Creating great villains

Damian Lewis on creating great villainsIn the January 18, 2016 issue of The New Yorker there’s a profile of the actor Damian Lewis (Homeland, Wolf Hall) that includes some useful advice for writers interested in creating great villains:

Lewis sees himself as a champion for his characters, be they rapacious monarchs or domestic terrorists or capitalist pigs. Acting, for him, is analogous to mounting a case. “If you pick up an eighteenth-century play, at the top it says ‘The Argument,’ and then you have a list of characters, and then you have the play,” he said. “I was just always struck by that—that, of course, good drama is about conflict. And if there’s conflict there’s an argument, and there’s two sides of the argument, and, therefore, one must advocate for one side of the argument, just as much as a lawyer does in court.” The sense that a performance is a contest, a debate that can be won, appeals to Lewis’s competitive nature. The harder the fight, the greater the spoils. Lewis said, “I will always find a defense for characters, and that’s why it’s fun playing characters that are morally ambiguous, or are at least perceived superficially as being problematic.”

Note that Lewis never uses the word “villain.” I’m guessing that he, along with the great majority of “villains” (in and out of fiction) would find that term grossly reductive, if not flat out slanderous. They might fess up to being “morally ambiguous, or are at least perceived superficially as being problematic,” but hey, it’s a complex, challenging, dangerous world, and who’s going to look out for you but you? What are you, a child?

Everyone is the hero of his or her own story. Writers often neglect to do the work of “finding a defense” for their antagonists. It’s too easy to button villains up and shove them down into their roles within the plot and leave it at that. That’s a big mistake.

Every time your antagonist comes onstage, readers should receive a little jolt of pleasure. Oh good, this woman. Not because she’s a delightful person, but because she’s interesting, formidable, unpredictable (yet logically consistent). And because her side of the story’s “argument” is compelling.

Too often in early drafts (and published books, for that matter) the mystery of the antagonist’s personality is solved for readers in his or her first scene: Ah, OK. This guy’s a hateful bigot. Got it. If every time the character appears, that bell and that bell only is rung, you’ve settled for less and reduced the chance of your reader feeling compelled to push your story on other readers (the writer’s holy grail).