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How to write a 'damnèd, smiling villain'

O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain—
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.
(Hamlet, Wm.Shakespeare)

“And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear,
Millions of mischiefs”
Young Octavius, in Julius Caesar, Wm.Shakespeare)

Ah yes, Shakespeare’s smiling villains. Well, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for the rest of us. It also points to how we should portray the ‘bad guy’ in stories.

Undiluted villains like Fu Manchu, the White Witch, Dracula, Cruella de Vil, Mrs Danvers, Ernst Blofeld, are straightforwardly nasty, with a single goal of eliminating the ‘good guy’. We see only one aspect of them and apart from the ways in which they inflict pain on our heroines/heroes we find them a tad ridiculous and potentially boring. Proper villains are multi-layered, often with mixed motivations that sometimes they themselves don’t understand.

Apollodorus

Apollodorus

In the Roma Nova thrillers I’ve written psychopaths (Renschman in INCEPTIO), sociopaths (Pertinax in PERFIDITAS , Caius Tellus in AURELIA, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO) and vengeful children (Nicola in SUCCESSIO).

And then there are characters who hover in between such as pragmatic criminal Apollodorus in INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS whom we can’t decide is good or bad.

Some characters are weak and fall into bad company like Superbus in PERFIDITAS, some become temporary ‘bad guys’ (no spoilers here!), some are forced into ‘bad guy’ behaviour due to circumstances, some are merely opportunistic. And these grey areas are the most interesting…

How to write a plausible and interesting villain
All characters need a solid back-story, so it’s a good idea to sketch out when your villain became one, why and in what circumstances. Was it a single incident, a simmering discontent, envy, mistreatment or being a spoilt child? Did he or she fall into bad company or were they abandoned as a child or on the death of one or both parents? Such events don’t always lead down the dark path, but they may nudge them that way.

A criminal mastermind who seems all-knowing and all-seeing with almost telepathic powers is not credible. Neither is a bumbler or a TSTL (too stupid to live) fool. But villains should be intelligent or at least crafty. Our heroines (and heroes) need foes worthy of them, ones that will test their mettle.

Are villains ‘born bad’? We all differ in temperament and character. Some of us are laid back, others ambitious, some warm-hearted, others unemotional, some caring and holistic, others full of desire to dominate. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator is extremely useful for making up multi-layered profiles for all your characters. It’s a psychometric test system popular in business and government since the Second World War to indicate psychological preferences about how people perceive the world and make decisions. A gold mine for writers!

Villains’ dialogue should not lapse into stereotypes or melodrama – they are people like other characters in the story and should speak normally, although irony, sarcasm and anger can be present when appropriate.

[From INSURRECTIO: After she is captured, Aurelia is taken before Caius who has usurped power in Roma Nova]
I was completely alone. With my nemesis. He went back to staring through the window.

‘I can’t decide what to do with you,’ he said. ‘You will undoubtedly try everything to oppose me under some delusion of duty, so it would be prudent to remove you permanently. And you caused me to rot in a Prussian jail for twelve years. I shall never forgive you for that.’

‘You murdered a Prussian citizen and permanently disabled another. You ran a silver smuggling organisation that threatened Roma Nova’s security. You got off lightly.’

He shrugged.

‘And let’s not forget your two attempts to kill me.’

‘You were being irritating, Aurelia, and I dislike that.’

‘Irritating!’ I raised my hands to vent my frustration but the steel grip of the handcuffs constrained them. ‘I was a Praetorian officer tasked to hunt you down. I’d hardly class that as irritating.’

‘“Was”. That’s the correct word.’ He turned and looked straight at me. ‘You’re finished. I’ve cancelled your commission along with that of every other female officer. You’re no longer a minister, nor a senator, nor head of your family. You have become an irrelevance in the new Roma Nova.’

I stared at him. Irrelevant? He couldn’t take away my identity like that.

‘Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t destroy the structure of such an old country just like that.’

He strode over to me. I took a step back, but he was too fast. He grabbed me by the throat, pressed his thumb and fingers hard, and squeezed. I could hardly breathe. He pressed harder. My head swam and my vision blurred.

‘Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.’ Then he dropped his hand and released me. I bent over coughing. Gods, his grip had been strong. I thought I was going to choke to death.

‘You have two options – adapt or go under. There is no release for you, Aurelia. You will be guarded and tracked, and if you attempt escape, I’ll execute one of your friends like Calavia. Maybe I’ll do that anyway, if only to motivate you.’

‘Only cowards let their friends take the punishment for them. Just call in the swordsman and I’ll kneel in the sand.’

‘Certainly not. You’re far too valuable a political asset. And you do have a certain amusement value.’ He smirked at me. ‘Perhaps I’ll keep you as jester, my own tame doomsayer. You’d look quite fetching in scarlet.’

I couldn’t speak. The humiliation of what he suggested – how dare he?

He laughed. ‘You should see your face, Aurelia. You always were quick to rise.’ Then his mouth straightened into a crisp line. ‘This is not a game. The old ways are finished, as is everybody associated with them.’

Caius Tellus

Caius Tellus

Another technique is to put yourself into the villain’s place, to get into their mind-set. They are convinced they are the strong one on the right path, if they are like Caius or Pertinax, or are perfectly justified in what they do in order to make their way in the world, if they are Apollodorus. They often care for, or at least reward, their subordinates and cannot see why others don’t see things as they do.

And for an additional twist, the ‘bad guy’ may well demonstrate many of the qualities of the ‘good guy’ and share some values.

[From INSURRECTIO: Same scene as above, Aurelia speaks first]

‘I’d rather end my days in Truscium than lift one of my little fingers to help you.’

‘Always so dramatic. Phobius would throw you in there without hesitating after he’d had you and given his men a turn. Would you prefer that?’

Just for a second, something in his eyes united us as patricians, revolted at the thought of Phobius touching either of us.

‘Quite,’ he said.

In a series, the characters can overlap the books: Apollodorus, so prominent in INCEPTIO, returns in PERFIDITAS; Caius Tellus is the antagonist in all three of the second trilogy. The return of a bad guy must be carefully engineered. If the heroine is so competent, how come the bad guy keeps escaping? Eventually, a recurring villain has to disappear, but a writer can really enjoy themselves doing that and wring high emotion out of it for the reader.

And the grey areas?
Sometimes the heroine/hero has to show transgressive or even criminal tendencies and act on them. Does this make them a villain? Sometimes an upright character’s personality changes then they suffer a mental breakdown and they act unlawfully. Does that make them a villain? And occasionally ‘bad guys’ sacrifice themselves, ostensibly to save themselves from justice, but covertly for an entirely different reason. Putting one type of character into the opposite situation natural to them creates very interesting conflicts…

Finally, remote villains
A villain doesn’t have to be present in person or even still alive. In INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO, the first three Roma Nova thrillers, the mere memory of Caius touches the characters who had interacted with him in the second prequel trilogy. Aurelia, Conrad and Silvia recount terrifying snippets from their contact decades ago with Caius to Carina in the present and thus to the reader.

In RETALIO, the Aurelia doesn’t encounter Caius in person until Chapter 19 and then only for moments. He doesn’t recognise her as she’s in disguise. And it’s many chapters later that they meet openly. However, he has attacked her and her colleagues physically, emotionally, mentally, legally, financially and politically. His reach is long and frightening.

[From RETALIO: Aurelia is in exile in Vienna with her lover and companion of fifteen years, Miklós]

‘The exiles are hurt and frightened. I must help them. We can’t leave Caius to rampage and destroy everything.’

‘But if what Quintus writes is true, he’ll extradite or snatch you.’

‘I have you, and now Sándor to protect me physically and once I’m fit again, I won’t be such an easy target. I just need to put myself beyond Caius legally.’ I shuddered at the prospect of being dragged back to Caius and handed over to his sadistic assistant for ‘punishment’. And it would all be perfectly legal, from the New Austrian police arrest to deportation, handover like a package at the Roma Novan border and into the cells of the Transulium prison to await Caius’s pleasure. My heart pounded at the terrifying thought of facing Caius’s vengeance.

I hope I’ve given you some practical techniques for writing credible and three-dimensional villains. But whether viewed as a writer or reader, the most disturbing villains are, of course, the ones you find reflecting your own beliefs, fears and values, whether on the side of the angels or the devils.

(This post has been closely adapted from the one I wrote for Anna Belfrage’s blog on 15 May 2017 http://bit.ly/2v3uyaQ )

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIOAURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, came out in April  2017. Audiobooks now available for the first four of the series

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines… Get INCEPTIO, the series starter, for FREE when you sign up to Alison’s free monthly email newsletter

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