The Villain's Journey

on January 10, 2008

This one is for Jennifer . . .

Over at my own blog the other day, I asked readers to post questions they want me to answer for my Q&A. Regular visitor Jennifer came up with one that is more appropriate to this forum. It’s something I’ve talked about in workshops I’ve given about romantic suspense, but really, this is relevant to ANY antagonist–even if they are not a serial killer.

Jennifer asked if it was difficult to get into the mindset of my killers, who are decidedly creepy. My quick answer was: sometimes. But after I get to know the killer, I find it easier to get into his head.

In Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITERS JOURNEY, he said that the villain is the hero of his own journey. As soon as I read that, so many things clicked for me. Though I’ll be talking primarily about suspense, the villain–or antagonist–in any story must be fully fleshed out to avoid stereotypes or caricature. Like we go into our hero’s head, so must we go into our villain’s head. We must understand his GMC (goals, motivation and conflict) perhaps even more so than the hero and heroine. We as storytellers must know his past and present, and what he wants (goal) in the future.

A three-dimensional villain, even if he doesn’t get much page time, will always made a story stronger. The stronger the villain, the stronger the conflict and more important, the better your hero and heroine. Who cares if your hero defeats some weak criminal? Your story villain should be equal to or stronger than your hero. And to do that, you have to get inside their head.

Everyone talks about the heroes and their backstory and conflict, but they often forget that the villain needs it all and more–we need to figure out how they became so evil.

As an aside, there is a distinction between villains and antagonists. An antagonist is anyone who is keeping your hero from achieving her goal. That may be a well-meaning mother telling her that she’s better off without her husband, or an ex-boyfriend trying to split her from her new hot love. An antagonist may not even be a person, but an event, such as a job offer that would take the heroine three thousand miles away from the hero. Villains, on the other hand, are bad people. At least, more bad than good. Your hero should be good–even if he has flaws. Your villain should be bad–even if he has redeeming qualities. No one is 100% perfect or 100% evil.

So getting into the villain’s head helps me understand where they are coming from. Not just why they do what they do, as in killing people, but how the method and manner of murder is unique to them and their background. Criminal psychology books often say that HOW a killer kills is as important as his choice of victim. So I look at the victimology (why that victim?) and the method (why that method?) and what set them on the path in the first place?

I suppose curiosity keeps me from being repelled by the things my villains do. It’s more a puzzle. I often don’t see the entire picture clearly until I finish the book.

Goals. A villain has specific goals. Murder is not the goal. Murder is the means to an end. Very few villains kill just to kill. It’s the feeling the murder gives them, or how they felt before, during, or after the crime that is A goal, but it may not be the ONLY goal. Some villains may kill simply because the goal is not the death, but perhaps something else (robbing a bank, for example.)

Let’s say your villain robs a bank. Robbing the bank is not the goal. The goal is to get a lot of money fast. Why? Does he need the money for his heroin habit or because his mother is dying of breast cancer and is about to be kicked out of the hospice? WHY he wants the money is as important as how he gets it.

In out bank, the villain kills a teller. Why? Was it an accident? How did it make him feel? Did he shoot her because he could? Why? Has he killed before? When? Under what circumstances? How did the last murder make him feel? How is this murder going to affect the rest of not only the story, but his personal journey?

For example, in KILLING FEAR, my villain’s goal is not to kill, but to feel. He has never had a real human emotion–he can’t. He was born without empathy or feelings. He learns early on that he receives a physical adrenalin rush when he causes pain to others–either emotional pain or physical pain. Over time this escalates. He attempts to satisfy his need for adrenalin by becoming involved in extreme sports–and for awhile that works. But over time, even those challenges are lacking. That he kills is incidental. Yes, he enjoys it but not for the killing part. He needs to kill to receive that physical rush by watching the terrified faces of his victims. He lives vicariously through the emotions of others.

Motivation is also important. Motivation is the driving force for action. My villain from KILLING FEAR is motivated to seek revenge even when running away from San Diego would be the smart thing for him to do. He should simply disappear. He has the money. But his driven to seek revenge because he can not stand that he was put in prison with what he considers tainted evidence. He’s motivated to prove he’s right. Why? That’s the question every writer needs to ask themselves. With faulty motivation, your reader will be thinking, “Well, that’s stupid. He should do A when he’s doing B. I don’t get it.” What is the driving motivation of the villain to do what he does? For our fictional bank robber, his motivation is the REASON he needs the money. To make your reader believe that the character is doing what is “in character” for him, you need strong motivation.

Conflict is just as important for a villain as it is for your hero. Is your villain conflicted? Why? Does he ever feel remorse for killing? Or, did he kill someone he didn’t intend to? For example, let’s make up a fictional killer. He’s a minister in a small town. He finds sin abhorrent. Some sins, in his mind, are far worse than others. Take adultery. He finds out one of his flock is cheating on her spouse. He kills the woman and castrates her lover. But he has still committed a sin, right? And that knowledge will give him intense conflict even though he’s doing what he believes has to be done. So he may go through some sort of ritual as an effort to assuage his guilt, to justify his actions.

Of course, you’ll want to know exactly why he is committing this particular crime. What happened in the past? Had his mother cheated on his father? His father on his mother? Or maybe his ex-wife cheated on him. Another obvious conflict with villains is that they don’t want to be caught. Most villains want to remain free to continue their dastardly deeds. That is an internal conflict–their need for killing is greater than their need for freedom, but their need for freedom will make them cautious and provide valuable ways to make them smart. Dumb criminals are caught. Dumb criminals do not make interesting novel villains.

The Hero’s Journey is a valuable tool for your writers tool chest. If you remember to apply those steps of the journey to your villain’s life, your bad guy will be richer–and scarier–for it. But it’s not just the “bad guy”–it’s any antagonist in your story. WHY characters do things, even minor characters, is important to know, so if you can identify where they are on their personal journey, it’ll help enrich your story. This isn’t to say every character needs a backstory on the page, but every character needs a backstory in your mind.

As far as getting into my villain’s head. When I’m deep POV, I “become” my character. I see what she sees, feels what she feels, and try to put that on the page. The villain is no exception. If I can’t feel what he feels, how can I ever explain WHY to the reader? If I don’t understand his backstory and how that shaped him and be able to put that in the back of his mind so it directs his actions, how will the reader ever believe that when Theodore Glenn had a chance to go to Mexico, he opted no to and in side seek revenge? Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard. I certainly don’t believe everything my characters think, say or do. But THEY are not ME. And I can separate my own feelings and emotion from the character . . . most of the time. Sometimes, especially when I’m in a sympathetic POV, I can get emotional. For example, the young girl in THE KILL who want to go to Mount St. Helens to ask God to bring her dead sister back so her mother would be happy again; in THE PREY when John views his brother in the morgue; in FEAR NO EVIL when Lucy realizes that her brother is in a coma because he was trying to save her life. But when I’m in the killer’s POV, I don’t feel like murdering someone!

But if you DON’T get into the villains head, if you don’t really understand why he does what he does and be able to communicate that with the reader, then your villain becomes two-dimensional. Remember, Joseph Campbell said that the Hero has a Thousand Faces; don’t forget that the villain has a thousand faces, too.

Some articles about the hero’s journey:

An Extract from the Writers Journey Steps of the journey
On Wikipedia
Creating Villains People Love to Hate By Lee Masterson
Villains from the Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy — Some great stuff even if you’re not writing fantasy.

There are many more out there! The important thing is that you can become your villain without turning evil. Take chances and put yourself in ALL your character’s shoes. You’ll be surprised at how much richer your story will be.

So, who is your favorite villain of late? Movies or books or television? I think that Sylar from HEROES is one of the best villains out there. Smart, cruel, and completely evil . . . but we know exactly why. He’s brilliant. I am so excited that the next chapter in the series is called VILLAINS. And, BTW, you’ll notice that in HEROES the villains and heroes have shades of gray–except for THE hero Peter Petrelli and THE villain Sylar. But that’s what makes the series so compelling! Not everyone is 100% good or 100% evil. Watch it and learn. You won’t regret it.