Anatomy of a Legendary Villain

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Before we get started, I’d like to remind anyone who wants a WAY better chance at winning my 20 Page Death Star Critique, that I have started the Dojo Diva Blog and we are talking about Beginnings, namely giving ourselves permission to be NEW. Comments and trackbacks on the Dojo Diva count double and, since it is a separate contest, there is a LOT better chance of winning.

Moving on. VILLAINS!!!!

The antagonist is the most critical part to any story. No antagonist, NO story. Villains are only a type of antagonist and though this type of character has the power to be legendary, often what we see in books, series and movies are mustache-twirling caricatures. Villains can easily become one-dimensional plot puppets.

As writers, we must get in the head of our villains as much if not more than the protagonist. The reason is that eventually our protagonist must eventually grow to become a hero, and this is not possible if we fail to appreciate the goals, conflicts and motivations of the villain.

Plain and simple: The villain creates the STORY problem and provides the crucible that will create a hero.

No Sauron and Hobbits remain in the Shire wishing for adventure. No Darth Vader and who cares about Skywalker? No Goblin King and Sarah never faces the Labyrinth and her own immaturity.

I recommend studying movies to understand story structure, but I feel TV series are better for understanding the character development of villains. The reason is that series are far more similar to full-length novels. We (the audience) have more TIME to understand the villain and see him or her at work.

Today, I’d like to talk about ways that we can give villains depth. Great villains have some similar “components.”

Remember, the villain is always the hero in his own story. Wanting to “rule the world” just to “rule the world” is for cartoons. If a villain is wanting to rule, control, destroy, etc. they should have a really good/plausible/sympathetic reason for doing so.

In factwhen we do a great job at creating the villain, our audience will struggle with who to root for.

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Granted, we do run into great characters like Joker (Heath Ledger) who are chaotic evil, but though this type of character might be great for a Batman movie, he will be really tough to cast in a novel. Even then, I’d go so far as to say that Joker DID have an agenda. Whether it was trauma or madness, we get a sense that Joker believes there is no good in the world and is on a mission to prove any goodness can be corrupted.

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Give the Villain a Sympathetic Goal

Remember that the beating heart of a story is CONFLICT. Antagonist wants X and Protagonist wants Y. Their goals conflict and only one can triumph at the end. No cheating. In act three the Big Boss Troublemaker must be defeated. Period. None of this well the reader meets my antagonist in Book Two…

Every story has an antagonist responsible for the story problem and he or she must be defeated or the story isn’t complete.

***In series, the protagonist will defeat proxies of the core antagonist. Each proxy serves as the core antagonist for that story.

To help you guys wrap your heads around what I am talking about, let’s look at television shows. I highly recommend the series Justified for dimensional villains. In every season we are introduced to a new Big Boss Troublemaker. Season one is the Skinhead Bank Robber Boyd Crowder. Season Two is the Hillbilly Mob Boss Mama Bennett. Season Three is the Detroit Mob Boss Robert Quarles who’s been exiled to Kentucky to fill the vacuum left by the defeat of the Bennett clan.

What I LOVE about Justified is that the characters are dimensional and interesting. Also, each season nicely dovetails into the next with authentic human problems. This isn’t just a series for those interested in writing about crime. There are genuine human problems in this series.

Today, though, I want to hone in on what I feel is one of THE best villains I’ve ever seen: Mama Mags Bennett.

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What is Mags’ goal? Yes, she wants to rule Harlan, Kentucky and surrounding areas with an iron fist (and make a healthy profit), but deep down, she believes she is taking care of her flock. She maintains order in a world riddled with chaos. The area is steeped in poverty, endless economic depression, addicts, jailbirds, absentee parents, lost youth, and troublemakers and she provides authority, protection and structure.

Yes, she is taking advantage of the people, but believes she is the lesser of evils. Her family has been on that mountain for generations and have been there to pick of the pieces every time a corporation has raped the area after promising prosperity. She believes that there will be predators, so might as well go with the devil you know and the one who isn’t going to take all the timber, strip mine the minerals and ruin the land with slag.

And frankly, she has a good point.

Also, because the area is riddled with addicts, she knows that bigger predators have their eyes on the area (I.e. Miami Mafia and Mexican cartels) and have no concern for the people. Yes, she provides weed, meth and oxycotin, but also provides jobs and protection. She also protects members of the flock from smaller predators. For instance, she will NOT tolerate a child molester and goes biblical on anyone who crosses that line.

Thus, we as the audience see she kind of has a good point. The area will likely always be lawless, so why not be ruled by a local who cares for the community?

Contrast

Great villains have contrast. Contrast makes a villain sympathetic. If a villain is always torturing people and doing bad stuff simply to do bad stuff, the audience can’t really connect. We have to have some area where that villain is human.

The entire season (series ) is loaded with contrast and there is no character more conflicting that Mags Bennett. First of all, let’s just look at some of the surface contrast.

Hillbilly Mafia

Dixie Mafia

These words don’t go together. When we think of Mafia, we often think of black suits and shiny Lincolns. When we hear “Dixie” we think of line-dancing, moonshine and banjos. We don’t default to dirty flannel, banjos and ruthless drug enforcers.

Yet, one element that has always made mob members so intriguing is their loyalty to family.

Helloo? Ever heard of the Hatfields and McCoys?

This area of the country is steeped in a profound loyalty to clan and family, thus it unexpectedly makes the perfect mob story.

Mags is so interesting namely because we can never seem to get a bead on her. When we meet her, she seems to be this sweet, gentle grandmotherly figure (which she is). She runs a country store and makes sure the local families can use their food stamps and welfare checks to put food on the table.

Yet, this same matronly character is later seen breaking her son’s fingers with a hammer because his bad decisions have jeopardized their larger operations and brought the attention of federal marshals. Granted, she cries the entire time and hates having to “correct” her son, but she knows if she shows any weakness of favoritism with her own kin, she will lose power and respect.

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Thus, we SEE this woman do terrible things, but she always has a sympathetic reason (as to point above). Yes, it is awful that she breaks her son’s fingers, but she is genuinely afraid her son’s idiocy will get him killed or imprisoned, thus her “chastisement” is the far less severe of the consequences.

In her mind, she is saving him from himself.

The Villain Fires the Conflict for the Protagonist

Great villains torment some part of the protagonist’s soul. For the protagonist, it can be black and white to take out a bad guy, but that isn’t nearly as messy. In the case of Justified Raylan Givens is a federal marshal who also grew up in the area. He knows Mags and even likes her. He is torn between his duty to uphold the law and his personal history and feelings.

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Taking out Mags is emotionally messy. And, though Raylan is the perfect person to shut her down, he kinda wishes someone else could have the task. Mags brings back old guilt, memories, shame, regrets and baggage.

Make The Villain’s End a SAD Thing

In Justified we hate Mags, we are rightfully afraid of her, but we also feel for her. She does a lot of really awful things, and though we want her stopped, we want her undoing to be appropriate. She’s like a man-eating bear. Sure we want the bear to be put down, but caging it and putting it in the circus seems unreasonable and unfit.

When Mags is taken down, we walk away feeling that her end was just and appropriate to the apex predator she was.

What are your thoughts? Do you think series are better for exploring villains and antagonists? Do you think they are a better cross-comparison with a novel? What are some series with memorable villains? How did the villain leave you conflicted? Did you find yourself rooting for the villain and little bit sad when he or she lost?

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  1. #1 by Ron Hervey on April 22, 2015 - 10:09 am

    Great info. Thanks for posting.

  2. #2 by melissasugarscriptcom on April 22, 2015 - 10:42 am

    I’ve never watched Justified, but after reading this i know it will be my next binge watch show. I love crime fiction shows and being from Louisinana, I know how real the Dixie Mafia is . They were big , at one time , on the coast, in places like Biloxi Ms. I agree with you on viillains. I wrote about the need for the antagonist to be the protagonist of his story as my letter B topic in the A to Z challenge , B is for bad guys. Excellent article, thanks for sharing .
    My favorite bad guys from television , novels, and films are all complex people . A few of my favorite bad guys are: Walter White, Nancy Botwin, from Weeds, Tony Soprana, Nurse Jacke, Tom from The talented Mr. Ripley, Michael Corleone, and Hannibal Lecture. That list makes me sound disturbed. But I love a complicated, complex antagonist who also has either a heart or a soft spot for someone or something.

    Melissa Sugar
    Sugarlaw13@live.com
    http://fictiontoolbox.blogspot.com

  3. #3 by kiltsandswords on April 22, 2015 - 10:47 am

    The season with Mags Bennett was the best one of Justified. Love this series. The writing and plot are so great!

  4. #4 by Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) on April 22, 2015 - 10:51 am

    I’ll bet you love Warren Fisk on Daredevil.

  5. #5 by Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) on April 22, 2015 - 10:51 am

    Wilson Fisk!

    • #6 by Sara on April 22, 2015 - 5:51 pm

      That’s exactly who I was thinking about as I read this post.

  6. #7 by lynettemirie on April 22, 2015 - 10:56 am

    Great post. I’ve been ruminating on the best way to handle my antagonist, and you’ve given me the perfect insight on how to proceed. You’re the best!

  7. #8 by Kim Barton on April 22, 2015 - 10:59 am

    Great post. I’m so glad you wrote about Justified and Mags! I love Justified. It’s an excellent show. I felt the same way about Mags. I knew she was bad and needed to be taken out, but I liked her. I understood her desire to protect her sons and the community.

    Boyd Crowder is probably my favorite TV villain of all (Gus Fring from Breaking Bad is another). Some episodes I even forget Boyd is supposed to be a villain, I like him so much. Then he goes and kills someone or makes a deal with someone awful and I’m taken aback. I remind myself, that’s right! Boyd is a bad guy.

  8. #9 by foguth on April 22, 2015 - 10:59 am

    I’ve always been of the opinion that my hero needed to be strong enough to deal with the villain and to write a better hero, I needed to make the villain more powerful. Therefore, I think this column offers excellent advice.
    I also suspect that Mags’ character was based on a Caribbean drug lord, which I watched a documentary about. — this fellow was the hero of his neighborhood, for the same reasons you listed for Mags, He was also on the most wanted list due to dealing drugs. Thus, the entire community protected him. Worse, after he was arrested, the community fell apart, since there was no longer anyone there to protect the girls from rape or the teens from hard drugs, etc.
    Dare I speculate that the villain can be good for a some, but bad for society at large?

  9. #10 by Renee on April 22, 2015 - 11:11 am

    YES! Kudos for recognizing this series and Mags as a villain. “Justified” is one of the best TV shows ever, family dysfunction spilling across generations and it’s messy as hell. Honest, too. Raylan’s exchanges with his father, Arlo – man, it doesn’t get much better than that. Few shows are wittier. The characters didn’t just “snark” and were cold in their putdowns. There was warmth among the characters, at times, a twisted camaraderie. My friend who writes humor says that many people can write jokes but they can’t write heart.

    Yes, Mags was superb. Many professional critics agree that the second season of “Justified” was its best, (as some might say the second season of “The Sopranos” with Richie Aprile, Sr. as the main heavy was that series’ best as well). My husband said that Richie was the only villain to who represented the biggest threat to Tony Soprano. “The Sopranos” also showcased a marriage built on denial, Tony and Carmela’s fight in “Whitecaps” (“… you fiddle with the air-conditioner and complain…”) was one of the best marital arguments I’ve ever seen. Those two drew blood.

    I’ve been a rabid fan of “Justified” and felt it was sorely underrated… even in the pantheon of the Golden Age of TV dramas – with the godfather of them all, “The Sopranos,” paving the way. Someone recently compared “Mad Men” to “Justified” and said that “Mad Men” has an aura of self-importance that “Justified” doesn’t. Maybe “Justified” is more down-to-earth. Some people also compare SoA (“Sons of Anarchy”) to “Justified.” I know a lot of romance writers love SoA, but to me, “Justified” crackles with sizzling, sly wit that SoA doesn’t, because it beats with Elmore Leonard’s heart. Leonard understood human nature.

    There are times I think romance writers – I’m one, so I have to guard against this myself – idealize human nature and won’t see the grit, meanness and reality that men do. For example, I read a romance blog on the character of Winona, Raylan’s ex. Commenters said Winona was weak and wishy-washy and that Raylan (who’s a lightning bolt of sexy) needed a kick-butt female lead. Again, I see this a lot in the romance realm, this insistence that heroines need to be tough and snarky. God forbid if a heroine’s got faults or is insecure, because then they’re too stupid to live. I get really tired of it, because in my “real” world, women are vulnerable and complain they can barely keep up with the laundry. I told my husband about this Winona post, and he said: “Huh? What’s that supposed to mean, Raylan’s supposed to have a woman who’s his match? So as a guy, I’m supposed to feel less of a man because there’s a Dewey Crowe? C’mon. Not everyone can be Raylan. Besides, Raylan’s a gunslinger. The guy’s not likely going to be ideal relationship material.”

    From the main character, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, to his main nemesis, the verbose, unpredictable Boyd Crowder – Ava, Art, the villains, including Mags – just a splendid, unforgettable show, and it ended. I’m still in mourning.

  10. #11 by Diana Staresinic-Deane on April 22, 2015 - 11:12 am

    Fabulous post! I’m a big fan of both Mags and Boyd. Mags has real power. Boyd’s that guy who manages to make you feel compassionate when he’s trying to do right, disappointed when he decides to do wrong, and a little scared when you’re not quite sure he’s in his right mind. What’s interesting to me is that I could use that exact same description to describe Raylan.

  11. #12 by Melissa Keaster on April 22, 2015 - 11:25 am

    Great post! I love studying the emotional anatomy of villains. In college, I did a lot of theater, and the one role I never got to play was villain. I lamented this fact to someone once who said it was because I was “too virginal and sweet.” Back-handed compliment, anyone? Anyway, I still want to play a villain, which is why I’m having so much FUN writing the one in my novel. I appreciate your poignant thoughts, as always, and the humor which makes them so palatable.

  12. #13 by katkent2014 on April 22, 2015 - 11:33 am

    Reblogged this on writersback and commented:
    In a series you have the time to get in depth with the villians and antagonists. The writer can show their character traits, mostly bad obviously and some good, and why they do what they do,,,everyone has a past. I think that is why some antagonists are more popular than the protagonist in some series. Breaking Bad’s Walter White is a good example. Love the Justified series.

  13. #14 by lori beasley bradley on April 22, 2015 - 12:23 pm

    Reblogged this on Lori Beasley Bradley my writing.

  14. #15 by Richard Perth on April 22, 2015 - 12:34 pm

    Do you ever find yourself rooting for the fuzz?

    How about a caring mother becomes a control freak when she is left to raise her children alone. Eventually, she recognizes she has become the antagonist and tries to change back into the protagonist.

  15. #16 by annaerishkigal on April 22, 2015 - 1:07 pm

    I just love a good villain! I feature Lucifer as the kinda-sorta villain in my angel series and sometimes he gets more fan mail than my hero. Emotionally conflicted villains are even MORE fun to write than emotionally conflicted heroes🙂

    Another great article!

  16. #17 by Lilith Darville on April 22, 2015 - 1:17 pm

    Great post, Kristen. I’m off to look for “Justified” as I’ve never heard of it.🙂

  17. #18 by s.a.klopfenstein on April 22, 2015 - 1:22 pm

    Great post! Complex villains are so much more interesting. I’ve never watched Justified, but will probably have to now. I’ve got a lot more to think about the motivations of my villains and ways to make them more complicated and engaging. Do you think it is possible to have the villain win in the first book of a series?

  18. #19 by catchersrule on April 22, 2015 - 2:09 pm

    Reblogged this on The Worldbuilder's Garden and commented:
    I love this post, actually. Not having cookie-cutter, one-dimensional villains is important for game writing too! I mean, how often can we just shoot down the penguin’s pirate ship in Starbound without getting tired of it (which I think the writers of that one sensed, so they broadened out that storyline a little more). How often can we do dungeon crawl after dungeon crawl in, well, more games than I can name, and learn the tricks specific to this end boss or that one before we get tired of doing it?

    I thought a lot about this while writing up the villain Spaud for “Nikria’s Menace.” This posting actually does help me get deeper in my thinking about it, though. Not sure if I want to apply it in this case, or the next one (which will be a Kritter game:)).

    Next time we’ll be exploring other programming things. Sorry I’ve been gone for awhile; baaaad health problems got in the way, I’m afraid. Meantime, enjoy this post!

  19. #20 by catchersrule on April 22, 2015 - 2:17 pm

    I’ve never seen “Justified”; there aren’t a whole lot of series left on TV that I can get into (though I do like “Forever” and “Downton Abbey”… my husband tried to get me into “The Walking Dead” but I just wasn’t feeling it). But, this is a great post; you know, the cardboard cutout villain issue is pretty prevalent in game writing. I’ve been thinking about it with the main villain in “Nikria’s Menace”. He doesn’t appear till the Player gets over to the other land in the game, and his motives are just greed; all the same I’ve tried to get him a little more characterization. And, this post makes me think a little more in-depth about the kinds of villains I want to create for this or that game, so it’s timely!

  20. #21 by Sarah Beth Hunt on April 22, 2015 - 2:25 pm

    Really enjoyed your post and it got me thinking about things that drive the plot fwd. I also loved your previous post about Unbroken and your insights about how important it is for a story’s protagonist to change, to be transformed by the course of events. And putting these together (along with thoughts of my own novel), I think antagonists are certainly important, especially in genre fiction, but often it is the course of events, life circumstances, unexpected calamities, or simply conflicting desires of the main characters which are more important to plot and the transformation of the protagonist than the villain. What do you think?

  21. #22 by jakeescholl on April 22, 2015 - 2:40 pm

    Love this show! The villains are some of the best ever written… I wish more people watched it.

  22. #23 by drakes1 on April 22, 2015 - 2:58 pm

    Great post Kristen! Thank you. My psychological thriller in progress has posed a real challenge when profiling my villain. I love really getting into a villains head and I will hopefully make sure my readers relate to and even sympathise with their actions. However bad they may be. That’s my challenge and one I relish in. For me the series ‘luther’ is up there with the best. Being a psychological thriller fan, it’s perfect watching to fill my already busy mind with further ideas! Thanks again. Mark

  23. #24 by shavenwookiee on April 22, 2015 - 3:02 pm

    Reblogged this on Shaven Wookiee.

  24. #25 by valentina smoothie on April 22, 2015 - 3:37 pm

    great post !

  25. #26 by Sean P Carlin on April 22, 2015 - 5:57 pm

    Fabulous deconstruction, Kristen. In a television series chock full of great villains — as you noted — Mags was truly one of a kind. (Boyd was a great SERIES antihero, and I found myself, quite irreconcilably, rooting for both him AND Raylan in those final few episodes.)

    For anyone interested, here’s a comprehensive trait-by-trait analysis of Heath Ledger’s Joker that examines the ways in which he differed from previous incarnations (like Jack Nicholson’s) and yet remained recognizably “Joker”: http://www.seanpcarlin.com/whos-laughing-now-different-depictions-of-the-joker-part-2/

  26. #27 by nancysegovia on April 22, 2015 - 7:17 pm

    One of my favorite shows, & I was so sad to see the series end. But, the ending was awesome. Also, I just finished reading Elmore Leonard’s, “Top 10 writing tips.” Leonard wrote the books that the series was based on. I really did like the villain, Mags, but I always have a thing for the bad guy and I really had a lot of empathy for Boyd Crowder. However, I did not feel that conflicted when he was away for life but I did feel a lot of empathy for him when he was betrayed by Ava. Another, villain that created a lot of compassion in me was Dewey. And, the writing in this series was superb. It has some of the best one liners I have ever heard, and Boyd could really talk up a storm. It was Boyd’s use of language that made him so intriguing to me especially given and the environment that he grew up in and lived in. In addition to the villains in this series, I think the dialogue is some of the best ever written. The dialogue, for me, ranks right up there with the series, “Mash,” the difference being of course that one was a comedy and the other a drama. Of course, there could be some question as to whether , “Mash,” was a comedy or not.

  27. #28 by Amanda on April 22, 2015 - 7:47 pm

    I’m in Australia, and recently chanced upon Justified as it was ‘on sale’ on iTunes… WHERE HAD I BEEN!!!!! I binged on the first five seasons, forsaking sleep and writing time (!!!) to do so… these characters, all of them, are so well written… in complexity, peppered with humour, failings and every element of the human spirit in-between… Mags – a fabulous example, and her choices in the end (saving Raylan the decision) perfect… The study of Boyd and Raylan, and Ava… the three characters so similar, a thread defining the differences and their sides of good and bad… EXCELLENT example Kristin, and I am now downloading series 6 and feel sad it’s the last… Thanks, as always, for your fabulous posts and thought provoking content!!

  28. #29 by Dave S. Koster on April 22, 2015 - 9:22 pm

    I haven’t seen Justified – I don’t watch a whole lot of TV, though I’d agree with the assessment that TV shows are a pretty good analogue for novels. That said, I’m not 100% sure about the sad ending part of a villain. I feel like there is really more than one way to make a memorable antagonist. One approach is the one you’re discussing here. A second would be the situation where the end of the villain is a physical relief to the to reader/viewer/consumer whatever. One example is Moriarty in the recent BBC Sherlock Holmes. Another could be Game of Thrones’ King Joffrey. I felt no sympathy for the end of either character -really, I was cheering when their respective ends came. So, no I wasn’t sad, nor was I particularly compelled by them as characters, yet they are memorable and effective. Anyhow, in thinking about the antagonist, I would agree that an evil chaotic character IS going to be more challenging for the writer to pull off, but I also think that given the right circumstances, this would be an effective antagonist.

  29. #30 by sheilaenglehart on April 23, 2015 - 6:49 am

    One of my favorite all time characters. (She won an Emmy for that role) I thought they tagged the ending nicely back to her by setting Loretta up to take over Harlan.

  30. #31 by jenchristopherson on April 23, 2015 - 7:24 am

    I don’t watch TV anymore. Except when at a friends house or something. However, I may have to start. You’ve made good points and told me enough about the show to be interested in it.

    I’ve never thought of TV series in this way, but I will have to check them out. Thank you for this information! What a great way to get into my villains!

  31. #32 by Rii the Wordsmith on April 23, 2015 - 8:29 am

    Excellent, this resonates with what I know to be true of villains – I’ll have to reblog.

  32. #33 by Rii the Wordsmith on April 23, 2015 - 8:32 am

    Reblogged this on Build a Villain Workshop and commented:
    I love it when another writer touts the same pointers on villains as I do; Kristin Lamb puts her own spin on expressing a villain needs dimension, motivation, and even perhaps a little sympathy.

  33. #34 by conniecockrell on April 23, 2015 - 8:49 am

    Loved Justified and I agree, the writers did wonderful villains. I agree Mags was a great antagonist. Boyd Crowder was even better. He developed over the course of the series even more that Raylan, the protagonist did.

    Another series that showed good development was Dexter. I mean a serial killer as the hero? But they made it work.

    Thanks for the tips on developing our antagonist as well as our protag.

  34. #35 by maryblackhill on April 23, 2015 - 3:30 pm

    Don’t watch TV and haven’t seen Justified but – Richard III and Hannibal Lector… nuff said. But what about romance where sometimes there just isn’t a villain? My current “villain” who caused the initial problem abruptly turned into a sad and hurting individual in the middle of chapter five (which, quite frankly, I wasn’t expecting). The people in my heroes past who’s behaviours caused his problems turn out to have problems of their own. There is no villain – there is just misunderstandings and conflict.

  35. #36 by Glynis Jolly on April 23, 2015 - 3:47 pm

    One of the best TV shows to watch, learn, and maybe even pick a villain is Criminal Minds. There’s the ones you hate, the ones you pity, and the one that you hope will turn a new leave.

  36. #37 by George Cramer on April 23, 2015 - 7:11 pm

    This article was outstanding. Your commentary about Mags was spot on. I believe that Mags was an even better than Boyd Crowder. Justified was excellent for it’s development of antagonists.

  37. #38 by Joe Kovacs on April 23, 2015 - 9:38 pm

    Kristen, I have never watched Justified but I do have to say your description of Mags reminds me of Big Jim Renny from Under the Dome. I am a fan of Stephen King and when they made a miniseries about his long novel I decided to check it out. Admittedly, I stopped watching a little bit into season 2; the plot got contrived and the acting deteriorated. But the first season, where an invisible dome comes down over the town of Chester’s Mill actually wasn’t bad. The main antagonist, Jim Renny, has been a town councilman for some time and is cooking drugs (to sell elsewhere) to help his town financially. He’s also a control freak but genuinely seems to care about people. A little more than halfway through season one, his darker side started taking over. But up until then, he clearly and equally showed both a sympathetic and a nefarious side. I think what you say about villains is spot on; they do pretty much create stories and heroes. Thanks for sharing. Joe

  38. #39 by tdlmaine on April 24, 2015 - 12:59 pm

    You are so right. In my first novel, THE WILLOWDALE CONSPIRACY, I had trouble with that when I first wrote it. My editor told me the things that you wrote about and when I changed it one of my villains sparkled. I’ve been reading you for several years and I see that you have developed into a great teacher.

  39. #40 by jorgekafkazar on April 24, 2015 - 3:37 pm

    When I saw the first few lines and the title of this post, I immediately had Boyd Crowder come to mind. He is highly nuanced, with a mixture of bad and good qualities, and a certain charm, even to the point that when the writers want to create anxiety in the viewer, they often put Boyd in danger, instead of Raylan. When the A and B stories meet, there are always fireworks. Wynn Duffy also has civil moments, e.g., when he expressed his condolences about Raylan’s dad dying. I love the show, even the credits.

  40. #41 by Shea McIntosh Ford on April 24, 2015 - 3:53 pm

    What a timely post for me! Thank you! I am about to start a story where the antagonist is an angry alcoholic. It is inspired by a true story but to my knowledge, no one knows why she was the way she was. I’m going to have to explore the possibilities to give her more depth.

  41. #42 by Lora D on April 24, 2015 - 10:15 pm

    Two thoughts on variations of this topic:

    1) Sometimes the antagonist is “inside” of the protagonist–the hero has to wage an epic war with unforgivable guilt or PTSD or something that is utterly destroying the person. These characters are even more riveting to me than two separate people with conflicting goals.

    2) One of my favorite writers sometimes has the vile (multi-dimensional and somewhat sympathetic) antagonist reach the point of utter destruction. Just when they are about to be eradicated forever (yay!), they undergo a major life transformation (by the power of God’s forgiveness)–initiated by the incredible character growth of the protagonist. It is a completely unexpected and utterly stunning twist. Sometimes the villain dies anyway–but their change of heart helps heal the wounds inflicted on the protagonist, and sometimes they get a second chance at life (and become the protagonist of the next book in the series).

    Variations of the typical antagonist can be wonderfully captivating if they are written expertly.

  42. #43 by Eloise on April 25, 2015 - 5:53 am

    I much prefer series to movies because they spend so much longer developing both protagonists and villains. You can really get into the skin of both. I love House of Cards because the protagonist is also the villain. You can’t help but get drawn into his intrigue, almost wanting him to succeed, while at the same time thinking he is utterly vile. As the series progresses, his wife gradually changes from being his equally ruthless ally to becoming an antagonist, which really adds an extra layer of richness to the story.

  43. #44 by lorieadair on April 25, 2015 - 12:34 pm

    Excellent post which I’m applying to the first draft of a new novel. Breaking Bad:
    Jesse v. Walter White

  44. #45 by Francis Concepcion on April 26, 2015 - 7:32 am

    One villain I can never forget is from the Japanese Anime, “Death Note”. The villain, Yagami Light, is also the POV character. So you really get into his head from the start. He’s a genius sociopath given a power over death, wherein he can kill anyone whose name he writes on the Death Note. Given such power, he decides to use it to rid the world of every criminal and law-breaker. His opponent: a brilliant detective nicknamed L (precisely because he’s already deduced that Light can kill with just a name and a face). L turns out to be Light’s equal, and has decided that Light is just another murderer with a childish understanding of justice. The contrast between both characters is huge, but at the same time as thin as ice.

  45. #46 by Stephanie Scott on April 27, 2015 - 12:24 pm

    I loooove this show. And–no spoilers–the very theme of contrast is evident up to the very last word spoken on the series. For those planning to watch, Justified has one of the best series endings I’ve seen (and I’ve watched a lot), especially from a writing perspective. The characters are all layered and complex.

  46. #47 by Cathy Parker on April 27, 2015 - 3:41 pm

    A Dean Koontz novel best meets your criteria for an excellent villain for me since I don’t watch much television [I have netflix; there will be a time] The book was one of his earlier ones, and made into a not-so-good movie. I think it was called The Watchers. A research center is experimenting with genetically altered animals and a few escape. One is the good golden retriever [hey, this is Dean Koontz novel, so it would be] who is super intelligent. The other is a deformed tormented thing that does bad. But it is so tormented, and none of it his fault, that most definitely you feel bad, bad, bad when he has to go down. Of course there were a human protagonist and villains also, but I didn’t care as much about them. I’m glad you pointed out to look for the ‘right’ outcome for the villain, because this baby was so tormented, it would’ve been cruel to make it live in captivity. Bastard scientists. In the novel that I have coming out, my villains are controlled by another ‘villain,’ but it didn’t even want to be part of the whole operation and was kidnapped into it. Even then it is merely acting as it would in any setting. Hope this will satisfy your laser-like scrutiny. The underling villains, as it were, are motivated by insatiable needs. And they love each other. Kind of basic. But this is a first novel. All I can handle yet. Hope this will satisfy your laser-like scrutiny.

  47. #48 by Deb Atwood on April 29, 2015 - 10:47 am

    Love your take on the complex villain. I would put Olivia Pope’s dad in that category. He’s bad, then he’s good, he loves her, he harms her…Korean drama series also do a great job with fun villains. Winter Sonata and Great Queen Seondeok come to mind. In the latter, Mishil has a dozen different smiles and almost never raises her voice to cause complications and harm.

  48. #49 by lonestarjake88 on April 30, 2015 - 11:41 am

    I humbly disagree. I hate sympathetic villains and empathizing with them. I like stories where the evil is pure evil whose motives are questionable & the protagonist must stop them. Not necessarily chaotic evil but I don’t care about putting a bandaid on the villain’s bobo. I want the hero to triumph over him or her.

  49. #50 by Jenna Storm on May 7, 2015 - 3:14 pm

    I agree it’s critical to create a multi-dimensional villain along with a multi-d protagonist. Quick question…when writing paranormal with a villain who is a demon (this one has no soul) how would you create sympathy? How would you make this antagonist multi-dimensional? I’m curious what your thoughts are with this type of character. Thanks so much. I just found your blog & love it. Great articles.

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