HOW TO CREATE A BELIEVABLE
COLD, HEARTLESS VILLAIN
Nurse Ratched is the head nurse at a psychiatric hospital, where she wields almost complete control over the patients through trifling rewards and ruthless manipulation. If they displease her, she takes away their food, denies them medication and humiliates them. She has a calm, sweet demeanor but no compunction about forcing shock therapy and lobotomies on her patients when necessary.
Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, routinely makes the top ten lists of the vilest villains in literature and film. The book is based on Kesey's work as an orderly during the graveyard shift at a mental health facility and consequently has the creepy feeling of truth.
So how do you create a fictional villain as cold and heartless as Nurse Ratched—or Hannibal Lecter, Count Dracula, Lord Voldemort and dozens of other famous evildoers—without turning them into comic figures?
It’s perfectly acceptable to construct antagonists that have no redeeming qualities at all, as long as they fit the genre, but the most we can expect from the creature in “Alien,” Cruella de Vil in the novel, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, Goldfinger from the James Bond novel and other caricatures is entertainment. Does anyone really believe these people or creatures exist?
The key to creating a believable, memorable villain is complexity. The best villains are good at being bad but they’re clever enough to live seemingly normal lives. They have extreme characteristics, such as collecting bodies in the basement or skinning their victims, but they keep those habits to themselves.
We have so many real life fiends out there that a reader can easily believe in Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic serial killer in Silence of the Lambs; Norman Bates in the pulse-pounding thriller, Psycho; Annie Wilkes, Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan,” who straps the novelist to a bed and breaks his ankles in Misery; Cruella de Vil, who wants to make a coat from puppy fur in The Hundred and One Dalmatians, and Anton Chigurh, the ruthless killing machine in No Country for Old Men.
In fact, Robert Bloch's novel, Psycho, is all too real because it’s based on murderer Ed Gein, who moonlighted as an unofficial gravedigger and made trophies from the corpses’ bones and skin.
Here are ten tips for creating authentic sicko killers.
- Psychopathology is a personality disorder defined by certain behaviors. Not all psychopaths are killers, and not all criminals are psychopaths.
- Psychopathic murderers know right from wrong, but they don’t care about the people they hurt or kill. They feel no guilt or remorse. They have a stunning lack of empathy. In fact, they believe they’re justified and perfectly sane.
- Not all killers have abusive childhoods. However, they do have histories of early deviant behavior, such as lying, theft and cruelty to animals or siblings. They’re quick to blame their vicious murders on their exposure to pornography, bullies, the devil and other external factors. For many, it’s an addiction they claim they cannot control. Not surprisingly, they tend to embrace religion once they’re in prison.
- It’s been said you don't really understand a villain until you realize he's the hero in his own story. Serial killers often don’t have a motive other than the desire to satisfy their sadistic urges.
- They are hungry for power and control, especially when vulnerable and easily accessible victims are involved. They have grandiose views of themselves. Nurse Ratched, who deliciously controlled her captive audience, was obsessive about keeping order according to her standards.
- Whether they have defective brains is still in question. Some studies, including neuroimaging of violent criminals, have shown underdeveloped or shrunken areas in the brain, and researchers have found “warrior genes” that predispose people to violence. However, many with warrior genes are socially functional and honest.
- They’re charming, smooth talking and persuasive, and they routinely lie. They will do whatever it takes to get what they want. If they’re caught in their lies, they’ll try to talk their way out of them.
- They exaggerate their skills and accomplishments and take pride in them. They speak of killing with a matter-of-fact tone because someone else’s death means nothing to them.
- Consider telling your story from the villain’s point of view. Ruth Rendell turned out some fine novels by using that technique. It kills the suspense of figuring out who is the murderer, but the central dramatic question becomes “Will he be caught and brought to justice?”
- Many killers are physically attractive, highly intelligent, well educated and refined. They are not all ugly, deformed and mad. (Okay, with the exception of Frankenstein, the Joker and the Phantom of the Opera, who are intended to be shockingly grotesque.) Dr. Hannibal Lecter is not only sinister he’s also very clever. Kurtz, the archetypal evil genius from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is a gifted musician, a charismatic leader of men and a great humanitarian. Screwtape from the satirical The Screwtape Letters a witty intellectual and cultured gentleman, as well as a senior devil who teaches his protégé the fine art of tempting victims and sending them to Hell for such offenses as selfishness, vanity and laziness. Not a horn or claw in sight.
crazed killer on its head. Make him warm and friendly. Make her sweet
and ladylike. Surprise your reader.
One last observation: Psychopathic killers look perfectly normal and live among us. That’s why they’re so hard to catch.