Why you need “good” bad guys. How to write a novel — part 6

VillainsIf you don’t take your bad guys seriously, how can you expect your readers to feel any differently? We’re talking about villains here, and for most adult fiction, twhanniballectero dimensional bad guys likSnidelye Snidely Whiplash rate no better than what they are: cartoons. Real villains ought to be capable of inducing nightmares.

In comedic films, a bungling bad guy might be worth a laugh or two. The film “Home Alone” demonstrated how two complete idiots could provide slapstick humor for about 60 seconds of a 90-minute feature. Try that in an adult novel, and your readers will dispose of your work like bad sushi. Worse, they’ll remember your name, and when it shows up again, they’ll treat you like a hitchhiker with a chainsaw. How’s that for irony? What you took all too lightly, they’ll take quite seriously.

captain_hookSo, no paper tigers. If you’re going to put a villain in your book, make sure he’s worthy of the designation. Allow him to do despicable things. You have to be mindful of your target audience, obviously. Darth Vader didn’t run around cutting the heads of puppies, but no one ever doubted he’d be capable of it. For the most part, the bad things he did were visited upon his subordinates. Sure, he loped off Luke Skywalker’s hand, but he cauterized the wound, and Luke was fitted with a prosthesis anyone would be proud to have. Contrast that with what Peter Pan did to Captain Hook. Who’s the bad guy now?

Sorry. ‘Nuther cartoon reference. But at least Hook isn’t two-dimensional. He’s a “real” bad guy. Seriously, if a villain makes little kids walk the plank, how can he not automatically qualify as nasty? C’mon! Geez.

Assuming you’re working on a novel rather than a cartoon, you’re probably going to need to spend some time figuring out why your bad guy is so rotten. Was he born that way? It’s possible, but unlikely. Without getting into the whole environment vs evolution issue, writers will do themselves–and their readers–a valuable service by investing enough time in their characters to understand the driving forces behind them. This absolutely includes bad guys.

some-victims-deserve-itNowadays, looking at the news, we can’t help but laugh at the idiots who rob stores while wearing uniforms with name tags. “Hi! I’m Jerry, and I’m here to steal your stuff.” Siren. Blue lights. Click of handcuffs. Clang of cell door. Crack of gavel. “See ya in ten years, Jerry baby.” If you put that crap in your novel–as anything other than a humorous aside–you’re begging your readers to quit reading. They don’t have to invest time or money to hear about idiots. The world provides a never-ending parade of morons who can’t think through a crime any further than “Gimme the cash!”

Then they run off down the street with the blinky lights on their Wal-Mart sneakers marking their passage. “Yo! Follow me to my secret hide out!”

I dunno, officer. Distinguishing marks? Like... where? On his face?

I dunno, officer. Distinguishing marks? Like… where? On his face?


Please, don’t let your bad guys be stupid. They don’t have to be evil geniuses, but they ought to have enough smarts to intrigue a reader. Let them figure out how to avoid the easy mistakes, at least.

And give them something to make them different. Stereotypical bad guys are as tedious as it gets. We’ve all seen ’em: the doughnut-munching cop who takes payoffs, pimps (who, no matter what, are all the same), spoiled rich kids (male or female, doesn’t matter), dirty politicians, etc. We expect certain behaviors from these characters, and any significant deviation makes us instantly suspicious. Why not use that suspicion to our advantage? Maybe the stereotype is merely a cover for something that’s worse?

chicks and chainsaws‘Course, then there are the stereotypical differences: terrorist, serial killer, demonic possession. There are many others, so picking the one thing that differentiates your bad guy from all the rest won’t be easy, but it’ll be worth it. You’ll have to devote some serious thought to how your beauty pageant winner turned to chainsaw mayhem or how your Sunday School Teacher of the Year somehow turned into a kidnapper and a cannibal. But just think how much fun writing those stories will be!

Next up: Hey–that’s not what really happened.


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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6 Responses to Why you need “good” bad guys. How to write a novel — part 6

  1. William Brewer says:

    There’s a story this morning in our local paper about the kidnapping of several hundred garden trolls. It is not on their web version. Sounds to me like the genesis of a grander story of highjinks and intrigue. Shall I sent it to you? Bill Brewer Date: Tue, 2 Sep 2014 14:57:47 +0000 To: laworx@hotmail.com

  2. joshlangston says:

    Oh, hell yes! I’d love to see it.

  3. lloyd langston says:

    Another episode, or chapter extremely well done. As an ardent fan of the Sage there are times I wish I was writing a book or something so I could apply his instruction in some ways. But I’m sticking to more of the wood working kinds of things. I know this material on bad guys will be most helpful. Keep it going Sage. L. Wayne

  4. joshlangston says:

    Maybe you’ll be inspired to give writing a try one of these days. You can always sign up for my class….

  5. Pingback: Death to weasel words. How to write a novel — part 8 | Sage of the South

  6. Pingback: Death to “weasel” words. Oh, and “was,” too! | ELM Beginning Fiction Class

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