Three Traits of Truly Fascinating Villains … by Bonnie Ramthun

Bonnie Ramthun1When RMFW blog editor Pat Stoltey asked if I'd like to write a post I jumped at the chance. I enjoy these postings and learn a lot from them. Then the panic set in. What do I have to contribute? I looked at my current writing research and found an answer. I've recently been working on making my villains more villainous. I know that the hero of a story is only as brave and strong as the opponent he must vanquish, but I have a tendency to spend more time on my hero development than my anti-hero. Imagine, though, if Ian Fleming's James Bond did nothing but carry secret documents around from place to place with no one trying to stop him. How incredibly boring! Instead, Bond faces criminals like Blofeld, Goldfinger, and Oddjob, powerful and unforgettable enemies who threaten the world. The villain of my novel must be formidable and interesting so that my hero is greater for overcoming him.

As the writer of thrillers and mysteries for adults and middle-graders, I've been researching anti-heroes in this quest and I've discovered that there are some common traits that define an antagonist worthy of a hero's battle. In fact, a truly great evil character can almost steal the show from the hero. So let's look at three traits of exceptional villains and examine them in the context of some of the most complex and fascinating characters in three recent American television series.

1.) They are physically benign.

This is odd, isn't it? But it's true. The most enthralling villains are not towering mountains of muscle. They are instead unassuming, sometimes beautiful of feature, and never outwardly dominating. Operatic opponents like Darth Vader or Goldfinger are caricatures of evil. They certainly have their place in literature and film, but the most complex and horrifying villains are usually ones that aren't imposing in their physical form.

2.) Their goals are important to them.

The great villains of stories are never the bad guys to themselves. They are trying to achieve a goal or goals and this is deeply significant to them. If your antagonist doesn't have a clearly defined goal, they won't have the weight of their own desires to contrast with the hero. Your villain must care passionately about his goal and he will do anything to achieve it.

3.) They have a heartbreaking back story.

Fascinating bad characters always have heartbreak in their background. Some are abandoned as a child, others tormented by malevolent parents or stepparents. Some experience a trauma that forever changes them. A villain who just wakes up one day and becomes evil for the sake of doing evil isn't particularly captivating, is she? A heartbreaking backstory can bring the reader to feel sympathy for this character. The betrayal of this sympathy with evil acts makes the villain even more despicable and the protagonist is more heroic for overcoming her.

Now let's look at some villains in recent American television series. The episodic content of current television is terrific for revealing complex backgrounds of characters, good and bad. Each of these three characters show the common traits of truly fascinating villains.

Regina Mills, Once Upon A Time

Regina is both the iron-fisted mayor of Storybook and the mass murdering Evil Queen of the Enchanted Forest in the television series Once Upon a Time. She's also lovely and very small. (Trait 1.) As played by Lana Parilla, she's a 5'5" package of pure evil who transported the entire population of the Enchanted Forest into Maine so she could torment her nemesis, Snow White. This Evil Queen is not tall and skeletal and aging. Instead, she's vibrant and young and yet she commits horrifying acts. Her goal is revenge towards Snow White, who is responsible for the death of her lover, and anyone who cares for Snow White -- her husband, Prince Charming, her daughter, Emma, and anyone who befriends them, from Hook to Ariel the mermaid. (Trait 2.) Her backstory is tragic and heartbreaking, her mother a humiliated miller's daughter who crafts her child into a Queen. Regina is forced into marriage to an old King. (Trait 3.) She's a tragic figure but so sympathetic that by the fourth year of the series this mass-murdering evil Queen is turning into a hero. That's quite the journey.

Gaius Baltar, Battlestar Galactica

Dr. Baltar is a famed scientist, a kind of science rock star, in the acclaimed Battlestar Galactica series. He's so famous that a fleet officer gives up his seat to him on the last escape ship during a genocidal attack on the planet of Caprica. He's also a weak, narcissistic, self-serving coward. Slight of stature and with fine, almost delicate features, James Callis as Gaius Baltar doesn't appear to be capable of being a villain. (Trait 1.) Yet his manipulations and cowardice lead to the near destruction of the human race. His overriding goal is to save his own cowardly skin and he goes to great lengths to stay alive at all costs. (Trait 2.) Finally, his background is revealed as a Caprica pretender, a common street boy with smarts who clawed his way to the top echelons of power. He started out with nothing but his intellect and his ambition and his survival against all odds is admirable. (Trait 3.) Well, if you don't count his participation in the near destruction of the human race, that is.

Gustavo Fring, Breaking Bad

One of the most memorable villains of Breaking Bad -- and if you've seen the series, that's saying something -- is Giancarlo Esposito's portrayal of Gustavo Fring. Gus is owner of the restaurant chain Los Pollos Hermanos and also a major drug kingpin. He's a ruthless, vicious killer. But he doesn't dress in black robes and stride around with a booming voice. He's slight of stature, unassuming, bespectacled. He doesn't look like he could cut a man's throat with the speed of a striking snake, but he can. And he does. (Trait 1.) Gus has a passionate goal to destroy every member of the Salamanca family drug cartel, a carefully plotted plan that has taken twenty years to achieve. (Trait 2.) His backstory is heartbreaking. He was in a committed relationship with his partner, Max, and created a restaurant with him called Los Pollos Hermanos. An attempt to get funding from the Salamanca family went terribly wrong and Max was murdered in front of Gus. (Trait 3.) He is alone, lonely, dedicated, and quiet. He's also one of the most chilling villains to stride across the screen.

Billowing robes, giant stature, big voices and operatic evil have their place. But the fascinating villain I'm attempting to create in my latest novel will be quiet, unassuming, complex, and deadly. I hope this examination of villains helps you in your craft. Happy writing!

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Bonnie Ramthun is a Colorado mom, wife, and mystery author. Her Eileen Reed mystery novels include GROUND ZERO, EARTHQUAKE GAMES and THE THIRTEENTH SKULL. Her middle grade novel, THE WHITE GATES, was a Junior Library Guild premiere selection and a finalist for the Missouri Truman award. The sequel, ROSCOE, is available now. She’s a former chapter president of Mystery Writers of America and served as the published author liaison for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter where her motto is: Every day is a gift.

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10 thoughts on “Three Traits of Truly Fascinating Villains … by Bonnie Ramthun

  1. The big, over-the top evil like Darth Vader is fun, but you are absolutely right, the really creepy evil is the one you underestimate because it doesn’t SEEM evil until it already has it’s hands around your throat. The one you didn’t see coming because it blended with the crowd. The one with a motive that makes it relentless and merciless.

    • So right, Kevin! The villain that you never see coming is the one that is the most difficult to defeat. And that makes the hero all the more desperate and brave. And you’re right, the greatest evil is the one that doesn’t seem evil at all, but charming and appealing. Those are the worst.

  2. Bonnie
    Wonderful blog, and it got me to thinking. You are so right. Memorable villains are the ones we can look at and not suspect. I think that is why Hannibal Lector has stayed with me from my first reading of Red Dragon. Even behind bars he was sinister and could do evil things. He wasn’t even the main villain, but he was every bit as frightening.

    • The Red Dragon stayed with me, too, perhaps even more than The Silence of the Lambs. I think it’s because Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer, was such a heartbreaking character that I was both repelled and felt sorry for at the same time. He and Hannibal are great examples of villains!

  3. I just read Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep which has a whole batch of incredibly horrid villains. Annie the Hat and her True Knot band of creatures look like a group of benign retirees traveling around in their RVs. They are deeply invested in their goals to survive, and most of them have a compelling backstory. And they gave me nightmares!

  4. Fantastic blog, Bonnie! Loved your examples! I find this to be an interesting challenge with mysteries because the villain is unknown most of the story, yet they still need to have some sort of presence and, like you point out, be a strong character. These are great tips for how to do that!

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