Tuesday, August 01, 2006

JSB: The Villain's the Thing

If you're a history fan, a thriller fan, or both, may I recommend Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson. This tale has not been fully told before, and Swanson apparently read every shred of extant evidence to put this together. It's a great read, captures the times, the national mindset, the Southern POV, the extent of the conspiracy.

It's instructive, too, on concocting a villain. Booth is a GREAT villain. He was mesmerizingly handsome, courtly, cultured, theatrical, seductive, narcissistic and megalomaniacal. A villain who had power over people through charm and deviousness, and thought he could get away with being the avenging angel for the whole South. He had reached the pinnacle of his theatrical career, could have gone on in fame and fortuneā€¦but that wasn't good enough for him.

Like the Unibomber, he left a long justification in writing for the newspapers. But the man he entrusted it to, seeing the furor over finding Booth and the scads of people being arrested willy nilly in order to get testimony, quietly burned it. Booth, on the run, was following things in the newspapers (provided him by an ally), and was outraged that he had not been granted a forum for his diatribe.

What does this tell us about creating a good villain?

First, that it's essential to a well told suspense novel. Hitchcock often remarked that the strength of his films was in the strength of the villains.

Second, you must give the villain his due. You must actually get into his skin and find the justification for his actions. No, not the moral approval of same. But all villains feel, for whatever reason, that they are in the right. It's a perverse reason, but there nonetheless. Booth thought he was doing God's will for his country.

Third, know how they got to be this way. You have to find a shred of sympathy for them. As Dean Koontz said, " The best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well as terror. Think of the pathetic aspect of the Frankenstein monster. Think of the poor werewolf, hating what he becomes in the light of the full moon, but incapable of resisting the lycanthropic tides in his own cells."

Fourth, give them some attractive qualities. Hannibal Lecter is oddly charming. Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street" loves his kids. Villains are all the more dangerous for being attractive.

Jump in here now. Who are some of your favorite villains, from movies or novels? What makes them work? A couple of my movie favorites:

Alan Rickman in "Die Hard." (Charming)

George C. Scott in "The Hustler" (Seductive)

James Scott Bell is the bestselling author of Presumed Guilty (Zondervan) and Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure (Writers Digest Books). Visit his website at http://www.jamesscottbell.com


At 10:10 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Great post. I enjoy all facets of the Lincoln story. A neat book is The Day Lincoln Was Shot.

You said, "Who are some of your favorite villains, from movies or novels?"

Sweet ol' me, I don't like villains. I'm into goodness and sweetness and light.

But one stands out. (I think she would be classified as a villain.)

The first wife in Jane Eyre.

I felt so sorry for her.

At 9:39 PM, Blogger kc said...

I like villains I can detest. It makes me cheer for the protag more. Really, though. It irks me when the writer makes me like or at least tolerate a bad guy. What's worse is when the good guys are really bad guys (like in Ocean's Eleven - they're thieves, for heaven's sake). Yet we root for them. Go figure.

At 12:53 AM, Blogger PatriciaW said...

Alan Rickman in any movie in which he plays the villian, even comic spoofs (was it supposed to be a spoof?) like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

My first thought, however, was Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.

At 9:31 AM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

Michael Douglas as Gekko is a great example. He seduces Bud Fox with the perks of power, and that makes Wall Street one of the best Faustian tales in cinema.

At 4:02 PM, Blogger Dineen A. Miller said...

Great post, as usual.

I think one of my favorite villains I've read recently in books is in Ted Dekker's book, Three. I won't say more because of the twist.

I think making our villains likeable is a key ingredient. When they betray the hero, they betray the reader too. That requires doing everything you said, Jim! Imagine that? LOL!

The villain in my current WIP keeps arguing with me that he doesn't want to be the villain. Shocked me when this first happened. He's convinced what he's doing is right. I guess I'm on the right track. :-)

At 10:54 PM, Blogger Carol Collett said...

Rickman was absolutely brilliant in Robin Hood. The Grinch, but maybe he's not really a villain since his heart thaws in the end.


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