How to Create Legendary Villains

American Horror Story "Freak Show" on FX

American Horror Story “Freak Show” on FX

This past Saturday I held my Bullies & Baddies class and a couple of the folks posited a really good question worth talking about. How do we write great villains? One of the reasons I love holding this class is that all stories require a core antagonist (who is responsible for generating the story problem in need of resolution), but there are different types of antagonists. All villains are antagonists but not all antagonists are villains.

But since we went there, what goes into creating a truly terrifying villain?

I watch a ton of movies and television series. I also read around three novels a week. I’m always studying, breaking stories apart so that I can understand them better. I do it for my fiction, but also so I can share what I learn with you guys.

Though the series isn’t for everyone (it’s pretty gory), I particularly love FX’s American Horror Story for studying villains. AHS is one of those shows that you have to get a few episodes into before you connect, namely because it is often cast with truly despicable characters.

It isn’t until you get a few episodes in that the writers start peeling back the layers and exposing the delicate undersides of the villains…and that’s when you really begin to care for them.

I know. Seriously. AHS is some of the best writing out there.

Jessica Lang almost always plays the core antagonist in each season of AHS (though she was absent in Season Five and it was evident). Of all the seasons, though, Season Four Freak Show was my favorite and that’s what I am going to use today. Btw, there is a bit of spoiler alert, but it’s necessary. So what do we do to really make the villain POP?

Give the Villain a Sympathetic Goal

Elsa Mars (via FX)

Elsa Mars (via FX)

In Season Four of AHS, Lang plays Elsa Mars. Mars is a self-centered, lying, conniving, murderous woman. But she is a deeply flawed and tragic character. Her goal is two-fold. First, she wants to become a star in Hollywood. Secondly, she wants to build the best Freak Show in the world.

As a young woman, Elsa is victimized by a man who promises her the starring role in a movie. What he fails to tell Elsa is she has the starring role in a snuff film. He films another man taking a buzz saw to both of Elsa’s legs then leaves her for dead. Through the sympathy and miraculous skill of an artist-sculptor, she’s saved and given life-like prosthetics and appears “normal.”

But this tragedy creates a horrible insecurity. She starts the Freak Show because deep down, she knows she’s a freak too. This makes her feel almost a maternal duty to collect the disfigured. To gather the tragic souls the world casts away and give them a home.

The Villain is the Hero of His/Her Own Story

Elsa is a mother figure. Under the circus tent, her “children” are stars and they are a family. She knows what life outside the show is like for a freak (she’s lived it). She also appreciates that she is a very different kind of freak. She has the ability to blend into society. Her children do not.

Make the Villain Conflicted

Mars is a very troubled and conflicted character. Her goal to take care of her charges and her desire to become famous in Hollywood are always in conflict. Also what makes Elsa so good is also what makes her so bad. She is relentlessly ambitious (good), but she is relentlessly ambitious (bad).

Remember that our best self and our worst self are often opposing edges of the same blade. This is true for protagonists (heroes) as well.

I see this even in myself. I have a compulsive personality. This is good (1000+ blogs), but can be very, very bad. I latch onto something like a pit bull and don’t let go…but sometimes I’ve latched onto something I should let go of (every ex-boyfriend ever).

As I like to say…

There is a fine line between persistent and stupid.

The reason this duality makes for a layered villain is that great fiction acts as a mirror and reflects a degree of reality back to the reader. When the reader sees the duality of the villain, she is also seeing the duality in herself. That is the part that can be deeply disturbing.

Maybe we believe we are incapable of murder, but are we really? Or have we simply been blessed with the right life circumstances that have permitted us to never have to really get an answer to that question?

Give the Villain Noble Goals

To dovetail off the last point I made, Elsa does some truly detestable things…but we do see there is a not-so-evil motivation behind her actions. Thus, we sympathize and I think that is one of the ways a good villain can truly get to us.

We see the ugliness in ourselves, the great evil we might be capable of in the right situation.

Elsa is profoundly insecure. It’s part of the reason she created the Freak Show to start with. If she owns and runs the show, she can be the main attraction. But again, Elsa’s goals collide with the intensity of a tectonic plate shift.

She knows the show has to make money because she clothes and feeds and shelters her “monsters”. But, to be blunt? She’s also greedy. So when another act overshadows her own? Her greed and her insecurity collide.

Make the Villain’s End a Sad Event

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 10.18.36 AM

For me, the best villains are the ones we almost are silently rooting for and are really bothered by that. Elsa is one of those characters that in one episode you hate her and in the next you’re rooting for her and the end of the season is beautiful and tragic.

My friend NYTBSA James Rollins says he knows he’s done his job when the reader cries for the villain at the end.

This is also why NYTBSA Allison Brennan and I have had a long-running argument that Hannibal Lecter is actually not a villain but an antihero. Allison thinks he’s a villain, but I posit that Hannibal is written SO well, he actually transcends those boundaries and becomes the antihero.

Y’all KNOW you cheered at the end of Silence of the Lambs when he said he was “having an old friend for dinner.” And what is SO EPIC about this is that the guy he is going to eat is a law abiding citizen who technically has done nothing illegal…but we still are rooting for Hannibal (a serial killer).

And that freaks us out more than a little bit.

Another great villain? The Goblin King from Labyrinth. Every woman over the age of 30 is still wondering why the hell Sarah didn’t take the deal.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 10.20.07 AM

Now For This Little Slice…

There is another kind of villain, a villain who deeply upsets us and who’s end is a joyous event. We cheer. We don’t want this type of villain defeated. We don’t want them dead.

We want them OBLITERATED. Salt the very earth of their soul.

Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer has the best example of this type of villain. The movie is great but the novel? O…M…G. The villain is positively terrifying.

Why?

Namely because this villain exemplifies what we fear most (and what protagonist Mickey Haller also fears).

That we won’t recognize pure evil when we see it.

At first glance, Roulet is the guy every girl would love to land. He’s smart, rich, handsome and charming. But is is a stone cold killer who exacts suffering for his own pleasure. What makes this character so disturbing is, like Haller, we believe Louis Roulet is innocent and that he’s been the victim of a terrible scam.

So when we hit that pivot point where we realize we’ve been duped? It rattles us to the core.

This type of villain will exhibit the same traits mentioned above, but they are all a deception. This villain is a venus flytrap who looks like a good guy but is only death disguised.

In The Lincoln Lawyer, Roulet has a sympathetic goal. He is an innocent man who’s been set up by a prostitute who is framing him so she can sue him for damages in civil court and use him as her ticket out of turning tricks.

Roulet is conflicted. He fails to share various pieces of vital information with his lawyer because he is “protecting his mother.” He doesn’t want to upset her and he cares deeply about her perception of him (I.e. he fails to mention he was going to Reggie Campo’s place to pay for sex).

Roulet has noble goals. For instance, he explains that the reason he carries a knife is because he discovered his mother (also a real estate agent) raped and brutalized in a home she was showing. He tells Haller that real estate agents often meet clients in homes alone and there is no real way to vet that they aren’t psychos (um irony), so he carries for protection.

Notice how Connelly hits on ALL the notes of a villain, but camouflages them as a hero.

THIS is why our world turns upside down when we realize it is all a lie. Roulet does not have a sympathetic goal at all! He’s a sado-mysogynistic killer and his only goal is to exact suffering…then destroy another man’s life by framing him for his crime.

This villain is not conflicted at all. He is very well aware of what he’s doing. He’s narcissistic and believes he is above the rules that govern society.

He does not have noble goals. His goals are as black as they come. This is why, unlike a villain like Elsa Mars, when Roulet meets his end? We cheer. In fact, regarding this, I actually prefer the ending in the movie where Roulet is badly beaten by Haller’s motorcycle gang clients before being hauled to jail.

A good way to make this kind of villain work is to create a deflection. Cast an innocent character as the “villain”.  It is essentially a “bait and switch.” In the case of Roulet, the prostitute he brutalized carried the mantle of villain until Act Two.

What are your thoughts? Does this help you understand how to give depth to your villains? What are some of your favorite villains from the page or even the screen?

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  1. #1 by Mon ☠ on May 9, 2016 - 11:02 am

    I haven’t read the entire post but I have to bookmark this for later for now, you give good tips!

  2. #2 by areece on May 9, 2016 - 11:07 am

    Reblogged this on Amy Reece and commented:
    I ALWAYS learn so much from Kristin’s blog! Thanks for this great one on villains. I have a lot to think about…

  3. #3 by Ken Farmer on May 9, 2016 - 11:11 am

    I agree with virtually everything you said, Kristin. However…don’t you just love howevers? However, I wrote one villain in my first western who was a true sociopath…No, that’s zero, redeeming qualities. The only thing I did do was to give him the face of an angel (looks) with the heart of a devil. I actually cheered at the end when he meets his demise and I wrote the damn thing.
    I’m in the process of writing my sixth western and have created another true sociopath, but this one is ugly as a burnt boot. Not finished with him yet, but I can’t find any redeeming qualities in the man as yet.

    • #4 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 9, 2016 - 11:19 am

      Actually that is the villain I refer to at the end. A true sociopath usually fits into society pretty well. But there again, there is also JOKER and he is one of the best villains of all time. But that is a tough one to write and one we can’t use all the time, ergo why I talked about the other types of villains.

  4. #5 by philosophermouseofthehedge on May 9, 2016 - 11:15 am

    American Horror does have strong characters.
    Characters have to seem real enough that you can imagine them walking down your streets…and shiver at that though.
    Good stuff here as usual. Thanks

  5. #6 by Evelyn Cullet on May 9, 2016 - 11:30 am

    This was a very informative blog post for me. II used a handsome, charming sociopath as the villain in my last novel, but I’ve been struggling to come up with a “good/evil” villain for my next one. Thanks for the great ideas.

  6. #7 by Raidon T. Phoenix on May 9, 2016 - 11:32 am

    Reblogged this on Raidon T. Phoenix and commented:
    Well, folks, I had other plans for today’s blog, but complications arose, ensued, and must be overcome. In the mean time, my boss is amazing, and now she’s got my brain in a twist as to making my novels even more epic by doing this kind of thing to the villains. Check it out.

  7. #8 by Raidon T. Phoenix on May 9, 2016 - 11:33 am

    Reblogged because one, villains are awesome. Two, you’re awesome. And three, I could, and this piece is awesome.

  8. #9 by BrittneyRz on May 9, 2016 - 11:54 am

    Great post. One of the main things that make or break a story for me is a well written villain. I feel a a lot of time the villain is more complex than the heroes.
    I like the distinctions between the villains too. For the villains who we despise and cheer for their end Joffrey from Game of Thrones instantly came to mind. One of the best part of the series was seeing his end.

    • #10 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 9, 2016 - 11:57 am

      He was another example I was going to use. He seriously needed to DIE. And DIE BADLY.

      But even then, I will argue there was a tad bit of sympathy. They do mention that the propensity of the Lannisters to inbreed creates madness. So in a sense, he is fruit of the poisoned tree and is it really his fault? In a twisted sense, he IS a victim who bears the consequences of his parent’s incest.

      • #11 by BrittneyRz on May 9, 2016 - 12:02 pm

        That is an interesting way to look at him. I didn’t think about it that way but I can see that point. He is also a victim of their ruthless ways of dealing with people. He didn’t grow up with the best examples on top of the consequences of his parent’s incest. He can be seen as a victim of circumstance but in the end his death was still satisfying. Just like Ramsey’s will be if/when it happens.

  9. #12 by Dennis Anthony (@DennisAuthor) on May 9, 2016 - 12:07 pm

    In the original movie Psycho, Norman Bates is pushing Marion Crane’s car into a bog behind the motel. Oh, yeah. Her body is in the trunk of the car because (spoiler alert) he murdered her and put her there. So the car is sinking into the bog and we watch it sink with Norman for about 30 seconds and then it suddenly stops sinking. “Oh no!” we say. “The car is not going to sink and Norman will be found out!!” As soon as we finish coming up with this thought, the car begins sinking again and is soon gone completely. In that moment, we all became conspirators with Norman Bates. We wanted him to get away with it. This was Hitchcock at his best.

  10. #13 by drakes1 on May 9, 2016 - 12:10 pm

    Hi Kristen, it’s been a while! Love this post. I have recently self published my debut psychological thriller and my antagonist will always hold a special place in my heart. What I enjoyed most about creating my antagonist, without giving away any spoilers of course, was playing around with her mind. Not all antagonists have to start out antagonists. My characters past has a big part to play in their road towards the dark side! Like you say, there may be an antagonist in all of us. Its about finding that trigger! Take care, Mark.

    • #14 by Eugenie Black on May 9, 2016 - 1:26 pm

      So right. Psycho still stands the test of time. Norman is a brilliant villain – possibly because we do not particularly care for his victim.

      • #15 by Dennis Anthony (@DennisAuthor) on May 9, 2016 - 1:35 pm

        I never thought about the fact that we didn’t like his victims especially. I guess my teenage hormones were peeking in Marion’s room along with Norman so I cared for her a little! It’s true that most of the characters except for Norman and “mom” were pretty wooden.

  11. #16 by jonna ellis holston on May 9, 2016 - 12:29 pm

    This is wonderful information. Thank you so much for posting it!

  12. #17 by Chris on May 9, 2016 - 1:05 pm

    Not being au fait with almost all the (presumably) American examples you cite, I can’t comment on them. (Though I agree about ‘Silence of the Lambs’… the only one I’ve heard of.)
    I’m not into horror, neither am I a moviegoer, and from what I can see, the US TV we get here can’t be the best of the crop. If it is, then you have my sympathy.

    Does a novel’s ‘villain’ have to be a villain?… Or at least do they have to be seen as one?

    Maybe it’s right for the ‘comic book’ kinds of villains required for ‘action’ and ‘horror’ TV and movies, but less so for crime and mystery literature.

    Surely it’s better to have the eventual villain of the piece revealed at the end… or make them sympathetic, or at least aspirational, so a percentage of readers will identify with them and want to be them… the rest will want to either be your bad girl heroine…or they’ll want to sleep with her.
    No character should be completely black or white (if political correctness permits me to say that.). There should always be room for a little ‘I wish I could get away with that’ in the mix. As long as both villains and heroes are seen to be doing interesting things, their positions can almost be alternated throughout the book.(Apart from the protagonist in ‘series’ novels, of course.)
    Keep the reader entertained, but keep them guessing.

    Better still, and what I try to do, is for the bad guy’s identity… or sometimes which ‘bad guy’ is the real ‘bad guy’… to be revealed (or preferably hinted at) some way into the book. Then at the end, after he’s got his just desserts, another, already familiar, character appears as a ‘villain’ on the last page, who turns out not to be quite what was expected (and maybe not even a villain at all).

    As you might have worked out… I hate the whole ‘roll out the bad guy music every time he appears’ kind of drama. It smacks too much of pantomime, with the kids all shouting “He’s behind you”.
    Book readers now are more intelligent than that… or at least, I hope they are. The rest have decanted themselves to ‘gaming’.

    • #18 by Author Kristen Lamb on May 9, 2016 - 2:52 pm

      Yes and no. Pure evil characters can be interesting. If they are a caricature that is the fault of the writer. Joker (Heath Ledger) is a really excellent example. No guessing he is bad and he is evil for the sake of being evil. No motivations are ever given, but Joker is a very interesting character.

      I WILL say, however, that a pure bad or pure good character is the EASIEST to end up as a caricature.

  13. #19 by Eugenie Black on May 9, 2016 - 1:34 pm

    Love this. My villain in my first two novels gets his own story in the third. He becomes the hero.I have given him a tormented past and another antagonist. I just need to get at his bones, because in the third one, writing at the moment, he’s only showing me his nice vulnerable side and I need him still to have that controlled uber-cool iced blond power he had in the first two stories. It doesn’t matter that he’s now trying to be a good man – I need to show his bad side too.

  14. #20 by Gerald W Darnell on May 9, 2016 - 1:57 pm

    Reblogged this on carsonrenomysteryseries.com.

  15. #21 by Elizabeth Rose on May 9, 2016 - 2:25 pm

    Makes me think of Darth Vader.

  16. #22 by mandibelle16 on May 9, 2016 - 4:14 pm

    Very cool article. I’m happy to report my villain for my novel has the characteristics you touched on. In some ways she is evil in the end, but in others she is just a woman whose been hurt badly and fallen off the path, she is redeemable in the end and will be a protagonist in book 2 but this time without her magic powers. That awful psychopath you write about is a scary one, I don’t know if I want to attempt that. But I do believe most often, a villain is often everyday normal people with good intentions who twist the truth and their perceptions of what is right until they are the villian.

  17. #23 by K. L. Hallam on May 9, 2016 - 5:07 pm

    Love that season of AHS. Great post.

  18. #24 by drshaywest on May 9, 2016 - 6:01 pm

    One word: Dolores Umbridge LOL

  19. #25 by Deborah Makarios on May 9, 2016 - 6:39 pm

    I don’t know that my villain is legendary. He’s cold and dry and efficiently cruel, but he lacks panache. (Is panache necessary for legendary status?) He does have reasons for his actions though – he’s the classic villain-who-thinks-he’s-in-the-right, and as is so often the case in both fiction and real life, “being in the right” is used to excuse doing things which are totally wrong.

  20. #26 by funinocala on May 9, 2016 - 6:59 pm

    Thanks for the thoughts. I am struggling with my villain and you have given me some good ideas to work with.

  21. #27 by ugiridharaprasad on May 9, 2016 - 10:02 pm

    Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.

  22. #28 by robakers on May 10, 2016 - 12:28 am

    Love the simple explanation that a great villain is the hero in their own mind. If they can rationalize their actions no matter how bad then it gives them depth and width.

    rob

    • #29 by Chris on May 10, 2016 - 2:43 am

      Quote: “Love the simple explanation that a great villain is the hero in their own mind. If they can rationalize their actions no matter how bad then it gives them depth and width.”

      Exactly, Robakers… this applies to the majority of serial killers. They’re often on their own crusade, and I use the word deliberately, as so many of them commit their crimes for their own religious reasons.

      In one of my novels (at present with the publisher) my villain is a complex, but seemingly peripheral, character who, it transpires, sincerely believes he’s justly handing out retribution.

      Unfortunately, for the police investigating his crimes… and of course for any potential targets of his ire… there are no apparent connections between the victims. The killer sends an e-mail identifying ‘himself’ as having perpetrated the crime, but gives no reason why the victim was targeted.

      Although we meet the killer early in the book (in the first few pages) he isn’t identified as such. His connection to the crimes becomes more apparent as the story builds, but it’s not till the last few chapters that the connection is found between the 13 people he’s murdered, (plus one ‘near miss’) and the killer is finally identified.

      The last chapters are the chase, with its twists and dramas leading to the interrogation and the surprise climax… then the book finishes with a short single page chapter with yet another sting in the tail.

      Justice has been done… but for whom, and at what price? Some readers might even sympathise with the killers’ misguided reasons for killing. (There’s a clue in there somewhere.)

  23. #30 by Don Massenzio on May 10, 2016 - 6:18 am

    Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Here’s a great post on the topic of creating legendary villains

  24. #31 by Sarah Rosinski on May 10, 2016 - 7:09 am

    I always want my readers to love my villains before they hate them! Great blog!

  25. #32 by Mary Todd on May 10, 2016 - 8:07 am

    You know who’s not a villain? YOU. Very intriguing, i loved this, and i love delving into the extremes of villains.

  26. #33 by Akaluv on May 10, 2016 - 8:39 am

    Great post and very helpful for my writing, thank you!

    • #34 by Ken Farmer on May 10, 2016 - 8:46 am

      The classic “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is a prime example of the duality of nature for the villain.

  27. #35 by JenniferShelby on May 10, 2016 - 4:49 pm

    hmmm…I may have to check out American Horror Story now!

  28. #36 by theowllady on May 10, 2016 - 7:19 pm

    Reblogged this on theowlladyblog.

  29. #37 by xxsarahcaroline on May 14, 2016 - 2:38 pm

    Wonderful post! Have you seen the TV show Hannibal?? Most critics think the show is the best adaptation of the books. I love how you described Hannibal as “transcending” the definition of villain. That’s a perfect way of putting it. He is so well written that the rules don’t apply to him.

  30. #38 by everwalker on May 15, 2016 - 6:40 am

    Reblogged this on everwalker.

  31. #39 by bethtreadwayauthor on May 23, 2016 - 11:56 am

    I’m struggling with this right now. I don’t want my villain to be a cartoon character and I definitely want a cheer at the end, so wrestling him into a form so that he isn’t apparent until midpoint is driving my pantsing soul crazy.

    • #40 by Ken Farmer on May 23, 2016 - 12:11 pm

      Beth, unless your villain is a complete sociopath with no redeeming qualities, a highly detailed and complete Backstory from birth is always the key.

  32. #41 by aurorajeanalexander on May 29, 2016 - 2:30 pm

    Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    What a fantastic post on how to create legendary villains. This is awesome and will help me so much! Thank you, Kristen Lamb.

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