How to write a villain

August 6th, 2016

One of the most common questions I get is, ‘Who’s your favourite character from your own books?’ It’s a hard question to answer. I love Goldie, Bonnie, Broo, Toadspit, Petrel, Mister Smoke and Missus Slink, Krill, Fin, Sharkey, Dolph and pretty much every else as well.

It’d be much easier if people asked, ‘Who’s your favourite character to write?’ ‘The Fugleman’, I’d reply. ‘Guardian Hope. Cord. Brother Poosk. Albie. And now, in Bodyguards, Lord Rump. And whoever is behind the Harshman.’

The Fugleman, from 'City of Lies'.

The Fugleman, from ‘City of Lies’. This illustration, from Seb Ciaffaglione, is one of my all-time favourites.

I love writing villains. When I’m writing a villain I can indulge all the parts of myself that otherwise never get to see the light of day. I can be selfish, arrogant, cruel and nasty. I don’t have to worry about hurting people’s feelings, or fairness, or kindness, or any of the other things that usually occupy my thoughts. If I want something, I can ride straight over the top of everyone else to get it.

But …

When I’m being a villain, I have to remember not to think of myself as a villain. Instead, I tell myself that I’m just being sensible. Or that I’m working for the greater good and people will thank me in the end. Or that if I don’t do this, something much worse will happen. Or that I’m merely doing my job. Or that this is a dog-eat-dog world, and anyone who doesn’t realise that is a fool.

The glint in Lord Rump’s eyes was all too familiar. Duckling clenched her fists. ‘It’s an assassination, isn’t it. You said there’d be no more assassinations, Grandda. They’re too risky!’
‘But this one is not risky, my sweet, not for us. Because I am not the assassin. I am merely helping to set the Scheme in motion.’ He rubbed his fingertips together. ‘And being very well paid for it.’

We all tell ourselves stories about who we are and why we behave the way we do. And in our own heads, we usually put the best possible light on things. So no one is thinking, ‘I’m an evil person, and I’m doing this for evil reasons.’ They’re thinking, ‘I can fix this much better than those idiots.’ Or ‘No one offends me and gets away with it!’ Or ‘I really need this information, and if I hold this person over a shark-infested sea, I’ll get it.’

Even if they’re a psychopath, they’re still making sense in their own head. ‘Why are we wasting money putting the highway over there? Why not put it through the middle of the kindergarten? It’d cost a lot less, and if most of the kids die it’d fix the overpopulation problem.’

Find the story that the villain is telling themselves, and you’re more than halfway there.




2 thoughts on “How to write a villain

  1. Hua Hsu Chu says:

    Ok. I am not ASKING you for a keepers, hidden crossover. I NEED it. I want to let you know that I love your books, they make me want to read them over and over again. I love both series’s plot but if i had to choose I would choose the hidden series. I like the hidden series because they have a different setting each time, so I like it better. In keepers they were almost in the same place all the time. I personally would of made the hidden series a quadrilogy. Keep up the good work and PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE MAKE THE CROSSOVER IM BEGGING YOU!!!

    1. Lian says:

      Oooh, I love being begged. 😉 And I love people who love my books and read them over and over again. I hadn’t thought of a crossover between the Keepers and the Hidden, and despite your eloquent plea, I doubt if it will happen – the worlds are too different. But I’m very interested in your reasons for liking the Hidden series better. And I wish you’d made the quadrilogy remark several years ago, because I totally would have done it. Too late now. I think this new series is going to be a different setting each time – so far it’s definitely looking like that. And a new setting is fun to write, so I shall keep your comments in mind. Thanks for the very nice message, Hua Hsu Chu!

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