Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Challenge of Creating a Good Villain

A traditional mystery, especially a murder mystery, requires a proper villain or two. Like a spider in a web, these antagonists are the prime movers at the heart of the mystery -- murdering, abetting, lying, betraying, and generally causing pain, grief and turmoil. Usually, the protagonist, who seeks to solve the central secret of who did what and why, can be flawed or tortured but must ultimately be on the side of justice if not the angels. And the villain can be sympathetic, even admirable, but must ultimately pay for choosing the wrong/evil path. So creating a foil or nemesis of the protagonist is central to my plotting, and crafting "evil" motives and characters is always the most challenging start of my writing process. The deadly sins are always handy motives -- wrath, greed, pride, lust, and envy being trusty root causes of many criminal downfalls. Or, antagonists can simply be monsters driven by insane or amoral cravings.  But I find such baddies too simplistic; interesting villains are more complex and more conflicted. They are guides to the darker corners of our own psyches where we can understand the allure and power of immoral choices. It is disturbing to see a common experience -- injustice, insecurity, manipulation, grief, love, fear, shame, lust -- unite with a common character flaw, such as selfishness, impulsiveness or ego, with tragic results. It implies that there is a potential villain in all of us. However, the most fascinating adversaries also have an X factor, a character trait that raises them above the ordinary sinner and makes them especially dangerous. Ironically, it is often a quality of greatness: charm, intelligence, beauty or courage. For more on creating villains, see

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