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I am on draft 4 of my story now, and many things are hanging together well. As a result, lesser items are coming into sharper focus. I need to revise for those next.

My villain needs work. He is too much of a caricature. I looked on this site and found this question which gives me some ideas to improve my villain. Still, I feel he needs more work than those answers provide (make him human, consistent, the hero in his frame of reference). My immediate goal is for him to be frightening, sinister - rather than laughably ridiculous.

In this question, I am asking for any concrete identifiers of caricature. The list could include

  1. Maniacal laughter. :-) Real villains don't actually do this.
  2. Info dumps by him, of why he is right, right, right!
  3. Inconsistency in his motivations.

He needs to be human. He is, I think, but his dialog still falls flat. Here is a short example of something he might say :

“Today will be a very bad day for Bill. For Janet too, I should think. Shelly. Your friend, Bob, over there, is also having a bad day.” He walked around to the other side of the table, his eyes locked on her face the entire time. “You’re breaking four people today, Susan. That’s quite an accomplishment.” Susan heaved, choking sobs.

I can't decide if it is that the nature of the torture he's inflicting in this blurb (psychological abuse) is different than the nature of his regular torture (he is an assassin), or if it's just too much talky talky, or both. (Or, perhaps it's fine and I've been staring too long at him. But imagine six or seven exchanges along these lines, with variations on the action surrounding them.)

He soon becomes aroused at her inability to fight back (she is tied down, and he anticipates killing her) and maybe that's contributing to the feel of caricature. On the other hand, sadism is probably part of his mix. His path to his personal dark side was through drugs, which he still uses.

Any thoughts about whether this is too much, perhaps? or some blind spot here?

Thank you.

p.s. He also is on top, winning the battle, until the end - when the tables (heroes) turn. That feels formulaic, which doesn't help in my opinion, but This link suggests it may be necessary.

edit: He also asks the protagonist a lot of leading or rhetorical questions. Is this a flag, something only caricature villains do? Perhaps I wrote those in for the reader (I'm not certain, I thought it was part of his voice), and that might be why he sounds ridiculous.

Second edit: Happy to report my villain is in much better shape. I added his perspective throughout the story, removed the 'muahahaha' language that he was prone to using, and had a few characters defend his past actions elsewhere. He's still a despicable person, but no longer a caricature.

  • My first impression, reading your blurb, was Negan from The Walking Dead. The voice works for TV, and in that over-exaggerated format of graphic novels, and is very much a caricature - but it's meant to be. Is this what you're going for? – Thomo Nov 20 '17 at 22:17
  • @Thomo No. I want him to be realistically frightening, not exaggerated. I've been looking at the climactic chapter and I think it might have to do with too many words like 'indeed' and 'shall we?" and other tip offs of not-quite-normal speech patterns. Sort of like these are the verbal equivalents (almost) of maniacal cackling. What do you think? – DPT Nov 20 '17 at 22:26
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The excerpt is quite short, but on first reading I would say his tone comes across as 'casual'. This could work for being frightening - if his actions are frightening and raising the stakes. This could be punctuating his dialogue with 'beats' i.e. actions, most likely violence to bring in the fear factor. The fear could then come from the villain's casual dialogue contrasted with his frightening actions.

Avoiding caricature is a good way to make them scary, and it's another way to make the villain frightening. How often in a TV drama has the villain said something that's blown their plan, or not killed the hero when they really should have? Making the villain avoid these pitfalls can make them more frightening immediately, because they will be smarter and more efficient than the stereotypical villain.

More important than any of this is 'why'. Why does the villain like to ask rhetorical questions? Is he trying to break the hero from the inside before killing him/her? Does he go after the hero's friends because he's trying to teach the hero a particular lesson? If violence excites him, then why is that? Is it a means of exerting power? Is it for the thrill of it? Is it a way of proving his philosophy right and the hero's is wrong? Trying to make the heroine think the ensuing violence against her friends is her fault in the excerpt suggests there are personal motivations there, or else that he's a manipulator.

Once these questions are answered, it should be easier to make sure the villain behaves consistently. After that, depending on your genre, the villain should take actions that let the hero(es) know that he is not to be trifled with, and those actions should continually raise the stakes and increase in intensity. Again, depending on genre and the ultimate outcome of the novel, the villain will probably be pursuing a goal and will eventually cut off all alternatives for the hero.

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    I really agree with your point about making the villain seem casual. One of my favourite moments from Avatar is when they're first mobilising to attack the giant tree, and Sully stands in the way of one of the machines and the corporate guy (I forget his name) goes "Yeah, just keep going, he'll move" in the most casual voice ever while stuffing a bagel in his mouth. No hatred, no sadistic glee, he just genuinely didn't care one iota that he might run Sully over, and that stuck with me. – F1Krazy Nov 27 '17 at 9:49
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I am not sure if this helps, but I found this YouTube video a while back and it made sense to me. It's more about comic book (super)villains, but it talks about a lot of the choices you need to make in creating a believable villain, so perhaps it'll be up your alley.

The video can be summarized as follows:

First, and foremost, it makes the point that the most compelling villains are righting a perceived wrong, from their viewpoint. This concept is illustrated with the villain Zod (Superman). Zod fails as a two dimensional villain, and is sometimes portrayed that way. But he succeeds as a villain in versions where his villainy is borne from trying to save humanity from itself. Zod sees the worst in humanity: War, suffering, domination of others, and so on, and wishes to prevent those things. The audience comes to understand his motivations.

Of particular note, Superman is a more compelling hero under this construction, because it is precisely his ability to see the good in humanity - Hope, love, trust - that drives his motivations. Thus, the main point from the video is that a three dimensional villain is driven by a perspective in which his actions are for good. Ultimately, the video says, villains succeed when they are about the conflict that is within us.

A second point of the video is that some literary forms, such as comic books, often rely on a villain remaining unchanged. The Joker is generally the Joker every time Batman meets him. In franchises (e.g. Marvel Universe) it may serve a purpose to have villains that are two dimensional, because the audience is paying for a particular experience. Loki is not changing much, for example. This idea was not the main message of the video, but does provide fodder for thinking about the various types of villains.

A third useful feature of the video is the sheer number of examples flashed through, that exemplify the two points above. The video primarily describes Zod, but the lessons apply to other villains as well.

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