Breathing Life into your Villains

One of the great wisdoms about Western literature is that there are only three story structures: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Himself. Gender bias aside, this concept is pretty straightforward, and each has its own individual conventions. Of the three, the most common in fan fiction is the first. The villains may rotate, but our fan fiction main characters are forever doing battle with someone or other.

I recall hearing or reading somewhere that heroes/heroines are only as good as their adversaries are bad. It’s true that villains can make or break a story. It’s also true that sometimes villains are hard to write. A secret truth about villains is very few of them think they’re the bad guys. The vast majority actually see themselves as the heroes. Their motives may be flawed, their tactics inexcusable, and their reasons misdirected, but their twisted logic make sense to them. From that inner certainty evolves adversaries who ring true and can give your main characters all the trouble they can handle. Those villains are satisfying to read about and to write for.

If you write character analyses for your main people, whether you created them or borrowed them from a movie or television series, it can also be a good exercise to do the same for the adversaries. Their inner logic needs to be just as strong as that of the main characters if you want them to come across as real people. If your adversary is from your fandom, it may be that not much screen time/page space has been dedicated to his/her backstory. I can think of dozens of villains whose backgrounds are a complete mystery. What brings them to life is the performance of the actor. If that performer wasn’t given a backstory, chances are very good that he or she created one in order to have a platform from which to create a vivid portrait.

You as the author don’t need to spend much time explaining why your adversary is an evil genius/damaged soul/ruthless destroyer, but if you’re not comfortable with building bad guys, or your beta readers tell you your villain isn’t interesting, you may find it helpful to spend some time contemplating what made that person “bad.” As long as you know the whys and hows, your adversaries can be a lot richer and more formidable.

In the American television series I analyzed earlier, Lancer, one adversary who pops up from time to time in fan fiction is Scott’s maternal grandfather, Harlan Garrett. As portrayed by the venerable George Macready, he is an unscrupulous but subtle tyrant who will do whatever it takes to get Scott to leave the Lancer ranch and come back to Boston.

Harlan’s motives are not laid out in black and white, but the implications are that his daughter married Murdoch Lancer without her father’s permission, and he blames his son-in-law for her death during childbirth. His words and actions reflect a man who is motivated not so much by love as by the need to be in control. He tells Murdoch that his daughter was the only thing that ever mattered to him, and yet it’s also implied that he bears some responsibility for her death by forcing her to relocate at an immensely vulnerable time.

Harlan’s actions speak clearly. He’s superior and racist, casually divisive and dismissive, and he’s completely comfortable using blackmail to coerce others into doing what he wants. The only thing that matters to him is his success. Even without telling us why he is the way he is, Harlan, in George Macready’s capable hands, is vivid and believable. He almost instantly becomes the Man You Love to Hate.

Alas, you as a writer don’t have actors to shore up any thin sections in your story. So, if you want to write a Lancer story that includes Harlan Garrett, you need to do all of the heavy lifting. Since the episode gives you what he does but not much about why, if you want Harlan to be close to three-dimensional, you have to create your own why. You don’t need to put any of the why into your story, but you need to know it because all of Harlan’s actions in the story will come from his why.

George Macready as Harlan Garrett and Andrew Duggan as Murdoch Lancer. Image credit: The screen capture is from a photo collage produced by an unidentified Lancer fan. The entire collage can be found at (For the record, I loathe WordPress’s new block layout. It’s painfully inflexible and even clunkier than performing ballet in wooden shoes.)

My personal take on Harlan Garrett is that he is an archetypal Victorian tyrant-father, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s father, Edward Moulton Barrett, who viewed his children as his property and punished any perceived disloyalty. My version of Scott’s early life is he lived with his grandparents and a number of maiden aunts, his mother being the only child who escaped her father’s control. His daughter’s abandonment prompted Harlan to collect her son so he could claim ultimate victory over his disobedient child. If he did contribute to her death, Harlan would have reasoned it away with the belief that she brought it on herself by leaving in the first place. Scott, like his mother, loved Harlan, but he rankled at the man’s need for complete control with childhood micro-rebellions (such as reading forbidden dime novels and questioning his grandfather’s teachings). As he matured, Scott disagreed more and more with Harlan, still maintaining love and respect, but he finally made his own escape by joining the Union Army during the Civil War when Harlan easily could have kept him safe at home. Scott returned to the family after the war, allowing Harlan to believe that he once again controlled his grandson, but it was only a matter of time before the restless Scott would leave again. This need to control his family at any cost matches up with the ruthless Harlan we see manipulating and coercing and doing whatever it takes to get Scott back, even if it means breaking Scott’s heart. Any pain would be his own fault, Harlan would say, because he brought it on himself by leaving in the first place.

Armed with this kind of backstory, I feel confident that I could write a convincing portrayal of Harlan Garrett. This is a multi-dimensional man, not just a conniving troublemaker. I wouldn’t need to include any of these details, although I could drop one or two if needed to heighten the drama.

Having your villain do mean things “because he’s mean” will ring hollow. Investing some time and thought into your perps will give your story a satisfying richness that you and they can return to again and again.

Published by Melinda Young

Novelist, Teller of Tales Long and Short, and a True Believer in the Power of Fiction to Make Things Real

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