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The Art of Villains

A Session with Ethan Cross

Writing villains is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart.  It’s my belief that the villain makes the story.  Without the villain, your hero has nothing to overcome, no challenges to face.  And the level of tension and excitement in your story increases along with the capabilities and cunning of your villain.  Where would Sherlock be without Moriarty?  Without Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker would still be a whiny kid trapped on a desert planet (well, technically, he would never have been born in the first place, but we won’t get into that).  The point is that the villain makes the story, but the question remains, what makes a good villain?

I’ve already touched upon my first point.  Your villain needs to be cunning or capable or both.  I say this because not all villains are criminal masterminds with genius level IQs.  In fact, most criminals aren’t very sophisticated or intelligent.  For the sake of fiction, we sometimes incorporate characters that exceed their real-life counterparts, but even if your villain is of average intelligence or less, he (or she) needs to be capable in a way that makes him a threat.  Perhaps he is large and imposing, frightening, psychotic, ruthless, good with a gun or knife or fists.  Whatever the case may be, he needs to stretch the limits of your hero’s capabilities to deal with him.

The bigger the hero, the bigger the villain.  For a rookie detective, a rapist or bank robber may be enough.  But think of Superman.  It would be a boring story to have a character with Superman’s abilities flying around stopping purse snatchers or even rapists and bank robbers.  He can handle these tasks without breaking a sweat.

This brings me to a concept that I call “The Heroes Conundrum,” based upon the TV show Heroes.  In that show, they created “good” characters that were too powerful or capable, then they had to invent ways to strip those characters of their powers.  This quickly became tedious.  As I said, the bigger the hero, the bigger the villain.  Sherlock Holmes needed someone to match his intellect in order to make a truly great villain.  This can work from the opposite direction though, where you have a villain that is so powerful that you don’t know how the hero can match him.  This creates a daunting challenge that our hero must rise to face, and readers will keep turning pages into the night to see how our ordinary protagonist can stop the criminal mastermind.  Of course, if we take that approach too far, it creates some serious believability issues.

Something that many writers don’t understand is that the villain must also be a “real” person (of course, this excludes fantasy, sci-fi, horror, etc where your characters aren’t human).  Your villain had a mother and a father, friends, hobbies, interests, fears, etc.  Even the most frightening villains need something to connect him or her to the real world.

I call this “giving him a dog.”  The best example of this is from Silence of the Lambs where Buffalo Bill is a brutal killer but also loves a little dog that he showers with affection.  Obviously, I don’t mean that every bad guy (or gal) needs to have a pet, but every bad guy should have something such as this that makes him feel like more than evil personified.  Remember that in the villain’s mind, he is the star or hero of his own story.

Here’s an example of this from my own writing and my newest book, BLIND JUSTICE.  In this scene, we learn about the personal stakes Antonio de Almeida has for completing his mission.


Antonio de Almeida knelt at his mother’s bedside and said a prayer over her frail form.  The doctors had sedated her and called him after her most recent violent outburst.  Her mental state had been sliding downward for months now as the Alzheimer’s ravaged what was left of the woman who had given him life.  He had moved her from a nursing home in Mexico to a temporary one in Virginia when he learned that he would need to be in DC for an extended period of time.  He couldn’t stand the thought of her struggling through her disease without him by her side, whether she could register his presence or not.

He finished his prayer and then took her small hand in his.  It felt like all bones, and her skin was thin as tissue paper.  She was withering away before his eyes.

Her gaunt face rolled in his direction, the eyes flickering with a brief second of recognition.  “Nio?”

He patted her hand and smiled.  “I’m here, Mama.”

As her head lolled over and her eyes fluttered shut, she said, “Dónde está tu hermano?”

Almeida closed his eyes and fought back the tears.  His brother, whom his mother had just asked about, had died when they were boys.

His phone vibrated on the nightstand and pulled him away from both the pain of the past and the present.  “Hello?”

The angry voice of Brendan Lennix answered, “Have you found Randall?”

“No, General Easton lied to us.  It must have taken a great deal of self control to do so.  He was a man to be respected.”

Almeida held the phone from his ear as Lennix screamed at him from the other end of the line.  “I’m so glad that you made a new friend!  But do you think that maybe you could worry less about being respectful and worry more about doing your damn job!” He let silence set in on the line before he calmly replied, “We’ll find your scientist soon.  It’s only a matter of time.  Things would have gone differently with the General if we’d had more time, but we couldn’t raise suspicions by kidnapping a man in Easton’s position.  Besides, the important thing was to remove him as a threat, which has been accomplished.”

“We’re supposed to be going into production in two weeks, and DARPA has been asking questions.  There are billions of dollars at stake here.  We can’t afford any more screw ups.”

“I am well aware of what’s at stake, Mr. Lennix.  John Corrigan will be executed in a few days, and Wyatt Randall’s research and documents will be recovered.  Stick to what you know best, and I will do the same.”

“You listen to me, you lazy…jungle savage.  I want to know exactly how you are going to find—“

Almeida killed the connection and placed the phone back on the nightstand.  He took a moment to calm his breathing then said, “Don’t worry, Mama.  That was my associate, Mr. Lennix, on the phone.  His company has a new project that may be able to help you.  Unfortunately, I have to kill a few people to make that happen.”

She didn’t acknowledge his words.  She just laid there, breathing shallowly, wasting away.  Almeida rested his head on her chest and said another prayer for his mother and for himself.


Basically, what I mean by “giving him a dog” is that you need to have elements to his personality and his story that make him seem more real and human.  And you need to give him several “dogs” of various sizes.  It doesn’t even have to be a big event, but just something that he does or way he thinks that would make the reader relate to him better as a person.  Something that the reader can connect to from his or her own personal experiences and circumstances.

The important thing is to recognize that all of your characters are “real”  people.  Here’s an exercise to help you get into the mindset of your villain and flush out those human qualities.


The Elevator Experiment This is an exercise that could be done on several types of characters, but I feel that it works especially well for villains.

What would your villain do if he (or she) was stuck in an elevator with a random stranger for several hours?  How would he behave?  Would he be able to control himself?  Would he be a perfect gentleman (or lady)?  Would he try to seduce the car’s other occupant?  What would he do in such a situation?

What if you flip that around and think of it from the standpoint of the car’s other occupant?  What would you think about the villain?  Would you trust him? Would you be afraid of him?  Intrigued by him?  Attracted to him?

This is an exercise that can be done in your mind (perhaps making note of thoughts that jump out), or if you prefer the hands-on-the-keyboard approach, you can actually write the situation out from both the perspective of the random occupant and the villain. Take things a step farther.  Analyze those reactions deeper.  Ask why.

Throw in some annoyance, some insult, strange question, etc. from the elevator car’s other occupant.

Analyze those reactions deeper.  Ask why.

Want to go even deeper?  Switch the gender of the random occupant.  Switch that other occupant’s heritage and ethnicity.  Do the changes in your villain’s reactions reveal anything more about him?  Does he hate women (or men)?  Afraid of the opposite sex?  Why would that be?  There must be some event or explanation in his past.  I think this is true in our own lives as well.  We just either can’t sum up the progression of that way of thinking or emotion into one singular event or we can’t recognize when that actual shift in thinking would have occurred.  But with fictional characters, we can make the reason he hates the opposite sex (at least the biggest reason) be due to one major incident or series of events.

At each turning point, you have to consider how the villain would honestly react based upon all we currently know about him and what this reaction reveals about your villain. Through all of this, keep in mind which of these events make him more or less sympathetic to the reader, more or less attractive to the reader, more or less mysterious to the reader, etc.

Are there any other thoughts of something you can throw at your villain to test his reactions?  Analyze again…

You can obviously keep playing with this forever, changing the circumstance and analyzing their reaction.  But you only need to go as deep as you feel you need to go.  Once you feel like you have a good sense of who that villain is and what he stands for, move on.  It’s all about getting to know that character, understanding him and his motivations.  Not all of this has to go in the book, but it all helps you know that character better.


In the end, I think the key to writing any character well is first for the author to care deeply about that person, otherwise the audience never will.  Therefore, love your villains, and your readers will as well…or at least love to hate them.


About the Author…

Bestselling author Steven James says, “Ethan Cross is one of the sharpest emerging writers on the thriller fiction scene today.” Bestselling author Anthony J. Franze concurs, saying, “Ethan Cross is one of the best damn writers in the genre.” They’re not alone. Others have compared this international bestselling author to James Patterson and Thomas Harris. Ethan Cross’s work is an unforgettable combination of high-intensity thrills, memorable characters, and complex scenarios. The Bookworm called his first bestseller, The Shepherd, “a thrill ride that takes off from page one,” and that’s the experience you can expect from everything Ethan Cross writes.

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