Evil Let Me Count Thy Ways


I’m reading The Queen by Steven James. He’ll be a speaker at OWFI which our group attends every May. This is the most recent in a series and only intending to read one of them I became hooked. (Isn’t that the point?) The thing that has struck me with this latest book is different from the others I’ve read by him. Maybe I’m just noticing it because I’m also reading Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches. However, I’ve been really drawn in by the assassin. Bad guys are usually drawn in two ways: all bad or bad but with underlying reasons that allow us to at least understand how they became “bad”.

Steven drew this character with the black and white of the mathematician’s mind. Ordinarily, I would not guess this would be effective. However, this character’s world is clearly painted for us with the parameters that he has conceived as acceptable. He can kill easily with little concern and no guilt. However, he will not kill women and children and will not allow the killing of women and children. This is a matter of importance to him when he is framed for the murders of a mother and child.

He easily dispatches a deputy to allow himself to escape authorities but then the hero’s bravery in attempting to save that deputy draws him in. Rather than leave the agent to die of hypothermia on the river bank, he calls 911 AND retrieves the body, wraps it in a tarp, and leaves it beside the road for medics to find. Of course, he does this right after murdering the trucker whose truck he then commandeers for his getaway.

The contradiction of the black and white world he lives in makes this assassin more human on the page than some protagonists are. In spite of the evil he does, I find myself cheering when he does things that are redeeming, such as saving the agent.

One of the reasons I like reading craft books and novels simultaneously is it’s good to see craft applied in what you’re reading. James has certainly mastered the principles of a villain of worthy adversary for his main character.

What have I learned from this?

Make your villain worthy of your protagonist’s respect and vice versa. There is a degree of gamesmanship at work with these two roles. The best stories will pit the two against each other. Only with that mutual respect can the game really play out well for the reader.

Make your villain a worthy opponent. Your protagonist is smart and talented, good at what he does. The villain is his equal and in some cases more. He must push your protagonist to the limit. The two characters drive each other and the action forward.

Villains need as much dimension as any other character. There is more there than just a bad childhood. Does the villain struggle with esteem issues or is his ego out of control? Educated? Not? How does that impact how he interacts with the protagonist? What drives him on? What will stop him in his path? This is the primary question for your protagonist. If he wants to stop this guy, he needs to know the answer. That means, you-the writer, need to know.

Give your villain a history. He can be a man of mystery to the reader but not to the writer. Regardless of whether you’ll use any of it in the book itself, write a history of your shadow character. This way you know why he does the things he does. You will know where he draws the line and why.

I don’t know why James’ assassin has a thing about killing women and children. I don’t need to know. The mystery of it fascinates me. The only person who really needed to know was Steven James. Reading The Queen, it’s obvious, he does.

How do you make sure your villains are multifaceted?

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6 Comments

Filed under Writing

6 responses to “Evil Let Me Count Thy Ways

  1. Good thoughts on villians! I’m getting ready to NaNo a YA with a big nasty villian–unfortunately, right now he’s just big and nasty. Time to dig into this guy and find out what’s underneath.

  2. Great post! Well rounded villains are fun to read.

  3. thereisfireinthewell

    Great tips on villains. Many of my villains are still plagued with the one dimensional: “Ha! Ha! Ha! I will conquer the world just because I am inherently evil” flaw. I am learning to use a bitter response to being hurt as the motivator. I think readers can relate to such villains better. For example, a killer who kills women because his mother abused him or an ecoterrorist who kills because of fanatic response to nature being polluted by man.

    • dawnall

      Well, once you have them all evil, you can go back and balance them out. But it is easier if you build the character with those things in the mind.

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