The five methods I describe below for brainstorming villains are most applicable if your manuscript or screenplay contains at least an element of the thriller, suspense, or horror genres.
- Update a real-life villain from history: The genius behind the latest season of Sherlock rests in part with the villain they created for the second episode: Philanthropist and serial killer Culverton Smith (spoiler alert) murders people in the hospital he endows with the help of secret passages he’s had engineered into the facility. Unfortunately for Chicagoans circa 1880, a man like this actually existed. H.H. Holmes built what is referred to now as the “Murder Castle,” and though authorities held him responsible for nine deaths, the tabloids of the time place the number closer to 200. It doesn’t matter that 200 is a fantastical exaggeration. What matters is that it’s fantastic fodder for fiction. So start reading up on real-life criminals of yesteryear, and see if anything sparks.
- A fictional delusion or obsession: What happens when a physically abused boy from Fort Worth visits New York with a gun and a copy of The Catcher in the Rye? He murders John Lennon. The delusion or the object of obsession for a villain can be based on real life or fiction, but the key is to marry it with a form of psychosis. I’m over-simplifying, because it’s impossible for me to diagnose Mark David Chapman’s state of mind at the time.
- Go back to the beginning: Every great character has a great backstory, and that backstory explains a lot about who they’ve become at the junction of their life at which you’re telling the story. In comic-book lingo, we’re talking about a super villain’s origin story. Depending on which The Joker origin story you believe, the Gotham villain was a failed comedian forced into a life of crime to support his pregnant wife. But when Batman tried to stop a crime-in-progress, the comedian foiled his escape by jumping into a vat of chemicals, forever disfiguring himself. To create your own Joker, get into that victim-of-circumstances mindset. If you can stomach it, starting at childhood, brainstorm the most tragic life you can imagine. Now that you have the backstory, what type of horror will your victim-of-circumstances unleash on an unprepared world?
- Examine the current climate: Whether we’re talking political or ecological, the current climate is a messed up, scary place. One of the most memorable recent villains, Ben Foster in Inferno, (spoiler alert) tries to solve the world’s overpopulation crisis. Now let’s imagine what was going through Dan Brown’s head at the time: Okay, so in terms of villains, how do I top ancient societies and the freaking Vatican? Oh, I know, let me invent a character who wants to save the planet by killing half the people on it.
- The homegrown terrorist: Without going into too much of a rant about how villainizing Middle Eastern and Asian countries or their people in fiction reinforces Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism, can I just point out that it’s overdone, cliché? In my opinion, the cleverest of screenwriters and authors are shining a big fat spotlight on another kind of threat: under-addressed, homegrown, Caucasian terrorism. As examples, I give you the 2014 novel The Skin Collector by Jeffery Deaver and the 2016 film Imperium starring Daniel Radcliffe, both of which (spoiler alert) portray white supremacist sects as the villains. (NOTE: I wrote this post before Charlottesville. I had previously deleted “under-addressed” from my first draft, because I had no empirical evidence to show that U.S. institutions weren’t zeroing in on this issue, but Charlottesville has proven that many U.S. institutions are indeed asleep at the wheel when it comes to taking a stand against white supremacy, and so I’ve added “under-addressed” back in.)
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Whatever your genre, where do you look for inspiration when creating antagonists or villains? Let’s chat below in the comments.