Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Great Villains: Those We Love to Hate

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro 

July 2014

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“We’ve got to understand our villains just as we have to understand all of our other characters.”

Stephen King says, “I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.”

Great advice. We have to care about who gets “offed” so that we root for the undoing of the monster. But at his best, as in Carrie, King creates sympathy for his villain, too. Carrie’s telekinetic powers are directed against those who bully her. Revenge is a hot part of villainy.

We’ve got to understand our villains just as we have to understand all of our other characters. What are their motivations? Letting the villain speak for himself is a powerful way to show his motivation. Mary Shelley creates tremendous sympathy for Frankenstein in chapter 15, written in the monster’s perspective. Forced to live alone, he collects food and makes himself a shelter to hide away. He discovers books and teaches himself to read which gives him insight, makes him more human. The more intellectual he becomes, the more he feels his isolation. Every attempt he makes to remedy this, like reaching out to the cottage people or asking Victor to create a bride for him backfires, leading Frankenstein to murderous revenge.

“A villain, like any other character, must take action.”

Your villain has to be strong enough to have the possibility of defeating his opponents. It can be brute strength, but I think it’s more interesting to have it be another quality, such as brilliance. I haven’t read Thomas Harris’ suspense novels about Hannibal Lecter, but saw all of the deliciously grisly films based on them. The horrific Lecter is a highly intelligent psychiatrist, artsy, urbane, a linguist, formerly a member of Baltimore high society. You’ll find him cooking up a victim’s liver as part of a gourmet meal. But he’s greatly offended by what he sees as his victim’s rudeness or affront and that gives him, in his mind, the right to dine on them. This is the key part of a villain—he feels justified. He’s egocentric. It’s all about him.

A villain, like any other character, must take action. He can’t spend all his time plotting what he’d like to do to others. It’s in the action that we understand his villainy. And it’s action fuels a story.

“A complex villain is the most interesting . . .”

A villain, like the hero, is always thinking about what he wants. He has a whole set of dreams that are in conflict with those around him. When you take the time to think about why the villain has become the way he is, you get the whole story. A complex villain is the most interesting, I think—one who can smile as he’s doing others in. (Think of the self-satisfied look on Lecter’s face.)

Jeanette Walls, author of one of my favorite memoirs, The Glass Castle (Scribner’s, 2006) who grew up with parents whose ideals and determined nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation, said, “Some people who read my story think I had a terrible childhood and that I was neglected or even abused, while others feel that my parents, while certainly flawed, also had wonderful qualities. And that’s the way it should be, because in real life two people can look at the same president and will see a hero and the other a villain.”

Writing a complex villain, one who is an equal foil for the hero, makes for prose that pops on the page.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s first novel, Miriam The Medium (Simon & Schuster), was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. Her novel, Kaylee’s Ghost (Amazon and Nook), is an Indie Finalist. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives), and Newsweek and in many anthologies. Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in The Coe Review, Compass Rose, The Griffin, Inkwell Magazine, The Iowa Review, Los Angeles Review, The MacGuffin, Memoir And, Moment, Negative Capability, Pennsylvania English, The Carolina Review, and more. She won the Brandon Memorial Literary Award from Negative Capability. Shapiro is a professional psychic who currently teaches writing at UCLA Extension.