We thriller writers are consumed with creating the perfect villain, but as we all know it is easier said than done. As former romance novelist and current literary agent Donald Maass states in The Fire in Fiction, villains, antagonists, bad guys, femme fatales, or whatever one wants to call them “are frequently cardboard. Most are presented as purely evil.” Which is not a good thing since most people find pure evil dull, unbelievable, and predictable and so, too, do fiction readers. So how do you do what very few authors seem to have the chops to do and create the perfect villain? An antagonist that your readers will remember long after you’re gone, or at least find captivating enough so that they don’t roll their eyes or, God forbid, actually put down your latest thriller?
In six words, you have to love the bastards. I don’t mean that you have to want to fall on your knees and propose to your villains or whisper sweet nothings in their ears, but you have to care deeply about them. More importantly, you have to empathize with them and feel their pain at every turn. Remember that Lucifer was an angel once. Hannibal Lecter was a promising young medical student from an aristocratic Lithuanian family long before he began his career as a gourmet cannibal. And as murderous stagecoach robber Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) said in 3:10 to Yuma, before shoving Peter Fonda’s lawman character Byron off the edge of a cliff to his death for bad-mouthing Wade’s mother: “Even bad men love their mommas.”
There are thousands of books and blog posts on how to create memorable and believable antagonists. These resources will tell you that you have to full flesh out your villains by making them well-rounded, complex characters. To do that, the usual gimmicks are to give your villains at least a few virtuous qualities, to make them point-of-view characters and reveal their inner desires and motives, to present them as equally formidable or even more powerful than the antagonist, or to humanize them by showing that they love and are loved by others or by making the characters around them even more morally reprehensible. All of these techniques are great, and I use them myself quite often, but there is a far simpler solution. I believe it is a matter of projecting your own personal, deeply held emotions into your villains—your most intimate hopes and dreams, fears and phobias. In the process, you cannot help but love the dangerous, lawless, corrupt, or immoral bastards you create (if only a little) because you have made them utterly authentic and credible from the very emotions that you yourself have experienced.
After all, we have all felt joy, happiness, and love just as we have experienced the sheer agony of defeat and feelings of raw jealousy or been subjected to the harsh reality of being invisible, passed over, or mistreated by others. With our villains, it is a matter of projecting these types of emotions into their actions and worldview. We have to truly see things through their eyes by tapping into the visceral feelings we have experienced firsthand in our lives.
In my standalone political thriller, The Coalition, my primary antagonist is a femme-fatale assassin code-named Skyler, who has been raped and abused by men and channels her lust for vengeance into increasingly dangerous male-only assassinations. To maintain her cover and continue to evade capture, she has cleverly convinced the world’s intelligence and law enforcement community that the sniper it seeks is actually an infamous Spanish male assassin named Gomez. At first glance, Skyler would seem to be an unsavory character, a treacherous and predatory professional assassin that would be hard to empathize with and thus provide a liability to the novel. And yet, James Patterson praised The Coalition for having “a lot of action and suspense and an unusual female assassin” and Foreword Reviews said that “Skyler is unique” as “the standout character in this taut and fast-paced political thriller.” Similarly, Donald Maass said of the novel and our female killer elite: “Reminiscent of The Day of the Jackal…with a high level of authentic detail. Skyler is a convincing sniper, and also a nicely conflicted one.” Ultimately, what makes Skyler an intriguing villain to Patterson, Maass, and others is not her cleverness, beauty, or professional expertise, but because readers connect with her on a gut level. This connection is due to the emotional damage she has undergone and the conflict she feels inside. Though I am not a professional assassin, a woman, or an Italian (at least not that I know of), in creating Skyler I projected deep and authentic emotions into her character based on my own feelings. In the process, I made Skyler the character that people remember and care most about in The Coalition.
I took a similar approach to my villains in Blind Thrust: A Mass Murder Mystery and Cluster of Lies, Books 1 and 2 of my Joe Higheagle Environmental Sleuth Series. In Blind Thrust, the antagonists to Cheyenne environmental geologist Higheagle are the Quantrill brothers, owners of the largest hazardous waste disposal company in the U.S. As Forward Reviews states, “The nuanced portrayal of the Quantrill brothers in particular humanizes characters engaged in what some deem a field hazardous to the environment. The two men are jovial, sly, and eager to please. Marquis deftly injects nuances of shrewdness into all his characters, each portrayed as an intelligent person with whom it is easy to empathize.” Foreword Reviews honored the book by naming it a Foreword Reviews Book of the year (Honorable Mention) in the Thriller and Suspense category. In Cluster of Lies, the two antagonists thwarting Higheagle are a leading real-estate developer and an elderly businessman, and again reviewers recognized that I hadn’t short-thrifted my villains or my heroes. “Some characters ooze humanity, even when least expected, while others are rife with vile plans and entitlement. But each is written with a distinct voice and focus, making them credible even if they aren’t always likable.” I would argue that the antagonists in these books engage readers not because they are clever, formidable, powerful, or occasionally humane—but rather because I have instilled in them deep emotions that we can all connect to as human beings.
In other words, I loved the bastards. At least a little.
You should care deeply about your villains, too, and instill in them the powerful emotions you have felt in your own life. As Donald Maass says in Writing 21st Century Fiction, the key to writing great fiction is to make it highly personal and fill it with the conflict, emotion, and intensity that you yourself have experienced in the highs and lows of your own unique life. If you do that, then readers will remember your villains and your works for years to come.
Samuel Marquis is a bestselling, award-winning suspense author. He works by day as a VP–Principal Hydrogeologist with an environmental firm in Boulder, Colorado, and by night as the spinner of the Joe Higheagle Environmental Sleuth Series, the Nick Lassiter International Espionage Series, and a World War Two Trilogy. His thrillers have been #1 Denver Post bestsellers, received multiple national book awards (Foreword Reviews’ Book of the Year, USA Best Book, Beverly Hills, and Next Generation Indie), and garnered glowing reviews from #1 bestseller James Patterson, Kirkus, and Foreword Reviews (5 Stars). His website is www.samuelmarquisbooks.com and for publicity inquiries, please contact Chelsea Apple at email@example.com.