I enjoy creating characters of any kind, and I’ll happily spend days answering questionnaires about my main characters. I really enjoy seeing the people in my head coming to life on the screen as I type, and I’m often surprised by how strong their opinions are about the way the story should go.
But I particularly love listening to and watching my villains. The brakes come off, and I give them the kind of dialogue that suits their personality: sociopath, or spoilt young man, or self-centered society beauty, or thug.
In the stories I’ve written so far, I’ve had some of each, and my current work-in-progress features a return of the sociopathic society blade, the Earl of Selby, from Farewell to Kindness, and two nasty friends.
Even more than other supporting characters, villains need a complex personality and a convincing backstory. No matter how good the protagonists are, if the villains aren’t convincing, the conflict in the story isn’t convincing, and the happy ending isn’t nearly as satisfying. A good story needs an excellent villain.
Here’s how I write villains:
- I pick up things that frighten, worry, or annoy me – in characters on shows, or people in real life. What are the character flaws that cause this response in me? What would the people be like if those flaws were magnified and their good qualities absent or reduced?
- I think about the villain’s past. What terrible things have they done in the past? What terrible things have been done to them? Are they victims lashing out or are they just trouble makers? Were they deprived of love as children or were they born that way?
- What are their redeeming qualities? Do they love their cat? Collect bone china? Have a soft spot for orphans?
When a reader tells me that they loved to hate my villain, I know I’ve done a good job.
Here’s Selby with one of his closest friends. My heroine Prue has denied them access to her murdered mistress’s bedchamber:
Selby stopped in the doorway and looked straight at Prue for the first time. “Is this the one, Annie?” He didn’t wait for Annesley’s nod, but continued, “I’ll remember you, too. Worth, isn’t it? One day soon, Worth, my friends and I will find out just what you are worth.”
“That’s a good one, Sel,” Annesley said. “Just what you are worth, yes.”
Selby ignored the interjection to peer at Prue in the dimly lit hallway. “Do I know you?”
Prue shook her head. It was true enough. Nobody knew her except, perhaps a little, David.
“She’s the housekeeper, Sel,” Annesley told him. “She probably let you in when you came to see The Diamond.”
“It’s not that,” Selby said. “I have it! She looks a bit like my wife.”
“Which one?” Annesley asked, the question setting him sniggering. “Which one? That’s a good one, Sel.”
Selby stared at Prue a moment more, while she lowered her face to hide her chin; the feature she shared with her sister.
Selby’s next words appeared to be for himself rather than Annesley.
“No. Just the general shape of the face. There must be a thousand women in England who look a bit like Chassie. And she doesn’t have any relative called Worth.”
“Are you coming, Sel?” Annesley said, impatiently. “We can’t swive The Diamond tonight, so we need to find another whore.”
(This post was first published on Caroline Warfield’s blog in July last year.)