Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Villains, Part 2

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 15•16
rearwindow villain

Raymond Burr playing the villain in Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Nothing creates suspense and fear like a potent, evil, will-take- prisoners villain. A good villain is the stuff of nightmares and will haunt the reader long after the story concludes. The best villains create genuine feelings of vulnerability in characters and readers. As in make your blood run cold.

Here’s a round-up of tips for creating your own bad-to-the-bone character.

  • Create important, believable motivations. Your villain

    Silence of the lambs severed head

    This severed head was Bill’s practice run.

    shouldn’t just exist to wreck havoc. In Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs the villain/madman Buffalo Bill was denied a sex-change operation so is killing young women and harvesting their skin to create a female body suit (of sorts). As Hannibal Lector said, he covets.

  • Villains will never play by the rules.

  • Must somehow be despicable.

  • Must toss in surprises and twists that we don’t see coming.

  • Shape a compelling backstory for him–nothing is more plastic than villains who seem to spring to life for the sake of the story.

  • Imbue with an interesting mindset and rationale for his/her behaviors.

  • No smirking. Ever.

  • Beware of writing ‘truth serum’ scenes. These hokey scenes typically take place toward the end of the story when the villain has captured the hero. Instead of offing his victim, he starts confessing his crimes and embittered tale of woe. Gloating is also sometimes part of this scene. Been done, my friends. To death.

Max CadyMake it personal. The link between the hero and villain needs to become increasingly personal and intimate as the story goes along.This is Robert DeNiro playing Max Cady in the remake of Cape Fear. The hero in the story put him in prison so now that he’s out he’s stalking the hero’s  family and he’s going to make them pay. In fact, he wears a tattoo that says, ‘Vengeance is mine.’

 Note: Robert Mitchum was no slouch in the earlier film version. Both men possess a simmering sexuality and  smoldering rage in the role. Max Cady Mitchum

Be wary of using mental illness as motive and reason for being evil. It requires a lot of research and believeablity. For example, not all children who underwent trauma or were abused grow up to become abusers.

  • Consider giving the villain and hero shared traits and characteristics. Harry Potter and Voldemort are an excellent example. Even their magic wands share some of the same origins.

  • Good villains often have minions and followers. These types must be creepy also. The Deatheaters in the Harry Potter series are excellent examples. What would the series be without Snape and Molfoy?

  • Don’t write about villains who make obvious mistakes or can be easily outwitted. A common trope is when a villain captures a hero, taunts him or her for a bit, then dashes away to take care of other important business. Meanwhile, he’s made some crucial error so that the hero can escape with little or not much effort. To live another day and take down the villain.


    Lord Voldemort

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Bree says:

    I was lucky enough to be at the villains panel you were a part of at the Wizard World convention in Portland and have kept your “Villain’s Handbook” close by ever since. Thank you for sharing all you did with us at the panel and here. I’ve been working on completing the beginning of starting my first book. I’ve written a lot, but have always seemed to lose concentration or confidence when it comes to finishing a story. However, places like Wizard World and people like you and the others on the panel always seem to give me inspiration. So again, thank you for sharing, and I hope I wind up at another panel of yours in the future.

    • Jessica Morrell says:

      Bree, It was a hoot, wasn’t it? Thanks for your kind words and good luck with those endings in the midst of your whirlwind life. All the best, Jessica

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.