Thursday, July 28, 2011

Villains - The Great Divide

Buffy: Does it ever get easy?
Giles: You mean life?
Buffy: Yeah, does it get easy?
Giles: What do you want me to say?
Buffy: Lie to me.
Giles: Yes. It's terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and... everybody lives happily ever after.
Buffy: Liar.

- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Lie to Me”

When I watch a movie, I want the villains to be easily identifiable with long, luscious hair and a killer wardrobe. I want them to be vaguely sexy in a Lucius Malfoy kind of way. I want them to be evil and delicious and full of snark. I want them to be bad, but the kind of bad that makes you want to sneak off to dark corners for seven minutes of lip-locked bliss.

In short, I want my movie villains to be a faerie tale: easily identifiable and more sexy than actually threatening. Patrick Bateman and Hannibal Lecter need not apply.

But while those types of villains are fun to watch on screen, I don’t really have a lot of fun writing them. The villains I most like to write are the ones who exist in shades of grey rather than in stark black and white. The ones whose actions sometimes seem understandable—if not justifiable—in those moments you glimpse the big picture from their point of view.

The above Buffy quote is from the season two episode, “Lie to Me” (stop reading if you don’t want spoilers). In the episode, an old friend of Buffy’s turns up in Sunnydale. Unbeknownst to her, he’s dying of cancer and has struck a deal with the local big bad to turn Buffy (and a club full of victims) over in exchange for immortality.

At one point, just after Buffy threatens to kill him, a pained expression crosses his face and he tells her that he really has missed her. The character isn’t having second thoughts about his dastardly plan—the moment isn’t about that—but Joss Whedon was, I think, trying give the audience a glimpse of the boy this character used to be, a glimpse that would lead them to think about how fear could have twisted him so much.

Sometimes, I think it’s scarier when you can almost understand how a villain became twisted and why they act the way they do, when you can almost picture yourself in their shoes and wonder what it is that separates you from them. If I can give a reader that moment
if I can send shivers of "what if" down their spinesI'll be happy.


  1. I very much agree. The best person has a shadow and the worst will still have a dog who loves him.

  2. I love this post! I really have to practice channeling my inner demon because villains are generally tough for me to write. I tend to want to make them too soft. But the best villains are no-holds-barred badass with just a thread of humanity & decency left. Did anybody see the British TV series Survivors? The character Tom is one of the best-written villains I've come across. LOVE HIM!

  3. Oh, yeah. The more you can relate to a villain, the scarier they become, I think. And yay for Buffy references! Everything goes back to Buffy...