep up. If this is your problem, I have one thing to say to you: Suck it up, Buttercup.

You can’t write a good villain if you’re too afraid to make him believable. But hey – if your villain is a drama queen, as this post is all about drama queens, then there’s an unexpected perk: you can have loads of fun at his expense. (Just don’t have too much fun, or he might find you. And feed your eyeballs to your loved ones in a fruit salad.)

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