Genre fiction: Is Unpleasantness enough to make a great Villain?

Or how to tell if your villain needs more development
Take this example:
“Jim drew his face closer to Hannah’s so, when he started to speak, a spray of spit landed on Hannah’s face.
‘You park in my spot once more,’ he said through gritted teeth, ‘make sureyou check your tires when you get back.'”
What makes itdifferent from this example:
“Mr Hazell hadpulled up alongside the pumps in his glistening gleaming Rolls-Royce and saidto me, ‘Fill her up and look sharp about it.’ I was eight years old at thetime. He didn’t get out of the car, he just handed me the key to the cap of thepetrol tank and as he did so, he barked out, ‘And keep your filthy little handsto yourself, do you understand?’” (Roald Dahl, Danny The Champion of the World, Puffin Books, 2007, p. 45)?
That’s right. Avillain that is all unpleasantness and no serious menace is fit for achildren’s book.
Victor Hazelltries to intimidate little Danny and his father by coming across as simplynasty in the way he talks to them. Yes, nastiness does add to the reality of yourcharacter, but the menace a villain poses needs to build up so convincingly, itcould well be that it gives readers the chills – which is an experience readersseek.
What makes a good villain?
Unpleasantness,yes, but in a thriller, the obstacles it throws in the protagonist’s way seem to weigh more. Does the villain actuallyjeopardise the protagonist’s quest at any given time in your story? If theanswer is no (he’s just threatening to though!), your villain is underdeveloped.
Underdevelopmentis one of the particularly common shortcomings in first-time writing. A villain is the ideal candidate to be a two-dimensional character, as it has one single mission: to create some menace for the protagonist. In its quest to do just that, an underdevelopedvillain seems to forget to do anything else.
What makes a silly villain?
Simplyput, too much talk and no action. In one of the manuscripts I have recentlyworked on, a corporate thriller, the villain was a boss meant to oppose amanagement buyout from the good guys. He was nasty, he was spiteful, he was evenugly, but what he crucially wasn’t was a solid opponent. The material was therefor him to use: a womaniser manager who could be easily blackmailed intoundermining the deal. A few unsure wives who could be persuaded to discouragetheir husbands from signing the deal. Instead, all he seems to do is just beunpleasant in the boardroom, threaten everybody with the sack and generallyshout a lot. On top of it all, all the way he is preparing to submit his ownbuyout proposal, however, when the day comes, his proposal is rejected withintwo paragraphs and that’s it, the good guys win.
Thiskind of villain damages not only the protagonist’s characterisation – after all, he only deals with silly baddies, but thestory too. Genre fiction is all about obstacles to surmount; themore insurmountable they seem, the stronger the effect on the reader.
Sowhen you go through your manuscript next time, think about how serious of athreat your villain is to your protagonist’s quest. Is it strong enough? Ifnot, time to add some more peril in the mix.
More on what makes a great villain and characterisation in SELF-EDITING FICTION THAT SELLS, out January 2014.
Next week’s post: Tense, pace and what creates the ‘page-turner’ effect.

About Lorena Goldsmith

Literary consultant at Daniel Goldsmith Associates.
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