Creating a Worthy Adversary

Author Laurie StevensGuest Post
by Laurie Stevens

One of the questions I get asked in regards to creating characters is “how do you deal with the mindset of a villain?”

Certainly nobody enjoys going to a dark mental place where, we have to assume, a lot of nasty characters reside. Still, if you want to remain true to putting a human face on a villainous character, you have to give him or her a lot of thought.

My wonderful writing mentor Ronald Jacobs always advised me that the best adversaries in a plot are worthy adversaries. In order to make an adversary worthy, there should be a spark of humanity there, a reason why he does what he does. This way, the reader can relate somewhat with the antagonist and interest is created. The more human the villain is, the more impact he has.

Then I had the opportunity to talk with a famed forensic psychiatrist who stunned me with his answer to a question I asked him.

I asked if, as a therapist interviewing a killer, does he see the human inside the monster?

He said sometimes. Other times, no–that looking into their eyes was like looking into the face of pure evil.  I think it stunned me because I was surprised to hear an expert on human psyche say that. And if real people can be purely evil then my effort to create a “worthy adversary” with a method to his madness might as well be thrown to the wind.

Now, there are fiction stories about wholesale murder without any rhyme or reason, but they work because the focus is on the investigation, not on the villain himself.

And I think that if you are going to write a story about a murderer who kills for the sheer joy of it, then let the investigation be the driving force of the plot.

When I did the research to create Victor Archwood, (who is the Professor Moriarty against my Sherlock Holmes, Detective Gabriel McRay), I wanted a worthy adversary.

Victor’s got problems, no doubt. Big ones. But I thought that delving into his psyche would give him the human face needed for that bond I mentioned earlier.

I read a lot of research papers. I speak with the experts. To be honest, it’s not fun getting into the mind of someone who can justify hurting other people.

I keep coming across that detachment issue. If a person is detached and sees his fellow human beings as nothing, it’s easy to treat them as nothing. But does writing about someone completely devoid of feeling make for good fiction?

Again, there are good stories about murderers without backgrounds. Take The Silence of the Lambs. Buffalo Bill is stealing the skin from women all over town and he’s about as twisted as they come. But he’s not Clarice Starling’s worthy adversary. Hannibal Lector is.  We don’t know what motivates Buffalo Bill, but we don’t care, because we are more fascinated by Lector. Why? Because he’s a gourmet. He’s a gourmet who eats his enemies, but, according to him, they had it coming. We are repelled by his actions but at the same time we are amused and impressed by his self-imposed protocols and his intelligence. We also know he has a crush on Clarice and therefore we are afforded the security of knowing he probably won’t do her any harm. You see? The human inside the monster.

True evil may exist, but if you are going for entertainment value, make sure your adversary is a worthy one.

Laurie Stevens is a novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. Her Gabriel McRay psychological suspense series has won nine awards with the first two books soon to be published by Blanvalet (Random House, Germany). To learn more about Laurie, visit her website and her Author Central page.

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10 thoughts on “Creating a Worthy Adversary”

  1. I agree that our villains have to have some depth to get us hooked.Without that the evil they do is made senseless because we, who are not sociopaths, can’t identify with a person who has no conscience. Humans, as a rule, need to be able to make sense of things, especially the motives of those we choose to read about. Good post.

  2. Even sociopaths can make sense of things, Yvonne, just not in the same terms that the rest of society finds acceptable or normal. One mustn’t underestimate the mid of the evil one, it can be very complex but, in it’s own terms, purposeful. Describing someone like that in terms the rest of us can relate to and find interesting – Laurie’s ‘worthy’ character – is the novelists’ dilemma.
    As for the character’s humanity, this need not be present. Humanity generally implies some component of compassion, but many criminals are able to dispense with this. What they do generally have is a collection of human failings and areas where they are mentally vulnerable. I would call this ‘humanness’ rather than humanity, but it could be the element Laurie is looking for.
    A good, thought provoking post Laurie. Thanks.

    1. You’re right, Ian, that looking at a person’s collection of failings may be enough to make him an interesting character because we all have failings to a degree and on that point we can relate. But as authors we have to walk that line very carefully. Evil that makes no sense at all may have its roots in human catastrophe, but unless the plot is about that particular catastrophe, a good character arc would be lacking (because the character really can’t evolve) and the reader may lose interest in him or her.

  3. I think it’s fascinating that the focus of the story has so much power – I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective and it makes perfect sense. Thanks, Laurie.

  4. Good points. Having a story with a worthy adversary makes it complete. It really helps uplift your good guy, as he’s not some hack who captures the criminal idiots (the ones the radio stations have you vote on for dumbest criminal of the week). Your good guy is smart and he’s facing a smart bad guy. So that’s good. When the adversary is at least somewhat able to be identified with, you get that character readers love to hate. The kind that’s so bad he’s good (or so bad she’s good). Lector is a baddie we love to hate.

    The interesting thing is, some bad guys become so beloved, they almost turn into a good guy, or are on equal footing with the good guy in terms of fan loyalty and love of the character.

  5. Interesting post, Laurie. Few of my books have what you would call a real villain, but most of them have someone who provides the challenge or the obstacle to the protagonist. I have never written someone who was “pure evil,” and I think that would be very difficult. What I like about not-so-evil is that they are definitely human, they have their failings, but they can, at times, elicit some compassion from the reader. I believe having the characters vacillate a bit between their good and bad sides provides tension, as well as being more realistic. Very interesting discussion! Thanks for a great post.

  6. Basically, there are three kinds of stories: Man against man; man against nature; and man against himself–or any combination thereof. Villains come in many different guises and make worthy adversaries…

    Enjoyed the post, Laurie. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I have trouble writing nasties, because I just don’t want to spend time with people like that. So my stories tend to be “character vs environment” conflicts, with the social environment predominating.
    However, the best villain I ever created (IMHO) was based on a supervisor I had once whom I ended up charging with harassment. It gave me a great deal of pleasure to manipulate him for a change, and I had already spent a good deal of time in analyzing his character before I even started. It was long enough past the actual event that I had a good emotional distance as well.

    Having given my excuses, I don’t think an antagonist who is “pure evil” is very interesting. Unless written with a great deal of skill, “pure evil” goes down in my books with “crazy.” Bottom line, if you’ve got a character like that, you don’t have to follow any rules of motivation or reality, because he’s crazy, and that explains everything.
    As a director, I never let my actors think that their character is evil. You can’t act a person you don’t sympathize with on some level, and I don’t think most of us should try writing one, either.

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