Saturday, April 25, 2015

Write Away: V is for Villain

Due to volition, a villain perpetrates violence on a victim. Lots of V word options for mystery and crime fiction writers to know.

I’ve been fascinated with the word “villain” ever since I learned of its etymology. A vilein (Old French) was a boorish rustic from the villa. This is an example of pejoration in language use. In pejoration, the meaning of the word takes on negative connotations over time. Today a villain is a nasty piece of work, not just an unsophisticate. (The opposite of pejoration is amelioration in which the word’s connotation becomes more positive over time. “Nice” originally meant “simple, foolish” and has come to mean “kind, considerate”.)

Villain is an interesting word on many fronts. Often it is used as a synonym for “antagonist”, but they are not necessarily interchangeable. An antagonist is the foil for the protagonist. “-agonist” is “actor”, so a “protagonist” is the leading actor/character. The “ANTagonist”, is the hostile opposition to the “protagonist.” That doesn’t necessarily make the antagonist the villain. It might, but it’s not a given.

Villains ring of melodrama, lashing the maiden to the railroad tracks, and all that kind of folderol. We view them as cruel, evil, conniving, and capable of committing crimes. The villain of the piece is the acknowledged bad guy. The antagonist only tips over into villain with the commission of or attempt at major felonious crimes.

We often see the villain as someone who manages to evade the law and justice for long periods as opposed to the day-to-day criminal activities of crooks. To be a villain implies long-standing criminal activity over time. Villains are usually seen to be highly planful and vindictive in their crimes. I would call sociopaths, villains.

Villains at their best are likely to immoral or amoral, cunning, visionary, intelligent, powerful and committed to a course of action without second guessing themselves. They believe they are above the law and above detection. Authors typically build in an explanation in back story to explain how the villain became villainous.

The best villains foil the detective by having strengths in the areas of the detective’s limitations. Just like sidekicks provide a positive counterpoint, villains provide a negative counterpoint to the detective’s strengths.

When writing your baddie, decide whether he is truly a villain before labeling him as such. He has to be bad through and through with no redeeming social graces. Or is he just an ordinary crook?

Some would argue villains fall along the line of a continuum from mastermind sociopath to knave. Is your bad guy a thug, trickster, an assassin, a rogue, a traitor, a fanatic, a nemesis, or just a bad boy? Define the kind of traits your villain possesses so you can write him or her coherently, convincingly, cogently, and consistently. This site provides descriptors todefine your villain.  

Is it really over in “The List”? 

            Vacantly, Mort stared out at the crashing surf, high tide now.  Turning toward Frieda, he said,  “I’m going now. You have this place until noon Saturday. Turn the key into the office on your way out of town. I put a map on the passenger seat showing the route to take back to the City.”
            “You can’t be serious! This is absurd, Mort!” Frieda followed him into the living room and yelled at his departing back at the stairs to the ground level. “Come back here immediately!”
            Mort turned at the top of the stairs and blew her a kiss before descending to the parking lot below. “Bye, Frieda.”


  1. Hi there - Every now and again, I think back to the cartoon image of 'villian', with the handlebar mustache, dressed in a black overcoat with a black felora, and hunched over rubbing his hands together. :)
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal - Impartial, Straighforward Fiction Book Reviews

  2. Hey, Diane! I know! It is imprinted in our brains. Modern villains aren't as easily recognizable. I'm thinking of doing another post on specifics of writing villains of different types.

  3. Excellent presentation on the villain! Very useful information for writers who use villains and bad guys in their works. I'll definitely be keeping all of your points in mind. Not all bad guys are bad through and through so in those cases they're merely bad guys, not necessarily villains. Good stuff!
    Michele at Angels Bark

    1. Thanks so much, Michele. I just visited your blog. Wow! You know so much about music! The villains are fun, aren't they?

  4. Visiting you in these closing days of the #Challenge. Always happy to find another writer. If you have time or energy at this point in April, come and see what I’ve been up to. Love finding good blogs like yours. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Stepheny. I will check you out! This has been fun, eh?