A Worthy Villain – By Allison Brennan
“The villain is the hero of his own journey.”
— Christopher Vogler
When I first started writing, I didn’t read any craft books. Everything I learned about writing fiction I learned through reading, falling in with a terrific critique group, and on- line workshops I took through RWA’s Kiss of Death chapter (the online chapter for romantic suspense.) It wasn’t until I sold my first three books that I started picking up craft books to see if I could improve my writing.
I was primarily looking for books that would help me take my books to the next level. By that I didn’t really know what I was looking for, just books that would help me understand my own intuition, I suppose. A lot of books didn’t resonate with me. Anything too technical, or anything that attempted to explain why that way was the best (or only) way to craft a story, irritated or bored me.
Then I read The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler and had that light bulb moment.
The Writer’s Journey is a simplified and far more accessible view of the Hero’s Journey (Hero With a Thousand Faces) as explained by Joseph Campbell. But Vogler took the meat from Campbell and seasoned it with modern examples that resonated with me. I could see in all the books that I’d written that I had intuitively, albeit loosely, adopted a hero’s journey structure. But what really helped me was how I began to view the role of the villain in my books.
The quote from Vogler — that the villain is the hero of his own journey — gave me that lightbulb moment. I loved getting into my villain’s heads, but I’d somewhat separated the villain from the hero. The villain’s were bad; the hero’s were good. In classic fiction this works well — people like to know who the bad guys are and who the good guys are. Yet, to create a compelling story, the villain needs to be more than a caricature. The villain needs to be as strong and three-dimensional as the hero. And while there are some all bad villains, how did they get that way? What made them commit their first illegal or immoral act?
About this time, I read two books that have stuck with me for years. The first was Thomas Harris’s The Red Dragon, which I still believe is superior to The Silence of the Lambs in almost every way. The hero is tortured, the villain is believable, and the dynamic between Will Graham (tortured hero) and Francis Dollarhyde (tortured villain) is truly compelling. (As an aside — don’t watch the movies. Neither movie did the book justice, unlike Silence of the Lambs which is iconic.)
What resonated with me the most was how deep Harris got into his killer. We get into Dollarhyde’s head, we begin to understand how he got to this point in his life. And there is a pivotal scene where he could choose the light—where he could turn away from the violence within him. But why he doesn’t—how he breaks—is so compelling and felt so real that The Red Dragon is one of the few books I’ve read twice. It taught me first and foremost that villains need to be real people. They are not monsters, at least not at first glance. They have backstories and conflicts and goals just like every other character in the story.
In fact, I’d argue that villains must have as strong or stronger conflicts than the hero. Every author should know exactly why their villain is committing the crime they are committing, and be able to justify it when in the killer’s head. It might not make sense to a “normal” person, but it had better make sense to the villain.
The other book I read was Psychopath by Dr. Keith Ablow. What drew me in was an intelligent and almost reasonable villain who had a very specific reason for why and how he killed. In fact, the villain was so compelling, that when the hero (a forensic psychiatrist) and the villain were on the same page, the villain appeared to be a stronger individual. How—why—can some who do such good in the world also be so bad?
Johan Wrens is the Highway Killer. He slits the throats of random people all over the country. His body count is in the dozens. Wrens is also a brilliant psychiatrist who helps disturbed children. He has relationships with women, is attractive and cultured. He’s a bit reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris’s “arch-villain”—but in many ways, far more layered. He’s definitely the bad guy, but he also saves children for a living. He detests crimes against children, and that redeeming quality, especially when the reader learns his whole story, makes him a tragic character.
The hero, Dr. Frank Clevenger, had very real problems and very real conflicts. A recovering drug addict who had serious problems with interpersonal relationships, readers wondered if he could overcome his personal adversity to stop a very real—and very intelligent—threat.
Through these two books—The Red Dragon and Psychopath—I realized that the dynamic between the hero and villain needs to be intense; it needs to matter to both characters. I haven’t always been able to achieve this, though I consistently strive to. And that, really, is what being a growing writer is all about: constantly striving to write a stronger, better story with stronger, more compelling characters.
A “good” villain needs to challenge the hero; a good villain must be as smart—or smarter—than the hero. The villain needs to be complex, capable, and cunning so the hero is challenged. It’s the hero’s intelligence, perseverance, and humanity that brings the villain to justice—not merely following the breadcrumbs of a villain who would rank in the Top Ten Stupidest Criminals.
In essence, not only does the villain need to be worthy of your hero, but your hero needs to be worthy of your villain. It’s the creation of this dynamic that gives the reader what she is looking for in crime thrillers.
When you think about the villain as the hero of his own journey, you realize that there are logical reasons for every action the villain takes. Logical for the villain. This is why authors (or actors) need to spend some time in their villain’s head. Think of the villain as you would the hero, ask the same questions. Know what they want and why. Know how they got to this moment in the story. Give them the option of turning away from evil … and then when they don’t, know why they don’t.
The villain makes—or breaks—your story.
And if you remember that the villain is the hero of his own journey? Well, your job just got a small bit easier.
Allison Brennan is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of three dozen romantic thrillers and many short stories. RT Book Reviews calls Allison “A master of suspense” and her books “haunting,” “mesmerizing,” “pulse-pounding” and “emotionally complex.” RT Book Reviews gave her recent Lucy Kincaid thriller BREAKING POINT a Top Pick and Lisa Gardner says, “Brennan knows how to deliver.” SHATTERED, currently out in hardcover, will be released in paperback on May 1. The next book in the Maxine Revere series ABANDONED is on sale August 14, and the next Lucy Kincaid thriller TOO FAR GONE will be out on October 30. Allison lives near Sacramento, California with her husband, five children, and assorted animals.