Thursday, November 10, 2011



"Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph." Roger Ebert

Welcome to Thriller Thursday!

This week we have a treat for you. Jodie Renner shares advice that is paramount to writing a great thriller. The Villain. As the Roger Ebert quote states above, having a worthy antagonist does more than just give your hero someone to defeat. The villain gives your reader a reason to join your hero’s journey, to connect emotionally with the hero, and to understand what’s at stake, if the hero does not succeed.

The villain deserves a great deal of attention from the writer. Wouldn’t you agree? Renner shares terrific villain character development tips and also opens up this week’s discussion. How evil should a modern villain be?

Thank you for this great post, Jodie.



by Jodie Renner

You’ve outlined a plot and created an appealing, complex protagonist for your thriller or other crime/action fiction — great start! But what about your antagonist? According to James N. Frey, “the villain is your best friend, because the villain creates the plot behind the plot — the plot that has to be foiled by the hero.”

The hero or heroine of your suspense novel needs a worthy opponent who is standing in his/her way and threatening other innocent people. As James Scott Bell says, “Without a strong opponent, most novels lack that crucial emotional experience for the reader: worry. If it seems the hero can take care of his problems easily, why bother to read on?”

And thrillers and other crime fiction need a downright nasty bad guy — but not a “mwoo-ha-ha” caricature or stereotype. If your villain is just a wicked cardboard caricature of what he could be, your readers will quickly lose interest. As Hallie Ephron says, “Characters who are simply monstrously evil can come off as old-fashioned clich├ęs.”

To create a believable, complex, chilling villain, make him clever and determined, but also someone who feels justified in his actions. Ask yourself what the bad guy wants, how he thinks the protagonist is standing in his way, and how he explains his own motivations to himself.

How does your villain rationalize his actions? He may feel that he is justified because of early childhood abuse or neglect, a grudge against society, a goal thwarted by the protagonist, a desire for revenge against a perceived wrong, or a need for power or status — or money to fund his escape. Whatever his reasons, have them clear in your own mind, and at least hint at them in your novel. Like the protagonist, the antagonist needs motivations for his actions.

To give yourself the tools to create a realistic, believable antagonist, try writing a mini-biography of your villain: his upbringing and family life, early influences, and harrowing experiences or criminal activities so far. As Hallie Ephron advises us, “Think about what happened to make that villain the way he is. Was he born bad, or did he sour as a result of some traumatic event? If your villain has a grudge against society, why? If he can’t tolerate being jilted, why? You may never share your villain’s life story with your reader, but to make a complex, interesting villain, you need to know what drives him to do what he does.” Creating a backstory for your antagonist will help you develop a multidimensional, convincing bad guy.

Many writing gurus advise us to even make the antagonist a bit sympathetic. James Scott Bell says, “The great temptation in creating bad guys is to make them evil through and through. You might think this will make your audience root harder for your hero. More likely, you’re just going to give your book a melodramatic feel. To avoid this, get to know all sides of your bad guy, including the positives.”

Bell suggests that, after we create a physical impression of our antagonist, we find out what her objective is, dig into her motivation, and create background for her that generates some sympathy — a major turning point from childhood or a powerful secret that can emerge later in the book.

Not everyone agrees with that approach, however. James Frey, on the other hand, says “in some cases, it is neither necessary nor perhaps even desirable to create the villain as a fully fleshed-out, well-rounded multidimensional character.” Many readers just want to a bad guy they can despise, and are not interested in finding out about his inner motives or his deprived childhood. That would dilute our satisfaction in finally seeing him getting his just deserts.

Frey does feel it’s extremely important to create a convincing, truly nasty villain, one who is “ruthless, relentless, and clever and resourceful, as well as being a moral and ethical wack job,” and one who is “willing to crush anyone who gets in his way,” but doesn’t feel it’s necessary to give us a great deal of information on the villain.

As kids, we loved to see good prevail over evil, and the nastier the villain, the harder they fell — and the greater our satisfaction. Perhaps Frey’s “damn good villain” hearkens back to those times, and his ultimate demise evokes greater reader satisfaction. Forget analyzing the bad guy — just build him up, then take him out!

On the other hand, many readers today are more sophisticated and want to get away from the caricatures of our popular literary heritage… hence, advice from writers like Ephron and Bell to develop more multidimensional antagonists with a backstory and clear motivations.

I’d say there’s room for both approaches in modern fiction, and probably the thriller genre favors the “just plain mean and nasty” villain. Never mind the psychological analysis of the bad guy—we just want to see Jack Reacher, Joe Pike or [fill in your favorite thriller hero or heroine] kick butt!

What do you think? Make the villain nasty, evil and cruel through and through, or give him some redeeming qualities to make him more realistic? Show some of his background and motivations, or just stick with his current story goals and plans?

Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller
James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, and mysteries. Her services range from developmental editing to light final copyediting, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog at

Jodie is a member of International Thriller Writers (associate), Sisters in Crime (SinC), Backspace: The Writers Place, The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), and The Editors Association of Canada (EAC).

Jodie has traveled extensively throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. In fact, Jodie loves traveling so much, she’s thinking of changing her tagline from “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing” to “Have laptop, will travel.”

Copyright © Jodie Renner, October 2011

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Jenny Milchman said...

Great food for thought, Jodie. I think the answer comes straight from reality--in real life people have self-justifications, and they believe in them. Pure evil doesn't exist in the sense of the person's own self-perception. And those layers need to be in our story for it to have the most resonance.

Although having someone shot down by the end whom to *us* registers as just plain bad is a whole lot of fun!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jenny. I'm away right now on a Caribbean cruise with limited internet access, but will definitely try to check back later.


Unknown said...

Right, Jenny.

I think it depends on what's best for the story. I watched this movie, "The Last House on the Left." It was frightening, more so for me, because the villains were sociopaths. The leader of those horrible people obviously had a malignant personality. He was drugged out. Full of rage. Horrible!! Although I don't condone murder by the time the movie turned in the owners of that house's favor I wanted them to kill them badly. I didn't care about the villain's backstory. I didn't care why they were batty out of their mind. I wanted them dead. lol.

However, one of my favorite novels is Tosca Lee's Demon: A memoir. It's the story of a demon who shares his story with a struggling editor of a publishing house. Although empathy for the demon, I understood why they hated humans and wanted God's attention.

For my novel I gave my character a backstory. I know I have women readers, especially mothers. We tend to want to know why they act they way they act. We want to find some kind of saving grace for people who do bad things. But in my second novel that releases next July I have both a villain with a backstory and someone who is evil for evil sake and that scares me in a good way.

thanks Jodie for this post. there is a lot here to talk about and think about.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Miranda, for your comments. I think, depending on the novel,either approach, backstory or no, can be very effective and satisfying to the reader.

- Jodie Renner

P.I. Barrington said...

I thought all my villains had a back story in my novels, but thinking back over Future Imperfect, only the first villain in the first book, Crucifying Angel, was given a back story. I had an uber villain throughout the trilogy who was never given a real back story either and one villain through books one and two who was the literal catalyst for the plot lines but had virtually NO back story! But their personalities did a lot of the work in making them bad dudes so somehow it worked. (I'm surprising myself here, lol!) Personally, I like a villain with a back story otherwise they'd be a cardboard box. They engage your reader just as much as the hero/heroine!

Unknown said...

lol P.I.

This discussion is interesting. What do readers want in a villain? How sympathetic do we make them?

Thanks for sharing your books with us. Will check it out.

P.I. Barrington said...

Thanks Miranda!

Anonymous said...

This is a great article. Thank you for sharing.