Badass villains and how to write them

I’ll admit it, I love a bad guy (or girl.) Supervillains, serial killers, assassins, mob bosses, you name it. Villains rock. Whether they’re gleefully, mustache-twirlingly evil or absolutely terrifying, I adore them in all their dastardly, plot-driving glory.

A good villain, a villain that I will come to love, is always complicated. Just like you and me and (hopefully!) our characters. They’ve got layers, like an onion. Like a pungent onion that makes your protagonist cry.

1200px-JHL-Genese

Some men just want to watch the world burn

The Joker, the eerie, cheery jester whose plans Batman constantly foils (damn it Batman!), is one of my all time favorite villains, in all of his incarnations. But I’m going to talk about Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight because that’s the one I love most and am most familiar with.

The brilliant thing about the Joker is that you never truly understand him.

It’s so easy to craft a tragic backstory for a character and point to that as the reason they went bad. Sometimes that’s a great strategy. But the beauty of this portrayal of the Joker was how much we expected to see that, and then didn’t. Batman never truly understood the Joker, and this made him very scary. He wasn’t motivated by money or by fame, and he had no real sense of fear. What could stop a man like that, a man who, as Alfred said, “just wants to see the world burn.”

I heard this awesome quote somewhere and I wish I could attribute it but I forget where it came from. It said: Each villain is the hero of their own story. In their mind, the world revolves around them, and in some twisted way, everything they’re doing makes sense. To write a villain, you’ve got to untwist that logic and follow it to the source. I don’t doubt that Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger understood the Joker better than anyone watching the movie. Even though much of his psychology was hidden from us, it was there.

I have a hard time getting into the heads of my bad guys, and this is something I need to work on. My protagonists do terrible things, don’t get me wrong, but their antagonists are even worse. It makes me a little uneasy to sink into the head of someone whose actions I find so disturbing. But I’ve got to hold my nose and take that plunge, if I want them to be as real as my characters.

Good luck to all of you doing the same! Leave a comment and tell me about the bad guy you’re writing. Just how bad is she or he?


Featured image by Sceptre – Originally, The Dark Knight, Public Domain

Painting by Jules Henri Lengrand – Liliane Lengrand, veuve de Jules Henri Lengrand, l’artiste., CC BY-SA 3.0

 

4 thoughts on “Badass villains and how to write them

  1. Lynda Panther says:

    Without doing a plot spoiler – I’m writing a series – you never know with my ‘bad guy’ who’s side he’s really on. One minute he’s apparently bending over backwards to assist my heroes, then he’ll say – do – something that dumps them right in it. I can do a pretty good ‘bad’ – it’s the sex which makes me cringe. Hell, my daughters are my biggest fans & I’ve had a few ‘Awww, MUM!’ moments. More to come.

    • Sarah Kay Moll says:

      That sounds like a really cool series! I love complex bad guys like that, who can trick the heroes and who you can never really trust. When their motivations are shrouded in mystery, it can make for a lot of dramatic tension.
      Sex is tricky to write! I feel the same way 🙂

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