How to Write a Super Suspenseful Villain


Today’s writing-related Challenge of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is all about making your villain stand out!

If you’re working with a non-traditional antagonist – a good guy – then you might want to find some character flaw to throw at him. For instance, he might be arrogant or has a gambling problem or some such thing.

Shoot me an email at jdilouie@innovativeediting.com if you need more insight into that particular process. I’m more than happy to help.

For now though, let’s focus on the stereotypical villain: the monster under the bed or criminal mastermind or evil dictator. You know the type: This is the kind of character you love to hate.

We’re talking about:

  • Gaston from Beauty and the Beast

  • The aliens from Independence Day and War of the Worlds

  • The White Witch from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

There is absolutely nothing redeeming about these characters. They’re egotistical and unacceptably violent, seeing the world (or worlds) through their own limited viewpoint.

And let’s face it. As villains go, they work. They drive the plot, forcing the main character or characters to rise to the occasion, and they make readers or watchers wonder the question that every writer wants to inspire: What’s going to happen next?

Therefore, Gaston, the murderous aliens and the White Witch are all jobs well done. There’s really nothing to improve on.

Plus, I’ll admit that writing stereotypical villains is fun, horrible though that may be to admit. I’ve employed them before, particularly in my Faerietales series, where the overarching villain is actually an organization: a community of bigoted humans whose sole purpose is to contain or destroy faeriekind.

Kidnapping. Torture. Murder. It’ll employ whatever means it deems necessary in the pursuit of its goals. When it comes to the Human Preservation and Advancement Committee, it’s not even a matter of the ends justifying the means: It sees no reason to justify its actions at all.

Looking back at the way I established the Committee, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Even so, I’ll be the first person to admit that there’s something to be said about humanizing your villain.

Believe it or not, if you’re working with a traditional antagonist – a bad guy – then giving her a touch of humanity can make her even more scary than if she’s just one giant ball of evil. When done right, allowing her to have that soft spot actually serves to make her more complex and therefore less predictable.

The result is that readers are left on the corner of their seats instead of just the edge.

I really want to use Mary Shelley’s monster from Frankenstein as an example here, but then I’d have to get into a detailed analysis of the phenomenal classic, which never once portrays the monster as the villain. As I remember, it’s the doctor who created him who serves as both the protagonist and antagonist.

So let’s go with another classic instead: Ivanhoe. I read the original last year, and I loved every bit of it (and not just because Sir Walter Scott is just as snippy as Mark Twain).

Ivanhoe features several villains, but one of the most prominent is Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert. Since I can’t speak French, don’t ask me to say that name out loud. But he makes a fascinatingly complex bad guy nonetheless.

Bois-Guilbert is arrogant, prejudiced, scheming and unlikable at first mention, and he doesn’t much change until page 236 of a 464-page novel. (For all you English majors out there, that’s more than half.) By that point, he’s already established that his morals are of his own making and that he’s more than willing to force his world view on anyone he deems of less value than himself.

That includes one of the protagonists, Rebekah, who he has locked up in a tower. And readers aren’t left to wonder about her intended fate since Bois-Guilbert has already made it quite clear how attractive he finds her.

But as it turns out, Rebekah is a force to be reckoned with and ends up earning his admiration. Admittedly, he’s still set on having her, just now by winning her affections first.

‘Cause, you know, imprisoning a woman is always the way to her heart.

That poorly-managed courtship sets up the entire last half of the book, which sees Rebekah being charged with witchcraft and cast before Prince John as a convenient scapegoat. The whole trial long, readers are left waiting to see whether Bois-Guilbert will step in and defend his obsession.

And he does, though not nearly as ardently as he should. So it once again falls on Rebekah to try to save herself. She issues a challenge to Prince John, demanding a competition between one of the monarch’s men and a champion of her own to decide her fate. If her man wins, she’ll be declared innocent. If Prince John’s does, then she’ll burn at the stake.

The self-declared monarch, being who he is, chooses none other than Bois-Gilbert to defend his position, once again begging the question of whether the knight will come to Rebekah’s rescue or not.

He does in the end. Sorta. You’ll have to read the whole classic if you want to know the details. I’m already running well over my self-imposed word count as it is.

What I will still say is that, if the villain in this story had remained a stereotypical antagonist, there would only be one level of suspense: that of who will win the duel, the bad guy or the good guy?

But since Bois-Gilbert shows a soft spot for Rebekah – since he revealed that he’s not a complete and total scumbag, only a partial one – there’s also the tension of whether he’ll do it... Whether he’ll actually send the woman he claims to love to her death, and a horrible death at that!

It’s a great twist to an already stellar storyline, and one you might want to try yourself. It’s not a must when you’re working on a villain, but it certainly can spice things up to a page-turning degree.

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