“It doesn’t work if the bad guys kill his mother’s uncle’s friend’s neighbor’s pet dog. You’ve got to make the stakes high.”
When Wave invited me to contribute a guest blog, I tried to think of a topic I haven’t already hammered into the ground: things I like in m/m writing, things I dislike in m/m writing, professionalism and courtesy, why conflict is necessary for plot, why plot is necessary for story, why story is nec — well, you get the idea.
I have a lot of opinions. You might have noticed that. I think I’ve got the chops, er, credentials to back ‘em up, but I know I occasionally seem a little…forceful. Not only does everyone not agree with me, some folks (how very DARE you!) object to my even voicing these opinions. The fact that I would rain on anyone’s sexy, sunshiny picnic with my demands for consistent characterization and complex plotting and nasty old conflict makes me seem sorta like…like one of the bad guys!
And that is my awkward-as-hell segue into today’s topic: writing believable villains.
Villains come in all shapes and sizes. The villain of your story is basically the thing standing between your protagonist and what your protagonist most desires. So sometimes the villain is pretty low level: an arrogant rival for the heart of the protag’s love interest or a homophobic cop. Sometimes the threat is more intense: a deranged ex-lover or a serial killer who has targeted your protag. Sometimes the villain is not even human: an impending hurricane or a slavering space monster or a gigantic white shark.
How you handle these different types of villains will depend on…the villain.
When the villain is basically playing one terrifying note — like the monster in Alien — the key is to prolong the mystery as long as possible. What the hell is it? That’s the most interesting question for the reader/viewer. We see the horrifying and scary results of its menace, but we don’t know what It is.
And not knowing, not seeing, is often the scariest part. Once we do know what it looks like, a lot of the suspense is gone — suspense is always one of the key ingredients in writing, Even when you’re not technically writing suspense.
So! Your protags are out camping and they learn that a raging wildfire is headed their way. We signify the threat by blackening skies and fleeing animals and singed bunny rabbits and crashing helicopters and old timers telling horror stories of the last time this happened back in the summer of ‘87 (1887, that would be). The trick is to hold off on showing that great blazing wall of fire for as long as we can.
And to be totally realistic in our depiction of the threat. Which means if your villain is a typhoon, you need to do your research on typhoons. And if your villain is a vampire, you need to do your homework on vampires. Just because the villain is supernatural, doesn’t mean he/she/it can’t be realistic. He/she/it should be as realistic as possible.
And he/she/it should stay in character. Which means the villain can’t be vanquished merely because that’s convenient; you have to make the reader believe in the solution to the problem. So four guys in a rubber boat chasing a great white shark…or sending it to Sea World to live out its misunderstood days behind glass…probably not going to convince the reader.
Convincing the reader is paramount.
The reader has to first believe that the threat is genuine, and secondly that the solution is believable. We all believe in twisters and evil politicians, but vampires might take a little more convincing. Although possibly not for an m/m audience.
Speaking of evil politicians…yes, they do exist, but they are a cliché, they are overused and overdone, so even while there is some basis for the villain of your piece being an evil politician or a red-necked sheriff, readers spot these coming a mile away and they’re a bit…boring. Unless you can find a way to keep them fresh.
Which leads us to our next category of villain: the low level threat. The nagging mother, the homophobic father, the arrogant romantic rival. These obstacles in the path of true love usually don’t threaten the life of the protag, but they do threaten his happiness and occasionally his sanity. You don’t have to kill someone to keep him from getting what he wants most.
There are a couple of tricks to writing the low level threat villain. First and foremost, the protag must not be too stupid to live. I mean that when Iago, or whatever the protag’s mother’s name is, starts spilling her vile lies, the protag must be smart enough to question and investigate. Ordinary people can do a lot of damage to each other, even when they don’t really intend to, so a little malice goes a long way — but it’s got to be believable. And part of the believability factor lies in sufficiently motivating the villain. Villains are rarely villainous for the heck of it. They want something too. And very often they believe in the righteousness of their cause every bit as much as the protag does. So Mommy Dearest sincerely believes she is saving her little boy when she tries to get him committed for doing those nasty things with other boys. And the arrogant romantic rival really is in love with the protag’s chosen one.
See where I’m going with this? Give these people their good points to balance their wickedness. Make the reader feel a little sympathy for them, even understand them. Make them human. They’re scarier that way.
And speaking of scary…last but never least, we have the high level or intense threat to the protagonist. Very often in m/m fiction this threat is known as A Serial Killer. Now, let me just say it and then you can ignore it. Serial killers are old and tired and contrived. ‘Kay? Now let’s see how to make yours better than the average bugbear.
First off, a mega-villain has to be sufficiently impressive — and yet, still believable. That requires research. Check out some legendary real life master criminals and see how they operated and the kinds of things they did. Avoid giving a mega-villain superpowers (even Darth Vader had his weaknesses). Bullets should not bounce off of someone unless they’re made of Kevlar. Most bad guys cannot turn invisible at will and slip right past the police watching our protag’s house. Keep it real. You do that by getting the mundane details right. Think of a good reason to have the police leave and the protag’s cell phone out of reach. Leaving your cell in the other room while you take a bath after receiving a death threat is NOT a good reason.
Also, again, the high level threat needs to be sufficiently motivated. This is why “crazy” serial killers are boring. It’s difficult to identify with crazy, and…crazy is also rather hard to capture. It usually doesn’t have anything to do with shouting a lot and waving your arms and listening to opera and keeping a pet parakeet. Although a crazy person might do all these things, insanity is more than the sum of its tics and mannerisms.
My observation is most writers overdo the crazy.
Very few people knowingly and deliberately hurt others merely because they understand that it’s their role to be the bad guy. The bad guys are as motivated as the good guys, they have reasons for what they do, and they’ve convinced themselves of their reasoning. We all need to feel good about ourselves — even when we are doing evil.
And this is the single most important thing to keep in mind when writing your villains: the vast majority of villains do not understand that they are the villain.