Writing Three-Dimensional Villians

I’m riveted by fictional villains.  Sociopaths, psychotics, psychopaths, megalomaniacs, “The Big Bad”…whatever you call them, whatever their psychological damage – bring ’em on.  

Researcher Robert D. Hare, Ph.D., creator of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, describes psychopaths as “intraspecies predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, sex and violence to control others and to satisfy their own needs.  Lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do what they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse.”  **

Given that the villain’s role in a story is to drive the external conflict, Hare’s definition alone gives a novelist an awful lot to work with.  But to me the novelist’s real opportunity is in the ‘why?’  What’s the villain’s motivation for doing what they’re doing?  What’s their back story?  What is it that causes one person with psychopathic tendencies to become, say, a toxic corporate VP, and another to become a serial killer racking up a body count?  I find the nature/nurture ramifications of these questions absolutely fascinating. 

Think of some of entertainment’s most iconic villains:  Hannibal Lechter.  Dexter Morgan.  Darth Vader. Why do these characters fascinate us so?  One reason I find these villains so memorable is that their creators had the guts to give them some redeeming qualities. 

Villains who are 100% evil are as boring – and as unrealistic – as heroes who are 100% good.    

Consider Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lechter. He’s a charming sociopath, a genius psychiatrist who is also a cannibalistic serial killer.  His crimes are heinous, but in “The Silence of the Lambs,” he uses his profiling skills to help rookie FBI Agent Clarice Starling find and capture the serial killer Buffalo Bill.  Indeed, he has several opportunities to kill her, but doesn’t. As a child, Lechter witnessed the murder and cannibalism of his beloved younger sister. 

Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan is a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department.  He has a wife, friends, a family who loves him – and an unstoppable need to kill.  Orphaned at age three, having witnessed his mother’s murder, his adoptive father recognized his sociopathic tendencies and helped him channel his urges in a more productive direction – killing people who “deserve it.”  He’s a vigilante serial killer, empty inside, but able to compartmentalize and act in socially acceptable ways for long periods of time. 

George Lucas’s Darth Vader… this fearsome cyborg, the Supreme Commander of the Galactic Empire, an oppressor who kills members of the Rebel Alliance, was once the youthful Anakin Skywalker, manipulated into betraying his Jedi brethren by the evil Emperor Palpatine, and as a result descended to the Dark Side of the Force.  (What a metaphor!)  Vader ultimately kills Palpatine and sacrifices himself to save his son Luke. 

I’ll leave the diagnoses to the professionals, but, perhaps not coincidentally, all of these characters experienced traumatic events in their youth.  Might they have become superstar CEOs instead of killers if the circumstances of their early lives had been different?? 

In a romantic suspense novel, the villain’s actions serve as the catalyst that brings the hero and heroine together, and the h/h must fight and defeat him to live happily ever after. The villain – whether he’s a contemporary serial killer, she’s a Regency-era matchmaking mama, or a s/he’s a futuristic thwarted lover – is one of three main characters, so write a full GMC (goal, motivation and conflict) chart exploring his or her psychology thoroughly.

Make your villain a worthy opponent, but let the reader see their vulnerabilities, too. I want to get a whiff of his mother’s expensive perfume as he remembers being locked in a dark closet. I want to see him reluctantly feed the stray cat who meows at his back door.  Give me a glimpse of the last shreds of his humanity – of the person he could have been.

If only.  

Who are your favorite fictional villains?  Why do you love (or love to hate) them?

** “Psychopaths: New Trends in Research” by Robert D. Hare The Harvard Mental Health Letter (September 1995)

45 responses to “Writing Three-Dimensional Villians”

  1. Oh, I love a villian you could love, if only. I actually fell in love with my villian in Evil’s Witness, Victor. So much he started to take over the story and I had to rein him in. He had a need to please his papa. That need is what drives him to do the deeds he does. I still think about him.

    I’m a huge 24 fan. I fell in love with Tony this last season. He is a good guy gone bad. He’s such a tortured soul, I can’t help myself.

    Great points, Tamara.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I’m having the same issue reining in my villain in my current WIP, Autumn – Beddoe is taking over the show. It’s in my best interest to let him for the time being, because I’m at a point in the process where I have to firm up the plot of the story – and his actions and motivations are key.

      I love ‘good guys gone bad’ stories. The reason they ‘go bad’ almost always exposes their vulnerability. (Poor Tony!)

  2. Vivi Andrews says:

    Ooh, I love sympathetic villains. I especially love seeing a seeming-villain’s POV in a later book. I don’t think we see ourselves as the Bad Guy, no matter how we seem in someone else’s story. And I love digging into the whys.

    Great topic, Tammy. And you picked three of my fav villains. Dexter gives me the shivers in all too positive a way.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I have a pipe dream that I can redeem UNDERBELLY’s villain somewhat in a future book in the series. I probably won’t go so far as to try to make him the HERO of a future book, but… 😉

      Michael Hall as David Fisher in Six Feet Under did nothing for me, but as Dexter? (fans self) HAWT. We’re obviously twisted, twisted people.

  3. Jeannie Lin says:

    You’ve definitely got the all-stars up there Tammy!
    Put a great villain together and he (or she) almost always steals the show. Nothing takes the steam out of a story for me more than a flat, stereotyped villain.

    I’m going to go old school and say Lex Luther. Isn’t it great that the arch nemesis of the biggest and baddest of superheros has absolutely no special powers other than his evil genius intellect? Morgan Le Fey is also a favorite, just to add a villainess to the mix.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Morgan le Fey. Great choice. I loved Marion Zimmer Bradley’s treatment of Morgaine in “The Mists of Avalon.” And then there’s the treatment of Elphaba in “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” by Gregory Maguire, where he turns the ‘facts’ of the original story by 90′, showing us a completely different interpretation of the original story’s plot.

      It reminds me that ‘villains’ often see themselves as the heroes or heroines of their own stories. It’s all in one’s POV.

  4. Elise Hayes says:

    I loved, loved, loved the mayor (as villain) in the third (fourth?) season of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. He was fixated on oral hygiene and politeness, and displayed genuine care and fatherliness to Faith (the slayer he was able to lure to the dark side, because no one else provided her with care or a sense of family). He was also, of course, in the process of becoming (literally) a world-ending monster.

    And, of course, in luring Faith to the dark side, he also created another villain–Faith herself. It was absolutely compelling to watch her fall from the righteous slayer path–the moment where she accidentally killed a human (thinking, in the heat of battle, that he was a vampire or other monster), her repeated rejection by Buffy and her gang every time she tried to reach out for emotional support (from the “right” people), her desperate need for connection to someone.

    The mayor was the only one who provided that connection–in the beautiful pink dress that he bought her (that told her he didn’t believe she had to be stuck forever in the tough, black leather exterior she always wore like armor), in the home he provided her (Buffy and her friends had left Faith scraping by in a miserable little motel), and in his insistence that she brush and floss regularly (comic relief, but also incredibly human).

    Joss Whedon rocks!

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Beautifully put, Elise. Joss Whedon created a number of three-dimensional villains on “Buffy” alone. Faith – where it really could have gone either way. Angel – redeemed and the hero of his own show, even if he didn’t get the girl. Drusilla – mad, insane Drusilla. Willow, who balanced on the edge for awhile with her magic addiction.

      And then there’s William the Bloody – a/k/a Spike – with his horrid, horrid poetry, and his doomed love for Buffy.

      • Elise Hayes says:

        Oh, yes, I LOVED Spike. I actually ended up preferring him to Angel, in the end. Angel was in some ways too monotone: brooding and anguished, all the time. Spike had a lot more variation, perhaps because we got to witness his reluctant transformation from villain to hero.

        • Tamara Hogan says:

          I liked Angel more once he got his own show – there was often humor at angsty Angel’s expense. Remember the “Smile Time” episode when Angel turned into a puppet?

          And there’s the classic “I Don’t Dance” —

          And yeah, I’m a major “Bones” fan. David Boreanaz just gets hotter every year.

          • Elise Hayes says:

            We actually gave up on Angel (the show) after about the second year, so I don’t remember the puppet episode. I do, however, remember the “I don’t dance” snip. Thanks for posting the link to it–it’s a classic!

  5. Diana Layne says:

    My villain, a female, kept trying to take over the story, really she was an anti-hero, convinced she was doing right, and you know I started listening to her and now I do think I’m going to let her star in the show…ok, so maybe not a classic romance, but it is making me anxious to get to the keyboard…

  6. Alan Rickman in Die Hard, aka Hans Gruber. He was also an awsome villain in one of the many Robin Hood movies…Prince of Thieves? I love a bad guy with a wicked sense of humor.

  7. Liz Talley says:

    You can really have fun with villians. Unfortunately, I don’t really have any in my stories. But, currently, I’m writing a new story and a character I’d thought to paint in a sympathetic light, has come out rather edgy with villainous tendencies. I don’t think either my h/h should trust him. It’s crazy, but that’s what came out of my fingertips.

    So I think I’m going to get to explore some of the depth villians have with this guy.

    BTW, I love Dexter – my absolute fav show. The finale really rocked me and had me upset for days.

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      ——–> I don’t think either my h/h should trust him. It’s crazy, but that’s what came out of my fingertips.

      Sounds intriguing! Have fun figuring out why! 😉

      I was an ungodly mess after watching the Dexter finale. **sob** I find myself thinking about the final scene at the oddest times:

      “Born in blood. Both of us.”

  8. Addison Fox says:


    I have to echo Jeannie’s thought – you hit the all-stars with your post!

    I thought Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in last year’s Batman was simply awesome. I found him so riveting – you just could not look away from him when he was on screen.


    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Yes, Ledger’s performance left me spellbound. There was a lot of great acting in that movie. Of course Christian Bale as the twisted Dark Knight (Batman) was riveting, but the big surprise for me was Aaron Eckhart’s performance as Two-Face. WOW.

      I ducked out of an afternoon of workshops to go watch “The Dark Knight” on IMAX while I was at RWA National in 2008 (San Francisco). What a great lesson in character development!

  9. rita says:

    Oh! Oh! Oh! Eggzackerly what I needed to get a grip on my villain.
    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for this!

  10. Darynda Jones says:

    Great post, Tammy!!! I so love those three-dimensional villians. One that just blew me away was Riddick in Pitch Black. Talk about multi-dimensional. Just when you think he’s bad, he’s good. Just when you think he’s good, he’s bad. He is the anti-hero who comes around in the end, and the good guy of the movie, of course, turns out to be the bad guy. It is a very well written script with some pretty amazing actors.

    Also, speaking of Wheddon, I adored his villian in Serenity, aka, The Operative played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. (I had to look that up.) He was the guy who killed people with a sword and he was brilliant. Wheddon said he wanted someone who, while in the process of killing people, tried to make them feel good about it. “There is no shame in this,” he would say.

    And I am a HUGE fan of Dexter! Amazing characterization.

    Again, great post!

  11. Darynda Jones says:

    I also have to say, like Rita, this has given me a new grip on my wip. I am thinking in a new direction that I hadn’t even thought of before. Thank you for reminding me that villians are people too. LOL!

  12. rita says:

    Forgot– I love DEXTER

    • Darynda Jones says:

      Dexter’s the bomb!

      • rita says:

        What did you think of the season ending? I loved it as the character was beginning to annoy me.

        • Tamara Hogan says:

          I felt for the baby. I’m holding my breath thinking about whether history will repeat itself.

        • Darynda Jones says:

          Well, the bad guy dies at the end of every season, but I was ready for the wife to die in the first season! I just couldn’t stand her. I’m mean. My DH and I would come up with different ways to kill her off. LOL.

          But I loved this season the best of any of them and I loved the ending. I’m so curious where they are going with it!

          • Liz Talley says:

            I think I hated it so much because he’d decided that her faith in him could actually stop him from killing. I felt like he’d get to start over, then WHAM!

            No so fast!

            And I hated Trinity destroyed that part of him. So unfair.

  13. One of my favorite suspense movies is FACE OFF (Nicholas Cage/John Travolta) where Travolta’s character (FBI agent) ends up undergoing a surgical procedure to switch faces with Nicholas Cage’s bad guy character in order to infilitrate his organization and stop a bombing. But something goes wrong and bad guy Cage ends up awakening from his coma and forcing the doctors to graft good guy Travolta’s face on himself.

    The story unfolds with lots of twists and turns, but the thing I liked most about it was how they each had to live in each other’s skins for awhile, and in doing so, they both discover that neither character is either all good or all bad. It’s really an awesome movie, and very well done by both Cage and Travolta.

    It should be required watching for fiction writers because it shows how characters are rarely ever black and white…there’s all different shades of grey and that’s what makes them compelling! 🙂

  14. Tamara Hogan says:

    Ooh, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen Face Off. Nic Cage has been in a lot of movies where the villains are heroic and the heroes are morally ambiguous to say the least. Whenever “The Rock” with Sean Connery and Ed Harris comes on TV, I usually stop everything to watch. Harris’s performance as disenchanted Gen. Francis X. Hummel (er) ROCKED, and a little Michael Biehn never hurts.

  15. Happy New Year, Tammy!

    Is it wrong to love Dexter? He commits so many atrocities but I find him incredibly endearing and his motivations are clear. Mind you, in real life, I tend to stay away from the serial killer types!

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      Happy New Year to you too! It’s a shivery 0′ F. in southern Minnesota this morning. Brr! (Why do I live here again?)

      —–>Is it wrong to love Dexter?

      Not at all. 😉 To your point, and Shoshana’s below, you’d never want to meet one of these guys in real life, but in fiction or in movies? Our exposure is safe.

      Who was it … some writer – who said that if there were as many serial killers in the real world as there were in books and movies, the human race would have died out a long time ago? TRUE.

  16. Elisa Beatty says:

    Cool post, Tammy! My villains tend to be fairly peripheral (the conflict tends to be generated between h and h), but I’ll have to think about making them more central, and complicated…. Sounds like fun!

    • Tamara Hogan says:

      I think writing villains is a blast. But there can be risks to having your villain be a three-dimensional character, too – particularly when entering contests.

      My 2009 Daphne winner and GH Finalist, UNDERBELLY, opens with a Prologue written in the villain’s POV, at the end of which he commits the crime that kicks off the story. In terms of structure, this Prologue is my first chapter, right? So I enter it in a couple of single-chapter contests (with Synopsis), and receive, shall we say, very mixed results. Some judges had a visceral negative reaction to what they’d read, and scored accordingly. One judge gave me props for the writing, but said that she absolutely hated that I made her like this guy and would never buy this book should it be published. Another judge, who apparently hadn’t read the Synopsis, lectured me on how to write a hero – because this guy could never be redeemed, could never…you get the picture.

      I learned a couple of things from this experience. One, that some readers are absolutely more comfortable with black and white villains, and that this book isn’t going to be their cuppa tea. Two, that I might need to back off a bit on the details of Stephen’s crime to improve the book’s marketability. And three, that my book was better received (and performed much better) in contests where more of the manuscript cold be submitted for judging. In these contests, the adrenaline rush of Stephen’s crime is quickly leavened by an introduction to the hero, incubus security guru Lukas Sebastiani, and his challenges – including the imminent arrival of the woman he can’t let himself have again, siren rock star Scarlett Fontaine.

  17. Shoshana Brown says:

    The great thing about books and television is that they provide a safe place for us to fall in love with those bad boys. In real life, not so much. 🙂

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