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What makes a great villain?

Every great story has a villain! They act as the foil for your hero and give the shade so that the light shines brighter. Darth Vader, Hannibal Lector, Blofeld, Moriarty and Voldemort are all great examples of the stereotypical baddie. Villains are invariably men but who could forget Bellatrix Lastrange (Harry Potter), Rosa Cleb (From Russia with love), Cruella DeVil (One hundred and one Dalmatians), Annie Wilkes (Misery) and Nurse Ratched (One flew over the cuckoos nest) as the women we love to hate!

I mentioned before that I took Dan Brown's writing course and one of his pearls of wisdom was to write your villain first. The darker your villain, the more heroic your hero!

There has to be a strong connection between hero and villain, something that keeps drawing them together. With Harry Potter and Voldemort the scar was a physical reminder of the near fatal battle that had happened between them. I still remember the shock when I discovered that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father. In a good yarn there is a connection that keeps drawing hero and villain together.

When I began writing Keeping Secrets I had a clear idea of who my villain was; I had a physical description (Tim McInnerny, the actor I would love to play him on screen), I knew what sort of personality traits Bernard had and I knew his strengths and weaknesses.

The reality is when we meet people we don't like or get on with they are never 100% bad. They have some redeeming features. That is how I wanted my villain to be.

I wanted him to be believable so I used a set of 10 criteria when I was writing him;

  1. Bernard is convinced he is the good guy, he has clear morality that is based on class, privilege and survival of the fittest.

  2. He has achieved success in his field and is very status driven, he has position and power.

  3. He is accomplished, enough that people have to lend him respect.

  4. Bernard is no fool and people underestimate him at their peril.

  5. Bernard has many of the same characteristics of a hero; he is patriotic, committed, adaptable and focused. But those characteristics are misdirected

  6. Bernard is intelligent and articulate and therefore can be very persuasive

  7. He is ruthless and will stop at nothing to get what he wants, so people fear him

  8. He is arrogant, vain and deceitful, so people dislike him

  9. Bernard is a jealous man who experiences envy and spite frequently

  10. He is vengeful.

Villains should be a little larger than life but they also need to be grounded. They should have a history, maybe something that happened in their past that made them the way they are now. The makings of a villain's downfall has to be one of their traits. In Bernard's case, arrogance is his undoing. Those that consistently underestimate others often get their just desserts.

Villains make mistakes. Making them perfectly evil is not realistic. Some of the scariest characters function normally. At the moment I am particularly drawn to Martin Sheen's performance as the serial killer Dr Whitly aka the Surgeon in Prodigal Son. The scary bits are the flashes of madness you see, when just moments before he seemed perfectly normal. For me the more ordinary a villain is, the more intimidating he is.


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