Saturday, 28 April 2012

Do I need a villain?

This is a genuine question I’ve been posing myself lately as I try to develop a new project. And unlikely as it seems, I’m finding it hard to answer.

I write for a young readership, a group of people who have been spoilt with bad guys over the years: The White Witch, Voldemort, Mrs Coulter, Mayor Prentiss, Capricorn from Inkheart, etc, etc. Some may be cheesier than others, but they are all fine examples of villainy, and I like to think my own Adam (from Haunters) would fit in nicely (or rather, not so nicely) beside them. Surely I need a real bad ‘un in my new book too.

But part of me, the part that – I’m embarrassed to say – has literary hang-ups, has been tugging his goatee of late. Do we really need one, he says, adjusting his authorial corduroy. Isn’t relying on a baddie to provide narrative tension a bit like relying on adverbs and exotic dialogue tags to tell the reader what’s happening? Can’t circumstances themselves create conflict and imbalance, without the need for some dastardly cape-swisher scheming in the shadows? Did Mark Haddon need a baddie to make The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time a compelling read? Did David Almond need the wicked cheese in Kit’s Wilderness? And so on…   

That part of me could do with a slap, I know, but he does have a point. We all love a good villain, but nothing connects with readers quite like a sympathetic character struggling with true-life adversity.

So do I need a villain? I haven’t quite decided. But one thing I am sure about – by God, they’re fun to write!

Any views on this? Any favourite literary bad guys you want to share?  


  1. The archetypal villain must be fun to write, they crop up so regularly in fiction, but tend to be quite two dimensional. The scariest 'villains' are those who genuinely believe they bathe in the milk of human kindness, dealing devastation through misty-eyed protestations of love.

  2. I think the best baddies are the ones we can't call baddies, simply because they are not that simple. A baddie who is actually pied with goodness, whose faults are measured, who wants to be bad but often does good and is still punished..complex characters are the best.
    Not, perhaps, as literary as you had in mind, Damon Salvatore is my current fave baddie - for various reasons... :)

    And the more complex the character, the easier the story is to write in a sense - more pre-ordained - the events often unfold a particular way because they have to as dictated by what that character would do - it makes writing so much fun! I know, overthinking it and you don't actually need any suggestions but...

  3. Rachel, I agree. Someone who does bad in pursuit of an outcome they believe to be good is much more believable. An anti-hero, plagued by obsessions and a low degree of empathy, rather than someone who is merely 'evil' in some innate way. So complex characters, yes. I just wish I could resist giving them capes and accessories;-)

  4. Yes, villains can have literary depth too: inner conflicts, redeeming features. And they are, no doubts about it, fun to write ...

  5. Thanks, Simon. Here's to sympathetic villains everywhere.


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