Jilly: Villainous Villains

Villainous VillainsHow bad do you like your bad guys (or girls)? Who are the fictional characters you most love to hate, and are they out-and-out villains or strongly motivated stop-at-nothing types?

Baddies have been much on my mind this week as I’ve been trying to come to terms with the challenges of writing fantasy instead of contemporary romance. The stakes are much higher for my heroine and I’m trying to get my head around writing a world where her liberty and her life are at risk, instead of her creative ambitions. In particular, I’m trying to decide how bad to make the baddies.

In real life, I don’t think I’ve ever met a truly evil person. I’ve met creepy obsessive types and strongly driven ambitious ones, self-centered people and sociopaths, but I’ve never encountered a James Bond style Big Bad, someone who would deliberately hurt another person for the fun of it. I know there are people like that out there, but I’m not sure I want to create that kind of character, let alone spend time in their head. I’m more comfortable writing someone who is completely consumed with his (her) own agenda, who would throw absolutely anyone to the wolves or sell their granny without a second thought if it would help them to achieve their ambitions. I’m also a shocker for protecting my heroines, which makes me wonder if I should push myself harder and see what happens.

When I’m looking for inspiration, I usually like to read and see what it sparks in my subconscious, but a quick flick through my Kindle reveals that I don’t read a lot of books with strong villains.

One of the most powerful antagonists in my collection is Bill, from Jenny Crusie’s contemporary romance Crazy for You. He’s delusional and he tries to ignore and then block the heroine’s decision to break up with him in an increasingly desperate spiral into madness. I hated him because he was so creepy and convincing, and so clearly the hero of his own story. Good lesson there.

Most of the bad baddies I have read are from romantic suspense, which lends itself more naturally to criminal types. Elizabeth Lowell’s Innocent as Sin pits a principled young banker against a scary, manipulative money-laundering Siberian gun-runner. I think I’m going to give that one a re-read this weekend.

Fantasy would be even more helpful, and there I’m going to fall back on two early Patricia Briggs duologies, Raven’s Shadow/Raven’s Strike, and Dragon Bones/Dragon Blood, both of which feature powerful, evil-for-its-own-sake wizardly mages.

I don’t believe I’m ever going to write a mass-murdering world-dominating supervillain, but I think I should try to push out of my comfort zone and see how far I get. I can always retreat again if it gets too scary out there.

It looks as though I need some help with this, so any suggestions of fictional evildoers who hit the spot for you, and good examples to read or watch would be very much appreciated.

Thank you!

10 thoughts on “Jilly: Villainous Villains

  1. I love that you are sticking with this for a while… it’s going to be brilliant. I definitely think you need to push yourself right out there and see how it goes. Though, of course, for me the baddy’s only real plot function is to make the stakes much higher for the heroine/hero – it’s always essentially the romance I’m interested in. I say that i think because a non-romance fantasy often has the relationship (or battle) between the protagonist and chief baddy at the heart of the story… and so the story spends a lot of time on that (far too much time in my opinion). The reason I’m saying this is because, yes, the baddy is important, but don’t get too worried about him/her – just play and have fun and see what comes.

    In terms of where to look, I’m sure you’ve thought of Ilona Andrews/Kate Daniels? Plenty of baddies there, but she usually just about keeps enough romance (at least in the earlier books). Or, if you want to think about baddies, go back to a classic like Darth Vader and think about why he works so well (or even Voldemort). I think DV works because he is very scary and powerful – you really believe he could and would kill the main characters. That’s the key – you really believe he would kill them because they stand in the way of his plans. He isn’t a psychopath – or randomly capriciously evil – it completely makes sense that he would want to kill them. Then, later on, when we get the whole Luke/Leia father thing, that add another layer of depth to the whole conflict.

    Can’t wait to read this…

    • Yes, Rachel, two weeks in and I’m sticking with this project for a while. I love the way it’s shaping up. As the advertising folks used to say (no idea whether they still do), it has legs. And more importantly, I’m having fun.

      Totally with you that the baddy’s role is to raise the stakes for the heroine and hero. Like you (as you know) I’m all about the romance and that will be the spine of my book(s) – I’m guilty of skimming mythical monsters and epic battles, however well-researched and beautifully written. I love the way Ilona Andrews writes characters, relationships and community (stand by for a squee about the new Innkeeper serial, probably next Sunday’s post) but the Big Bad (Kate’s father) isn’t a looming presence most of the time. I love the newest series (Burn for Me) the best because that’s the one with the most focus on the h/h.

      I’d like my Big Bad to be so critical to the romance plot that it’s not skimmable. It has to be this way or I won’t care and it will show in the writing. I’m thinking Star Wars is a genius suggestion, particularly since *blushes* I haven’t seen any of the films, ever.

  2. I think you’ll enjoy the Star Wars movies, at least some of them. They’re not romances but they do have some great character arcs.

    My current favorite villain-I-love-to-hate is my own Lilith. She’s wonderfully conscienceless, fiercely competitive and totally single-minded. And she’s fighting a losing battle against male domination, which makes me, at least, have some sympathy for her. Plus, you know, the shoes. Which brings up an interesting question: what literary forebears caused me to write her? Hmmm. I’m not coming up with any books, just movies:

    1) Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada
    2) The Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons
    3) Cruella de Ville in 101 Dalmations

    Note that they share in interest in fashion as well as wholesale destruction.

    Okay, that was fun. Thanks for making me think about this more deeply. I’m starting to think about the next book, which is Lilith’s story, so your timing is great!

    • The Devil Wears Prada – yes, thanks! When the movie was released, I talked about it with somebody who used to work in fashion, and she said her husband and kids thought it was hilarious, but it made her physically sick because it was so close to the mark.

      Really looking forward to Lilith’s story, and not just for the shoes 😉 .

  3. I prefer villains that I love and hate and scare me.

    Satan from Paradise Lost is my ultimate villain. He’s so reasonable and agreeable that I just nod my head and go along with him until suddenly I realize that wait, no, that *wouldn’t* be a good thing. Then I have to go back and find where the logical fallacy twisted the soliloquy. Brilliant.

    In books we all know, I thought Brenda from Agnes and the Hitman was wonderful. The warm, caring homemaker Agnes just can’t believe would intentionally screw her over who turns out to be a killer.

    • I haven’t read Paradise Lost in years. Maybe it’s time to make good on that. Totally agree about Brenda though, bless her heart. She was such a genius at misdirection, I really enjoyed her, even (maybe especially) when she was behaving appallingly.

      Aaand that reminds me of Sweeney Todd. I went to the stage version last year, with Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel, and it was brilliant. Emma Thompson was genius as Mrs Lovett, the warm, lovable, mass-murder-abetting pie manufacturer.

      • Sweeney Todd reminds me of “Misery.” I haven’t read the book (by Stephen King), but the movie with Kathy Bates, James Caan, and Lauren Bacall is terrific. Talk about your villains! Kathy Bates won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the part. James Caan is a writer, and Kathy Bates is his biggest fan—and his worst nightmare. Unforgettable.

  4. “The Witness” by Nora Roberts has a good villain. The storyline is that a young woman goes to a party, inadvertently witnesses a murder, and flees. When the murderers realize she’s seen them, they go after her. The story arc takes place over a fairly long time, and it’s all tension as she takes steps to outmaneuver them as they take steps to kill her, too. Plus there’s a romance, which helps but complicates things. The villain is garden-variety in that there’s no special powers involved—he just wants her dead to protect himself from exposure. I like that—I like ordinary evil doers who are either nuts or are driven by the usual things—wealth or power or whatever. Dramas that involve the entire universe imploding or killer viruses that will destroy the galaxy are not my cup of tea. Like Jennifer said: Brenda is a terrific villain.

    Glad you’re having fun with this! Can’t want to see what you come up with.

    • Thanks, Kay. The Witness just went to the top of my reading list for this week. Tonight my brain is mush, so here’s tomorrow morning’s plan: make a pot of my strongest coffee (Cuba Alto Serra, oomph!) and give myself a couple of hours to brainstorm every bad-ass option I can think of, from robbing widows and orphans to destroying the universe. Then I’ll pick a lane 🙂 . Can you tell I’m having a lot of fun with this?

  5. Waaaay late to the party here, but villains are simply blocks to the hero’s or heroine’s (or both) goals. And we’ve got only a few motivations: sex, money or power. Or obsessive love for something like, I don’t know, Pokemon trading cards or elephants or something.

    I think, though, in a fantasy, almost everyone is supposed to be a little larger than life.

    I FINALLY watched Labyrinth this weekend, and David Bowie is a fascinating villain. In interviews, he says the Goblin King has inherited his kingdom, is operating it to the best of his abilities, but the GK would rather be in Soho or something. So, GK is powerful, a little spoilt, bigger than life, but he feels he was meant for better things, and I think he has a nagging doubt about his competence in ruling. Oh, and the GK really loves kids, which is so weird and touching. But at the same time, his issues mean that the only way he can relate to people is as Absolute Ruler and Final Sayer. He can’t relate as an equal.

    I think a lot of villains are control freaks that way. They have such a desire to see things conform to their own visions. And things like self-incompetence just make them crazy and worse — it rarely results in them asking for help.

    And, we keep coming back to love. Love isn’t really the goal for the average villain. It’s about power and being right.

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