Donald Westlake, in his crime novels, makes a clear distinction between the good bad guys and the bad bad guys. This is true in his Dortmunder stories, and also in a couple of other novels, such as Cops & Robbers. Dortmunder and his friends are thieves. They’re career criminals. But they never hurt anybody, they’re ethical, and they seldom come home with all the loot they’d like. They’re good bad guys. Generally they find themselves pitted against unscrupulous, amoral, sleazy bad bad guys.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today.
The title of this little essay refers, rather, to the necessity of creating a villain who is believable and effective. All too often, authors create bad guys whose entire motivation seems to be to cause problems for the good guys. The villain may freely behave in ways that are inconsistent or contrary to his/her own best interest, because the author has thought no more deeply about the character of the villain than that he (we’ll say it’s a he) is to be a constant source of trouble.
This is not just a weakness found in the work of amateurs. Professionals fall into the same trap.
Writing a believable villain is difficult for a couple of reasons. First, many authors (being fundamentally nice people, as I’m sure we all are) have trouble imagining how a truly evil person thinks and acts. Second, a villain who is truly following his own evil agenda may not do the things that the author needs in order to move the story forward.
One extreme form of this failure is, of course, the moment when the villain seems to have won the contest. The hero is at the villain’s mercy. Whereupon, rather than simply dispatching the hero with a quick bullet to the head, the villain pauses to explain, for several pages, his reasons for all the villainy, in the process clearing up any questions the reader may have about the plot. While the villain is expostulating endlessly, the hero manages to wriggle out of the handcuffs or whatever, turn the tables on the villain, and emerge victorious.
This cliche, which is very common indeed, may be why the scene where Indiana Jones shoots the guy who is attacking him in the marketplace is so funny. We understand at once that Jones is refusing to participate in a cliche.
But leaving aside the extremes of villainous ineptitude, we need to look clearly at exactly who our villains are. Why are they doing what they’re doing? Are they attempting to achieve their villainous triumph in sensible ways? Or, if they’re not being sensible, are they failing to be sensible in ways that we can understand as arising out of their basic character?
I was smacked in the face this week with this realization. It hit me that my chief villain was pretty much a cardboard cutout. He wasn’t doing much to advance his own evil agenda. Although very rich, he didn’t even bother to hire half a dozen mercenaries to stomp around and beat people up.
Also, he’s from an entirely different culture than the good guys. Technically, he’s not even human. And yet he acts and talks exactly like a typical evil human nobleman. He has no colorful or even detectable nonhuman characteristics.
Who is this guy? I don’t even know, and my manuscript is already as long as Lord of the Rings. (And getting longer, bit by bit.) Turning him into a believable, three-dimensional bad guy is likely to have all sorts of repercussions in the plot. I don’t know yet what those repercussions may be, though I’m starting to glimpse a few of them. This is one of those weeks when the writing process consists not of drafting scenes but of throwing down thousands of words of detailed notes — asking myself all the tough questions I can think of, proposing reasonable or far-fetched answers to those questions, and then looking at what ramifications those answers would have elsewhere in the story.
I arrived at this point while rewriting Book 3 of the four-volume saga. About a third of the way through the rewrite, I found myself getting bored. So I took a few days off. Sometimes you have to trust your subconscious. I started re-reading Jared Diamond’s wonderful (nonfiction) book Guns, Germs, and Steel. And then the light bulb went on. Why was my supposedly masterful villain bopping around all by himself? Why hadn’t he hired a few mercenaries?
That question led quickly to a dozen more. Fortunately, I’m not on a deadline. My self-imposed goal was to have the rewrite done by September. It’s now looking more like next January, if not the January after that. But the good news is, I’m not bored anymore. The even better news is, every decision I make about my villain will lead to a stronger, more believable story. So it’s bad, but it’s good.