On Villains and Heroes

Recently I watched the thriller Hush on Netflix. I’m not normally a thriller watcher, but every now and then the mood is (f)right. I enjoyed the movie and it got me thinking…

Hush is the classic psychopath-stranger meets lone girl in remote location. The victim just happens to be an author which is helpful in piquing my interest.  The twist this time is that the ‘victim’ or protagonist is both deaf and mute.

A protagonist should be placed in a vulnerable position by the villain and I can’t think of a more vulnerable position than being deaf and hunted. Imagine being worried about someone breaking into your house and not being able to hear them at all. Are they breaking down the front door or standing just around the corner? Sound is a pivotal sense when it comes to engaging the flight or fight mentality.

Imagine screaming in pain, and knowing that not a peep was coming out of your mouth. You can’t call for help no matter how hard you try. The twin duo of deaf and mute make you more vulnerable and less able to protect yourself. Kudos to the writers Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel for choosing a protagonist that maximised the suspense.

Then my thoughts turned to villains. An evil villain like a psychopath is a scary proposition. When I consider villains they fit onto a scale something like this (where the higher the number the more scary they are):

  1. At the ‘weak’ end of the scale is the incidental villain. This is just someone who is going along with the flow, perhaps being dragged somewhat unwillingly along by peer pressure. They made a bad decision and its putting them into bad situations.
  2. Doing slightly bad things from necessity not choice is the subsistence villain. They might steal to feed the family, but they’re going to avoid hurting people if they can.
  3. The social villain. The louts and idiots who enjoy committing ‘medium’ level crimes. They normally travel in packs and like to think they are smarter because they  ‘live outside the system’. Normally they started off as incidental or subsistence villains but then graduated up the food chain, so this group covers the boss down to the foot soldiers.
  4. Taking a giant leap in evil-rating is the sociopath villain. These individuals like to commit crime and hurt people. They can’t empathize and will only ‘behave’ if it is personally beneficial.
  5. Give a sociopath a high intellect and/or lots of money and they becomes a genius villain. They are the cream of the criminal crop. They’re not interested in becoming the biggest drug dealer, but running the entire city and/or world.
  6. The architect villain though is even scarier (in some respects). Sure they might be committing crime and hurting people, but their motivation is what makes them truly scary. They are doing it because it will eventually help us. They can see that our temporary pain will be to our eventual good. This villain will never rest because in their mind they are doing what is right.
  7. At the very top of the scale is the child sociopath.


(Take for example the movie Looper … laying aside my general dislike for a 5 year old child playing such an incredibly dark role).

I find a child psychopath more disturbing than an adult and I don’t think I’m alone. Is it because we inherently know that children are supposed to be innocent? Does a criminal act feels even more criminal when committed by a child? Is part of our fear related to their potential to hide their true nature? We know adults can be evil, but what if a child is evil now… how bad will they be in the future?

The mentally-deranged child is by far the worst villain.

Technique: Villains

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episode 7. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

I don’t know why, but the word villain creates a disconnect in my brain, and I always want to spell it incorrectly. Thankfully, in this situation, spell check is my hero.

  • A good villain is someone whose underlying motivations are understandable to the reader. (e.g. we don’t understand the motivation to conquer the world… but we do understand the motivation of being made to feel small, insignificant…)
  • A good villain is someone who can exploit a heroes weakness.
  • The villain makes things tougher for the characters that we like.
  • When designing a villain don’t make their motivations a cliché (refer to the Evil Overlord list).

I think that I have done this quite well in my novel Vengeance Will Come. The villains all have motivations that drive their agenda which in turn drives the plot. At least that’s what I tried to do.

  • There are two kinds of villains: an ‘every man’ villain and a ‘superman’ villain. (In Lord of the Rings, Sauron is an example of a superman villain – very, very powerful. Gollum is an every man villain).
  • Where you have a villain who is all-powerful evil:
    Pro: Can force the protagonists through a good journey (interesting conflict).
    Con: Usually not very interesting characters (we don’t get to know them well), and they lose the ability to have a personal connection and redemption arc.
  • A great example of this is given: Lord of the Rings; if Sauron wasn’t an all-powerful military force the fellowship wouldn’t have had to sneak in to Mordor, but could have arrived at the doorstep with an army.

So, why is it that we can identify with the villains?

  • Not every villain is a clear-cut villain. We can have normal people who make poor choices, and are thus cast into the villainous roles. Their motivations may even have been good, but misguided.
  • Competent villains can also be admired for their competency. Even if you don’t agree with someone, you have to respect it when they have achieved a goal.
  • The villain is the hero of his own story.
  • A hero is one who overcomes their internal problems, a villain is one who succumbs to them.

I’ve noticed in my own writing that it isn’t normally black-or-white, win-or-lose. The villain always achieves at least a measure of victory. No one ever gets exactly what they want…

  • Finally, they speak about anti-heroes: a hero with villainous behaviour (e.g. The Punisher, Dexter). They ‘get the job done’, but not in a way that would normally be considered praise-worthy.

Technique: Flaws vs Handicaps

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episode 6 . I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

A flaw is internal to the character and can be changed by the character. A flaw is the fault of the character and often leads to a character arc.

A handicap is external to the character and can’t be changed by them. A handicap is a limitation/constraint imposed by the plot. A handicap leads to different types of conflict.

Why is it important for our hero to be flawed?

It makes them more interesting and allows readers to identify with them.

People read about a super-man for escapism, they read about an every-man because they can identify with them. e.g. Han Solo has the flaw of greed, Luke Skywalker is handicapped by his youth (no one takes him seriously).

The importance of flaws is that they allow growth in characters.

The hero’s journey: an every-man who ends up a super-man.

Choosing the right flaw or handicap

Base it on the conflicts you want the hero to be dealing with. Look for points of conflict and justify the characters reaction to that conflict.

Make the flaw something that the villain can exploit.

Flaws should work into the story and make the conflict more intense (because of them).

If your character is not a likable person (because of their flaw) then you must make them competent (or the reader won’t like them).

Problems (for long-life characters)

How often can you have your character overcome a new flaw before the reader gets bored?

As the superhero gets more powerful how do you bring up new challenges for them?