At ThrillerFest 2009, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop seminar hosted by literary agent Donald Maass, called "Sorry, Your Villain Isn't Scary."
It was one of the more memorable seminars I participated in, because Donald had us really thinking about our villains and who they were. Were they complex enough? Were they unusual, unpredictable, and interesting? Or were they, as he called it, a "Mwa ha ha!" villain, who was just bad for the sake of being bad with no other interesting character traits? His focus was on helping us avoid the clichés that make so often villains seem like cardboard cut-outs.
Here are many of the characteristics you'll find in villains (of the serial killer variety):
Not too old, not too young
Terrible childhood; mommy or daddy issues
Introvert, no friends or family
Can you think of any more clichés?
Now. Let me be clear. The above are clichés for a reason because the majority of real-life serial killers do fit these characteristics. But for the purposes of fiction, it's often more fun (and surprising) to mix things up.
For example, a villain who's likable. Maybe he has a dog he adores, or he cares for his sick sister, or he volunteers in the community. Not only do traits like this add complexity to the character, but they also make the villain that much more chilling when he's doing his evil deeds. A villain I find myself relating to in unexpected ways is a villain who scares me because I'm drawn to him.
Here are three of my favorite villains:
Chelsea Cain's Gretchen Lowell, a.k.a. the Beauty Killer (and yes, she even has her own website!), is interesting because she's a woman, and gorgeous to boot. Plus she's not just a stab-you-and-run kind of girl – she has a lusty appetite for dismemberment and disembowelment (and she loves to take her time).
Fangland, was nothing short of awesome because he was a Romanian mob boss, of all things. It was a refreshing and very modern spin on Dracula (and can I just add that this book creeped me out for days after I finished it).
So, let's talk villains! Which ones "fit the mold", so to speak? Which ones break the rules?
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