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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How to Make Villains Peg Red on the Interesting Meter

by James L. Rubart

I just faced a villain and it's going to help me write better villains in my novels; it might help you as well.

It's cliché to say the better the villain, the better your story—but it's a cliché because it's true. Star Wars is epic because of Darth Vader. Truly when you look at the movies as a whole, it's more his story than Luke's. Darth Vader has a compelling reason he acts the way he does and it fascinates us.

My Personal Villains 
Some of you know that in January a 20,000 lb tree dropped in for a visit on our home. Wiped out a corner of our bedroom, missed crushing my wife by eight feet … we're more convinced than ever that God is alive and well.

So State Farm packed up all our stuff, sent it to a warehouse, and put us up in the Residence Inn while our house is being rebuilt.

Do You Have Idiosyncrasies? 
I do. Little things that bug me that don't bother most other people. Hey, I'm a writer! At the top of my list is white noise. Like people running a bathroom fan in the room below you so loud that even with earplugs in, you can't sleep. They ran it 24 hours a day—I kid you not.

After five days, I called the front desk. They apologized and called the room underneath ours. The people below turned the bathroom fan off. For ten minutes. Then it came back on. I started to hate the people in the room below. They become my personal villains.

The next night I called the front desk again. They called the room again. The front desk called me back and said the people told them their fan wasn't on. The people below were liars. Same thing the next night.  And the next. My frustration for these villains became volcanic.

Why Did They Had The Fan On?!
The Residence Inn was extremely accommodating. They apologized profusely, and moved us to a different room, far from where the psycho bathroom-fan loving mutants dwelled. But something still poked into my brain like a splinter. Why? What would possess some to leave a LOUD bathroom fan on 24 hours a day? How could they sleep? (Did I mention this was a LOUD fan, friends?)

The Head House Keeper Knows
No one at the front desk could give me an answer, but the head housekeeper knew exactly what was going on. The people below us were Indian. They come from an extremely humid environment. So for them, the Seattle area is tough because it's not real humid. So they turn on the shower as hot as it will go, and let the water run constantly. Then they flip on the fan to move the humid air around the room.

My first thought was, "How bizarre …they like the humidity?" My next thought was, if I was in India, and there was an air conditioner in my room, I'd have that pup running 24 hours a day. I wouldn't care how loud it was.

The Point of my Tirade
My villains don't know they're villains. To them, their behavior is perfectly normal. Just like you and I would think turning on an air conditioner in a humid environment is perfectly normal. (Meanwhile, upstairs, the Indians are screaming, "Why do those Americans have to run the air conditioner 24 hours a day! It's driving me nuts! I can't sleep!")

Villains are better and more interesting when there is a compelling reason for them to do what they do. When they're simply evil, they become a stereotype. But when we are able to understand why they do what they do, and even at times sympathize with their actions … then they become fascinating—and our readers can't turn away from them, or our pages.

Gotta go find my ear plugs, there's some new people moving in downstairs and I hear a noise … no, it can't be ...

James L. Rubart is the best-selling and Christy award winning author of ROOMS, BOOK OF DAYS, THE CHAIR, SOUL’S GATE, MEMORY’S DOOR, and SPIRIT BRIDGE (May ’14). During the day he runs Barefoot Marketing which helps businesses and authors make more coin of the realm. In his free time he dirt bikes, hikes, golfs, takes photos, and occasionally does sleight of hand. No, he doesn’t sleep much. He lives with his amazing wife and two sons in the Pacific Northwest and still thinks he’s young enough to water ski like a madman. More at


  1. Love this one, Jim. I've even read of one writer who starts a new idea by developing his villain first. I don't do that (yet), but I try to write my villains story. The greatest villains believe, deep in their hearts, that what they're doing is for the betterment of all. Didn't even Hitler believe that?

  2. Hi Jim -
    Excellent post! For fun this year at ACFW, I'm going to ask the hotel if they can run the bathroom fans 24/7 on your floor…just to see if it really bugs you!
    Ok - a villain related question inspired by your post. Why do you think writers and actors so often feel the villains are the most fun to write (or to play)? Is that because heroes are seen as boring and villains exciting? And for Christian Fiction - how is that (or should it be) different?

    1. I know! I know! (Ane waves her hand wildly) Every hero needs a little villain in him.

      But it's true. One of my manuscripts had an antagonist that was such fun to write! We tend to make our heroines too good. Oh, we give them a little flaw but nothing too bad. \

      I wonder if it's because we think we're most supposed to be bad.

  3. I'm the same as you about white noise, Jim. Unfortunately, my husband loves fans.... It takes grace, but we work it out. :o) Thanks for this interesting post which I'm about to share.

    1. Fans don't bother Darci either. :)

  4. Extremely important point to remember: Villains often don't see themselves as villains. Unless they are named Snidely Whiplash, and then they know they're villains--and revel in their villainhood.

    In the story I'm working on, my villain was passed over for the job my protag was given. There's more to it than that, but that's the nut. In another universe, my villain would be the good guy and my good guy would be the villain, who used his good looks and connections to take the job away from the "villain".

    1. So it's a doppelganger story, right? :)

  5. In my latest release and my WIP, two historical novel in my Queen of Scots Suite,my villain is Lord Francis Stewart, Fifth Earl of Bothwell, but he is not the only reprehensible guy in the story--there is also Sir Andrew Ker of Ferniehirst, who doesn't know he is a villain, doesn't want to be a villain, and is able to rationalize his conduct in a way that makes him much less likable than Wild Frank Stewart who has a touch of the hereditary madness common in the Stuarts So far,my beta readers like Wild Frank better than Andy who comes across as a jerk.

    1. Interesting, Linda. I like the idea of two villains. They did it in Thor 2, where Malekith was the direct villain, and Loki was on the side, but I think Loki was the more interesting of the two because we can sympathize with him.


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