How to Write a Villain Readers Won’t Forget
Writing a palpable evil character is harder than it looks. Even Stephen King gets it wrong every now and then. First you have to think up evil things for your character to do. Then you have to make the character frighten the reader. Those are two different things.
If you do a good job at this, you’ve gone a long way toward creating an effective story. If you don’t do it well, the cops rip the mask off the evil ghost and it turns out to be the old caretaker, who says, “And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids!” You’ve disappointed your readers and stained your name as an author.
Practice Before You Publish
So you’ve thought up evil things for your character to do. For example, the protagonist is going to murder her abusive husband in self-defense. Or is it revenge? So you have your abusive husband hit your protagonist in the face, and she crumples to the ground. When he’s distracted, she reaches into the sideboard, grabs a gun, and shoots him. He drops to the ground dead. She gets up and wipes her hair out of her face. The end.
How frightening is he? How frightening is she? That’s not a story, that’s a newspaper article. If you want to be frightened, you will have to read the comments.
To write a convincing evil character, let it take a heartbeat or two for the reader to understand what they have just seen, kind of like when you bang your toe against a table leg and it hurts, but not as much as it does a few seconds later. This is more effective than a monologuing villain.
A master of the evil character is Roald Dahl, and I’m not talking about Willy Wonka, who is actually a sanctimonious monster who makes the hellfire-and-damnation preacher look like a total pussycat. The preacher talks the talk, Wonka walks the walk. Only the “sinners” are little kids. One of the girls gets mutilated perhaps permanently because she chews too much gum. It’s a tribute to Gene Wilder that adults let their children watch that movie.
Let’s ignore his children’s books for the moment and talk about his adult fiction. For example, there’s his short story called “The Way Up to Heaven.” Published in the New Yorker in 1954, it was about a wealthy couple who lives in a six-floor apartment in New York. As the story unfolds, we see that Mrs. Foster lived in fear of Mr. Foster, and Mrs. Foster had a particular source of misery.
All her life, Mrs. Foster had had an almost pathological fear of missing a train, a plane, a boat, or even a theatre curtain. In other respects, she was not a particularly nervous woman, but the mere thought of being late on occasions like these would throw her into such a state of nerves that she would begin to twitch. It was nothing much—just a tiny vellicating muscle in the corner of the left eye, like a secret wink- but the annoying thing was that it refused to disappear until an hour or so after the train or plane or whatever it was had been safely caught.
Missing the train could put her into “hysterics” (Dahl’s word). Because they are elderly, they get about by taking an elevator from one floor to the next—which matters horribly.
Mrs. Foster is an abused wife but a beloved mother and grandmother. She wanted to live in Paris near her grandchildren, whom she loved. Mr. Foster wouldn’t move, despite the fact that nothing kept them in New York. So she at least wanted to visit and she anticipated this visit with great joy. Since he refused to go, she was to go without him. On the day of the trip, he begins to toy with her about whether she could make the flight on time.
The Villain Unmasked
He insists that the cab first drop him at the club, even though it was out of the way. Finally in the cab, he tells her he must go back in the house for a present for his daughter. But Mrs. Foster finds the small package wedged purposefully in the seat and realizes that he went back into the house to delay leaving for the airport. She learns all about her marriage with that single wrapped comb. And what she does about it (or rather, refuses to do) makes her self-defense more sinister than that of the woman with the gun in the earlier example.
Spoiler alert: She kills her abusive husband. How she does it is just horrible enough that we might not even root for her.
You need to go read it.
The Chocolate River
Based on what we’re discussing, how would you write the chocolate river scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? Remember that Augustus Gloop, whose sin is gluttony, drinks out of the chocolate river, falls in, gets sucked up a tube, and disappears. Wonka basically says he’ll be fine, and the reader is left to assume that Augustus will learn an important lesson.
What if instead you had everyone notice that he was missing? The room with the chocolate river is a candy wonderland, remember? But it’s a closed room and the only way out is one door and the chocolate river. Charlie suddenly hears Augustus’s mother calling for him. She is searching for him behind a stand of candy trees. Her voice is muffled because she’s calling for him in a corner. What if Charlie saw something dark floating in the river, and then a flash of white? The adults are drawn to the river. Augustus’s mother’s urgent calls get more urgent. “Augustus!” and her cries turn to shrieks of panic. The Oompa-Loompas are singing and Wonka is giving the mother a blank stare. He’s not in the room. He can only be in the river, but he can’t swim. Floating in the river, is that a shoe? And way over on the other side, spinning in a small eddy, is that a hip?
Maybe on the way out, Charlie notices that everyone seems drugged and unconcerned. Charlie steps on something that snaps beneath his feet, and in the gummy loam he sees protruding the bones of a child’s hand and a mat of hair. He realizes that for Augustus, this river was a trap. The door to the room closes to the sound of Mrs. Gloop’s weeping, which suddenly gets shriller, but the Oompa-Loompas are singing loudly, and Charlie can’t hear Mrs. Gloop anymore.
The other way you can approach this is to have the reader understand how some innocent thing could make them vulnerable to being murdered horribly.
At the beginning of The Silence of the Lambs (the book), you read Thomas Harris’s first-person account of interviewing a killer in prison. He noted that the killer wore sunglasses the whole time, even when someone turned the lights down. Harrison then interviewed Dr. Salazar, who saved the killer’s life in the prison.
“Would you say the sunglasses add an element of symmetry to his face? Improve his appearance?”
“I really didn’t think about it, Doctor. He looks like he’s been beat up a lot, around his head.”
Dr. Salazar closed his eyes, perhaps seeking patience, and opened them again. Dr. Salazar’s eyes were maroon with grainy sparks like sunstones.
“Did he turn his face askance when he talked to you, about ten degrees to his left?”
“Maybe he looked away; people do that.”
“Do you think Simmons is ugly? That’s not a very good job on his lip, is it?”
“Will you be seeing Simmons again, Mr. Harris?”
“I think so. They’re going to let us take some pictures out in the compound with his car.”
“Do you have sunglasses with you, Mr. Harris?”
“May I suggest that when you question him, you do not wear them?”
“Because he can see his reflection in them.”
As Harris is leaving,
“The warden turned to me on the steps. ‘The doctor is a murderer. As a surgeon, he could package his victim in a surprisingly small box. He will never leave this place. He is insane.’”
Dr. Salazar is dangerous because he is Sherlock Holmes’s obverse, and he will use his observations to stalk you and kill you. Is it the danger you can be put in by your own sunglasses’ reflection? Or maybe that he can know that you will be home alone because of the way you get out of your car.
Evil in Plain Sight
Your evil character’s powers of observation can make him ominous to your reader. This is someone who can tell that you are ashamed of your appearance by the way you hold your head. He can make you think you are talking to a doctor when really you are also talking to an inmate. Make your evil character faster, smarter, a master of disguise. Don’t tell your reader that they are in the presence of evil, make them find out.
Frances Ford Coppola
For suddenly realizing just how horrible a character can be after a few heartbeats of staring, let’s consider Dracula as reimagined by Frances Ford Coppola. We are invited to see him as a pathetic character, until you realize that he has conned Mina into letting him turn her into a vampire and then says, “Please, give me peace…!” after a lifetime of doing things like feeding one baby to three women. Mina now has no Dracula and no Jonathan, and she’s condemned to wander the earth alone in the dark. He not only murders and abandons, but he snivels.
The Horribly Ambiguous
In the movie scene with the three women, Coppola’s Dracula holds up a baby, hands it to them, and they descend on the baby in front of a horrified Jonathan Harker while Dracula laughs maniacally. In the book Dracula, Bram Stoker writes the baby scene like this:
“Are we to have nothing tonight?” said one of them, with a low laugh, as she pointed to the bag which he had thrown upon the floor, and which moved as though there were some living thing within it. For answer he nodded his head. One of the women jumped forward and opened it. If my ears did not deceive me there was a gasp and a low wail, as of a half smothered child. The women closed round, whilst I was aghast with horror. But as I looked, they disappeared, and with them the dreadful bag.
That heartbeat moment before the awful pain? Remember that Dracula interrupted the blonde in the act of raping Jonathan Harker. With Harker still lying in bed, appalled, she spoke to Dracula.
The fair girl, with a laugh of ribald coquetry, turned to answer him. “You yourself never loved. You never love!”
Then the Count turned, after looking at my face attentively, and said in a soft whisper, “Yes, I too can love. You yourselves can tell it from the past. Is it not so? Well, now I promise you that when I am done with him you shall kiss him at your will.”
When one of them said “Are we to have nothing tonight?” what was the “nothing”? They haven’t said a word about food. None of them have said a word about food. She’s going to feed on Harker, but the topic is sex. In the process of feeding on Jonathan Harker, she is having sex with him. She’s not hypnotizing him into immobility and then feasting away. So what did they do to the child in the dreadful bag?
A successful evil character has to cause real torment in unexpected ways. Things in the story should happen unpredictably. Maybe you see that the murderer has been in the house because the child comes down having put his shirt and pants on backward. While jump-scares are effective, so is walking into your bedroom at night and seeing a stranger lying on his back on your bed who sits up from the waist and turns to look at you. It’s a photograph of your child at school emailed to you by a man you turned down at a bar two weeks ago.
When writing about an evil character, think of the element of surprise and of dread. And remember that making the scene sink in can have more lasting effect than a jump scare and be infinitely more effective than maniacal laughter.
1) Let it take a heartbeat or two for the reader to understand what they are seeing.
2) Make the details speak for themselves. Show your readers Augustus’s shoe (only one) at Point A, his hip at a distant Point B, and his face at a more distant Point C.
3) Use your readers’ imaginations against them. What is in the dreadful bag? What are they going to do to the child?
4) Make the evil unexpected. The prison doctor is a serial killer. If the man you are talking to sees his reflection in your sunglasses, he will rip your head off your neck like a twist-off cap.
5) Make the evil character’s presence obvious in the environment first. The protagonist wakes up in the night to cold wind on her cheek when she had bolted all the windows closed. Her cell phone isn’t by the bed anymore.
Now, start writing!
KARIN GRAHAM is a book editor and trial lawyer in criminal law and child welfare. She offers expert editing to writers of crime fiction, thrillers, and detective novels.