Beautiful Yet Cruel: Reasons To Make Your Villains Attractive
Originally written as a guest post for Buffy’s Ramblings.
So I was cleaning my pool the other day and thinking of Mads Mikkelsen, as you do. Tall, Dark and Danish was on my mind because I’d just read a rather cogent post on Tumblr about fans who were gushing over the newest incarnation of Hannibal Lecter in a big way and kind of forgetting that, you know, Dr. Lecter kills people. And eats them. And serves them to other unsuspecting diners. And zestfully screws with Will Graham’s mind and health as a hobby. And is what we in the writing dodge like to call a Really Bad Guy.
The original poster was rather concerned that a lot of fans seem to be thinking with their ovaries and not their heads, as they are insisting that Dr. Lecter had Reasons™ for doing all those bad things, and that he’s just this mixed-up, misunderstood guy, instead of a vicious, psychopathic, cannibalistic monster. Whereas I agree with the original poster — Hannibal Lecter IS a vicious, psychopathic, cannibalistic monster. And the only reason why these fans aren’t recoiling from their widescreens in horror is that he is currently played by a very hot Danish actor who wears beautiful clothes, has perfect hair (when it’s not perfectly mussed), an insanely masculine bone structure, a lovely growly accent, just the right amount of chest hair, and is so damned graceful it’s not even funny–
Ahem. Sorry, needed to cool off for a minute there. Anyway, back to my topic, which makes me cackle with glee as a writer. These fans are looking at a complete and utter whackjob of a character, and even though they know full well he’s a whackjob, they become utterly infatuated with him because he’s attractive. I mean, really, the mental gymnastics necessary to resolve Dr. Lecter’s gruesome culinary habits with the deeply seated wish to see him naked must be absolutely astounding.
And damn, that’s clever. That is just so clever. Why is that clever? Because it means these fans tend to give Hannibal the benefit of a doubt about his actions even though they know better. And that allows the series writers to completely mess with their heads when Hannibal fillets another rude phlebotomist or serves up Kidney ala Dental Assistant to Jack Crawford and the gang.
Which is fantastic if you think about it, and kudos to Bryan Fuller, Mads and the Hannibal team for pulling it off. Because creating a really good (and by good I mean captivating) villain is damned difficult, even harder to do than creating a good hero. After all, the hero has it easy — he’s the hero, the personification of everything that is right and good, and usually the default stand-in for the reader. Assuming that a story is well written, readers are predisposed to like and care for the hero.
But the villain, ah, that’s where you get into murkier and more challenging creative waters. Make your bad guy too much of a monster, and nobody gives a rat’s ass for his motivations — they just want him dead. Make your evil queen too simplistic, and people don’t care about her plans to roast her stepdaughter over a slow fire and snack on her heart — she comes off as a cartoon character. Writers need to walk a fine line, giving the villain enough emotional hooks so that the reader comes to care about him whether they like it or not. Granted, the only thing the reader may care about is seeing the baddie on a gibbet, but they still care.
And a very interesting way of generating that level of care is by utilizing the human fascination with physical beauty. As a species we’re hardwired to like and follow people we find attractive, even though they may be utter scum on the inside; CEOs, politicians, and high school mean girl cliques are real-life examples of how this works. And since we do tend to sympathize with attractive people, that adds a tasty little psychological twist when an attractive character takes out a room full of Starfleet brass, or blows up a hospital, or turns a human being into cold cuts. Sometimes, we even justify the villain’s behavior simply on the basis that he or she is pretty, and, well, pretty = good so there must be a really important reason for why they did what they did, right? Right?
Talk about a powerful writing tool. Making your bad guy appealing is a simple but incredibly effective way to captivate your readers, sucking them into the damaged amusement park full of red delights that is your villain’s psyche and spitting them out, blinking and stunned, at the end of the story. Think of Patrick Bateman, the White Witch, Mrs. Coulter, Tom Ripley, the Marquise de Merteuil, Randall Flagg, and the sexiest baddie of all, Dracula. Think of how skillfully they used their own attractiveness to entice both their victims and the reader at the same time. Would they have had the same impact if they had acne or male pattern baldness or a bad dress sense? I don’t think so. They know what they have, and they work it like a Las Vegas showgirl to get what they want.
Of course, they are villains. And we’ll cheer for the hero to come out on top at the end because hey, that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re civilized creatures, after all (and for those of us who aren’t, we can fake it beautifully). But still, there’s that perverse little urge that battles logic and makes people feel just a bit wistful when some seductive devil works their evil magic, even if it means the walls are dripping red afterwards. So the next time you need to come up with a villain, think about what could make him or her attractive to your readers, then use it ruthlessly. If you can lure your readers so far over to the dark side that they start sympathizing with the devil, you’ve done your job as a writer.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, my pool is clean and I have a couple of Hannibal episodes on the DVD to enjoy. Bon appétit.