Wednesday, March 6, 2013


by C.J. Chase

Several weeks ago, I mentioned the following quote in a comment:

A book without a bad character is a bad book.

I recently tried to find an attribution, but couldn’t locate one. I read the line years ago when I was putting together a list of literature I wanted oldest (home schooled) kiddo to read before he finished high school. There are many lessons we can learn from a “bad character.”

Of course, even the heroes of a book need to be close enough to reality that they have character flaws. We don’t relate to perfect characters, nor do we learn from them. That said, one of the ways a character learns (and we learn from the character) is to pit the person against another character—an antagonist or villain. Ideally, the villain should even have some of the same strengths and flaws as our intrepid hero, so we can see the differences choices make in a person’s life. The late Regency writer Edith Layton once told me that the best villains are often those who “just missed” being a hero.

Choices. A villain is the hero of his own story, in his own mind. However, somewhere in his life, he made a choice that took him outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. Not that he would necessarily agree. He may think his actions perfectly justified. What motivates a villain?

1. Greed. I put this first because it seems to be the number one motivation for villainy. Greed comes in many forms—a craving for money, power, sex. A villain takes these normal human desires and adds a willingness to commit deceit, theft, even murder. This is desire taken to an extreme, like MacBeth’s “vaulting ambition.”

I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself,

And falls on th'other.

MacBeth was a classic fictional villain motivated by greed. As his ambition became greater, so did his crimes. Other greed-motivated characters in the Villainy Hall of Shame include Darth Vader (power), the Sheriff of Nottingham (power and wealth), the White Witch (control), and Cruella DeVil (fur coats).

2. Revenge. This motivation often elicits a certain amount of sympathy in us. A wrong was done. A person was hurt. Our villain feels he cannot get adequate justice from the legal system, so he takes matters into his own hands. But revenge often leads to an endless cycle of offenses.

Consider Hamlet—not exactly the villain of the play, but a man who lets revenge spiral out of control. His uncle murdered his father (the late king) and usurped his throne. Obviously, he couldn’t count on a savvy prosecutor to take on the case, so he promises his father’s ghost he’ll get revenge. But in his quest for vengeance, he accidently kills an innocent man and triggers the suicide of an innocent woman. Which leads the dead man’s son to vow revenge… Even if you don’t know the story, you probably won’t be surprised when I say that by the end of the play, all the principle characters are dead. Without forgiveness, revenge perpetuates. There’s a reason the Lord says, “Vengeance is mine.” (Romans 12:19)

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono

3. Mental Illness. A villain can be motivated by a mental imbalance. The reasons for his behavior are only fully logical to the villain. These villains often show up as serial killers in suspenses and thrillers. A person with a mental illness has his own view of reality, and he will discard facts and observations that don’t conform to his twisted thought process.

4. Goodness. Wait, what? Goodness as a motivation for villainy? Here’s a C.S. Lewis quote to illustrate my point.

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

This may be the parent or sibling or friend who has genuinely decent motives. Or it might be a romantic rival who sincerely believes the main character would be better off with him/her. You’ll often find this type of “villain” in a romantic comedy.

Why are fictional villains so important—in other words, why does a book need a “bad” character? They are a mirror to let us better see our own sinful nature. How many times have we been guilty of greed or revenge or even single-minded (and often self-righteous) “goodness”? Just as the hero is what we ascribe to become, the villain is what we fear we could become.

Do you have a “favorite” fictional villain? Is there a type of villain that “speaks” to you more than others, perhaps because you struggle with the same temptations?

After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide the perfect excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. Her current release, The Reluctant Earl, is now available at retailers such as Walmart and Kmart and in online bookstores. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at  


  1. Hmm...I tend to like man versus himself kinds of stories, but I do also like the mental illness villains. If done well, they give really deep looks into the human pschye. In my new favorite book, Soul's Gate, the devil and demonic forces are actually the villains.

    I think the creation of a villain, the wounds that make them the villain, are really interesting. I don't enjoy a bad guy for a bad guys sake.

  2. Good post, CJ. I prefer greed or mental illness. I don't care much for "good" as the motive unless it's tied to mental illness. And I don't always buy revenge because often times it's pretty weak. I also usually don't care for revenge as the hero/heroine motive for the same reason.

    I agree with Dina about the wounds that make them a villain.They have to have a strong reason.

  3. Hm. Let's see. My first would have to be Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes. And speaking of mental illness my favorite second would be Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca. Ohh, that woman had issues. :)

  4. Great topic, CJ. I usually concentrate on my protaganists' romance and adventures. This is the first I've heard that the book isn't good unless you have a bad character.

    However, your post is like a pat on the head because I have a very bad man in the story I'm writing this month for Seekerville Speedbo.

    My evil character is suffering mental illness brought on by exposure to a brain-damage inducing chemical over a long period of time.

    Yet as I write the scenes that involve him, I keep wondering if the book would be as interesting if his subplot was taken out. It certainly wouldn't be as scary, but then I've never tried to sell myself as a suspense writer.

    LOL - I just read this comment over for spelling and it dawned on me that I haven't included Emma's Outlaw although it contains 3 evil villians throughout much of the book. Well.

  5. Anita
    your Emma's Outlaw villains are quite memorable and helps make the story very memorable as well.

    the only villain that pops to mind as a "favorite" is Alan Rickman and the villains he portrays - he always does so well... from Robin Hood (oppo Kevin Costner) to Quigley Down Under (oppo Tom Selleck).

    of course he's done so many. those two characters of his I particularly enjoyed.

  6. As I was reading your post, C.J., I thought about my Heartsong and realized I didn't have a "villain" in it. But then you mentioned how "good" people could be villains. That's where I'd put my heroine's dad.

  7. I'm surprised at the number who like the crazy villain. I wrote one once, and I decided I did not like going that deep into the mental process of a guy who disemboweled women.

    Anita, I think sometimes the "bad" character could be the "hero" --- if he changes over the course of the story. Even in stories with a large scope, there is good vs evil at an individual level.

    Deb -- I planted the Alan Rickman idea in your head with the Sheriff of Nottingham mention. See how that's done. Ha!

  8. Hmm. I thought of several villains while I was reading this. Jack Randall in Outlander is one of the ickiest villains ever, IMO. Kristen Heitzmann does a tremendous job with her mentally ill villains... they're so creepy and messed up you almost feel sorry for them.
    I can't think of a particular example, but the "goodness as a motive" villains are the ones who drive me completely crazy! Hahaha... I tend to write those kind into my stories, now that I think about it!

  9. Interesting post, CJ. I like how you clarify things; it's helpful to my writing.

    It dawns on me that my villains have all had differing motivations: one was greedy, one had an "ends justify the means" mentality, and another was one of the "good" villains. Then there's the struggle against one's self.

    Now I'm going to be thinking of more movie villains!

  10. I just lost my well-thought out comment and the moment has passed.

    Great topic and made me examine my last three villains.

    Jack Randall indeed.
    I'm thinking over a few recent stories I've read and realize that there wasn't any solid villain and the antagonist was really a 'situation'. (man vs. himself, perhaps?)

    Anita - you've got my attention!

  11. Hmmm . . . Alan Rickman. THE best at being a delicious villain. Loved him in Die Hard. "I'm going to count to three, there will not be a four."

  12. Because mental illness can morph in so many ways I find it fascinating. Of course I'm a counselor and I've seen many kinds of mental illness and for the most part the mentally ill are not villains. However, when they do enter villain territory it's usually very bad. Have you all seen Jordyn Redwood's blog today with Jeannie Campbell's, Types of Serial Killers?
    That'll give you chiller goosebumps. Loved the post, CJ.
    Goodnight Inkies!

  13. Niki, I have a "good" villain in my wip. Heroine's father is a minister who has become self-righteous over the years. (I'm hoping that by balancing him out with a clergyman who is his opposite, my editor won't be upset.)

    Susanne, I think it's good to use different motivations in different books. Keeps things fresh.

    Deb, I hate when Google eats the comment. Ergh.

    Jillian, I did a lot of serial killer research when I wrote my (never published) Jack the Ripper book. Definitely someone whose mind was not functioning in a normal way.

  14. Niki, I have a "good" villain in my wip. Heroine's father is a minister who has become self-righteous over the years. (I'm hoping that by balancing him out with a clergyman who is his opposite, my editor won't be upset.)

    Susanne, I think it's good to use different motivations in different books. Keeps things fresh.

    Deb, I hate when Google eats the comment. Ergh.

    Jillian, I did a lot of serial killer research when I wrote my (never published) Jack the Ripper book. Definitely someone whose mind was not functioning in a normal way.

  15. "A villain is the hero of his own story, in his own mind." I've never heard it put that way before, but it makes SO much sense. Awesome post, CJ!


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