The Writer’s Craft – Killing it with the Perfect Villain, Part 2—Characterization

(Pensacola, Florida; August 25, 2022,) – Killing it with the perfect villain is every fiction writer’s dream.

All of us dabbling in the realm of fiction yearn to create a villain remembered in that rarified literary firmament along with Darth Vader, Thanos, Lady MacBeth, The White Witch, and the Joker.  Conceptualizing, creating, and crafting such villains requires copious amounts of care.  Underwhelming villains might not kill a story, but they leave a dark hole of dissatisfaction, like the smell of a dirty sock hidden under the passenger seat of a hot car.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has done great things, yes, but it’s also known for only two truly memorable villains out of nearly 30 movies released to date.

The first element you must remember is that the villain is a character.  The fun of allowing your villain to run rampant in their restless rampage can obscure the basic reality that the villain is as much a character as everyone else.  They must be developed properly, or else your story (print, stage, or screen, it doesn’t matter) might be successful, but also partially unfulfilling.  Try drinking a three-day-old stale diet soda.  It might get you the water you need into your system, but it doesn’t taste great and is certainly not filling!

To compare and contrast a fully developed villain against a massively missed opportunity, I’d like to turn to the world of film: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Doctor Strange.  Professor James Moriarty in A Game of Shadows is a great example of a fully developed character, whereas the MCU missed the boat (and wasted the talents of the great Mads Mikkelsen) with the sadly forgettable Kaecilius in Doctor Strange.

The five factors good villains share (characterization, motivations, hero’s opposite number, must win occasionally, and must be cool) are all intertwined, just as they are with your hero.  They are the facets that make up the entire gem.  But, for the sake of conversation, we’ll focus in on the facet of characterization today.

Characterization is more than merely describing the physical attributes of the character.  Characterization includes the character’s behavior, personality, and manner of speaking.  Even the subtle development of these can create a memorable villain.  This is where the inimitable Jared Harris’s Professor James Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows comes in.

An actor can be great, but if they’re given lousy writing, or the director doesn’t guide them properly, then their talents are wasted.  Jared Harris, on the other hand, was provided with a tightly written script and skillfully directed by Guy Ritchie.  A Game of Shadows’ Moriarty quickly develops into a three-dimensional, and deadly, human being.

Holmes and Moriarty first come face-to-face in Moriarty’s office at the university.  Both men already know who the other is, but this meeting is the first open move in their deadly chess match, and several subtle touches in this scene reveal Moriarty in three dimensions.  The first is the very scene when Holmes arrives.  Moriarty is talking to an earnest student.  This small, seemingly throw-away shot shows us that Moriarty is a respected professor, a man sought out by students as a mentor.  We get a glimpse with our own eyes of his social and professional status by the fact a student is hanging back to speak with him inside an office that is spacious, well-appointed, and dominated by a blackboard filled with complex equations.  Suddenly, in one sweep of the camera, we know all we need to know about Moriarty’s public face—and one facet of his own personality.  He clearly takes his role as a senior academician seriously.  He’s good at what he does, and he’s earned the respect of students and institutions alike.  His professional credentials are thus shown to us.  We don’t just hear other characters talk about him; we step into his world ourselves as we accompany Holmes to his office.

Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) comes face-to-face with Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros.”

During this same scene, Holmes, attempting to protect Watson (and Watson’s new wife) tells his foe Watson is no longer part of his investigation.  Moriarty is cagy about whether he will, or will not, pursue vengeance against Watson as well as Holmes.  This observed behavior is subtle, but you don’t need a bombastic monologue for your audience to experience Moriarty’s craftiness in keeping his cards close to the vest.  Holmes finally forces Moriarty to reveal his true intentions by openly insulting him.  This enrages Moriarty, who finally reveals that, yes, he will be targeting Dr. and Mrs. Watson.  Jared Harris’ performance is still mostly understated.  We see him snap one time, then he reverts to a dignified conversational tone.

However, this behavior shows us Moriarity’s personality in greater depth.  Suddenly we see his pride and hubris, we experience his narcissism, we glimpse the depths of cruelty to which he’s willing to sink.  This shows the audience through experience several facets of Moriarty’s character all at once, popping him out from the background and into the spotlight as a man as powerful as Holmes, but far more dangerous.

Be it stage, screen (as in Game of Shadows), or the printed word, showing the character’s behavior (even through subtle cues) creates the impression we’re looking at a real human being, not merely the fictional construct of an author’s imagination.

The second scene I want to examine in A Game of Shadows  is the scene where Moriarty, having captured Holmes, viciously tortures him.  Moriarty demands to know where Holmes sent a telegram, but Holmes’ continued evasions enrages Moriarty.  Again, this is not shown through a cacophony of screams and threats.  Instead, we see a quick glimpse of an irritated Moriarty tensely tapping a pen on a desk.  This subtle act, combined with the pinched look Harris briefly effects, shows us Moriarty’s anger (usually so well hidden) has once again been forced into the open by Holmes.  The villain then literally drives a meat hook into Holmes’ shoulder, hauling him into the air.  Moriarty puts on an opera and sings, clearly caught up in the emotions of the music while openly abusing Holmes until Holmes ‘breaks’ and reveals the telegram’s recipient (the ‘quotes’ are because Holmes was actually manipulating Moriarty, even though he knew it would cost him a substantial injury).

This scene shows the real depths of Moriarty’s evil and cruelty by letting us experience it through Holmes’ torture.  Moriarty’s intellectual genius, posh lifestyle, ego, ambition, cruelty, and utter disregard for human life are shown in high relief by only two scenes.  Now, let’s translate this into the written word for a novel.  Paraphrasing the dialogue from the first scene (Moriarty’s office), let me demonstrate how to fail, and then how to succeed in your novel:

FAILED ATTEMPT:

Holmes entered Moriarty’s office.  The professor glanced up, handing a book to a student who quickly left.  The two men exchanged pleasantries before Holmes asked Moriarty to autograph a copy of the professor’s latest book.  While Moriarty signed, Holmes glanced at the blackboard.

“Dr. Watson’s marriage was today,” Holmes said, hands in his pockets.  Ears pricked for the subtle shades of Moriarty’s voice, Holmes continued, “He’s no longer part of the equation in my investigation.  I trust that will be taken into consideration.”

Moriarty asked if Holmes had read the book before handing it back.

“I did,” Holmes answered, smiling discreetly, “Have you ever studied graphology?”

“I haven’t given it much thought,” Moriarty said.

“It’s the study of handwriting and how it reveals the person,” Holmes said, his voice gently shading from affable to pointed, “Your signature here, for instance.  The upswept P, J, and M, indicate a genius-level intellect, but the overall slant of the writing indicates acute narcissism and moral insanity.”

“No,” Moriarty said, “The answer to your question about Dr. Watson’s non-involvement is ‘no.’  If you read my book, then you know that when two celestial objects collide, there’s always damage of a collateral nature.”

There’s nothing in this version of that scene that reveals much about Moriarty.  He’s basically a cardboard cut-out reacting as we expect him to react since he’s the advertised villain.  Yes, he’s dangerous.  Ok, so what?  Aren’t all villains dangerous?  Yes, he’s going to target the Watsons.  Again, so what?  That’s what we expect a villain to do.  Big deal.  This exchange in a novel would give us what we expect, but shows us nothing about Moriarty’s personality because the characterization is so weak as to be non-existent.

Now, let’s take another look at this paraphrased scene from a slightly more dynamic angle:

SUCCESSFUL ATTEMPT:

Holmes entered Moriarty’s lavish office.  Two walls were papered over in bookshelves, each sagging under the weight of ancient tomes.  Dust covered some; others were shiny and pristine, clearly being used repeatedly.  The books spilled out, covering ornate end tables, and were even stacked on the floor.  A large blackboard held court on the wall behind the rich mahogany desk, its dark face filled to bursting with chalk-written equations.

The professor was standing by the picture windows, engaged in earnest conversation with a student.  Glancing up, his eyebrow twitched up as he saw Holmes waiting for him.  Looking back at his student, he smiled, handing a book to the young man, who quickly left.

Moriarty smiled warmly, pleased to be meeting Holmes at last.  The two men exchanged pleasantries before Holmes asked Moriarty to autograph a copy of the professor’s latest book.

“Why, I’d be delighted,” Moriarty said affably, taking the book from Holmes’ calloused hand, “Would you like some tea or coffee, or something stronger?”

Holmes declined while Moriarty sat at a chess board, pulling a fountain pen from inside his billowing academic robes.  Carefully opening the book, he tenderly smoothed the fly leaf before beginning his inscription.

While Moriarty signed, Holmes glanced at the blackboard.

“Dr. Watson’s marriage was today,” Holmes said, hands in his pockets.  Ears pricked for the subtle shades of Moriarty’s voice, Holmes continued, “He’s no longer part of the equation in my investigation.  I trust that will be taken into consideration.”

Moriarty asked if Holmes had read the book before handing it back.  He studied Holmes intently, waiting for his answer.

“I did,” Holmes answered, smiling discreetly, “Have you ever studied graphology?”

“I haven’t given it much thought,” Moriarty said.

“It’s the study of handwriting and how it reveals the person,” Holmes said, his voice gently shading from affable to pointed, “Your signature here, for instance.  The upswept P, J, and M, indicate a genius-level intellect, but the overall slant of the writing indicates acute narcissism and moral insanity.”

Although Holmes’ back was turned, he heard the sharp snap of Moriarty’s pen being slapped onto the chess board.  Turning quickly, he saw Moriarty’s face was a cold mask of rage, eyes blazing at the insult Holmes lobbed his way.

Moriarty, however, hitched his affable mask back into place with such alarming speed even Sherlock Holmes could be forgiven for wondering if he imagined the flash of anger across the professor’s face.

“No,” Moriarty said, his words courteous but his voice cold as ice, “The answer to your question about Dr. Watson’s non-involvement is ‘no.’  If you read my book, then you know that when two celestial objects collide, there’s always damage of a collateral nature.”

Even novelists have to show readers their characters in three dimensions.  The two versions of my paraphrase of this scene from A Game of Shadows exemplify this.  The first version is bland.  Moriarty is a blank cyber.  He’s no more than a forgettable automaton doing what we know he has to do for the plot to happen.  *Yawn.*

The second version creates those proverbial word pictures.  We begin to experience the trappings of his office—and its clear academic focus.  The books spilling out everywhere, some used, some dusty, show us just how much Moriarty treasures knowledge.  The blackboard’s complex equations allow us to glimpse the intellectual genius of the man.  His gentle, respectful interaction with the student reveals a facet of his personality—he apparently does care about his students.

Then we get to experience his deeper nature when Holmes finally provokes a reaction.  We also get to see his iron control when he covers his angry lapse with surprising speed.

Be it my second, written version of this scene, or the actual scene itself in A Game of Shadows, this one scene accomplishes a lot in a short time.  He’s not just a piece of cardboard animatronics simply doing what we expect; he’s a fully human individual looming over us with threatening power.  Now we’ll remember him!

To contrast this success, let’s take a look at how 2016’s Doctor Strange failed to lift Kaecilius to any level of true memorability.

Kaecilius, played by the incredible Mads Mikkelsen, was a student of the Ancient One before he discovered she played fast and loose with the rules by drawing power from an evil dimension to prolong her life.  We get to see a nice glimpse of his anger in the opening scene when he coldly beheads a mystical librarian while stealing a spell from an ancient book.  We then get our second—and final—experience of his humanity when the Ancient One confronts him.  He angry spits the word “Hypocrite!” at her before the ensuring magical fight begins.

Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is a the sadly underdeveloped antagonist driving the plot in “Doctor Strange.” (Image courtesy of Marvel Studios)

Although I think Mads Mikkelsen tried his darnedest to infuse Kaecilius with emotion and depth, the writing and direction just didn’t allow him to do much more than recite dialogue in a monotone voice.  We never learn why Kaecilius came to study under the Ancient One; we just hear others talk about him and his zealot followers trying to threaten our universe’s mystical order.

When Kaecilius and Dr. Strange meet and fight for the first time, Strange is able to subdue and restrain him.  There is some humorous, witty banter, but when Kaecilius challenges Strange’s view of the world and offers his reasons for trying to bring the Dark Dimension into ours, Mads Mikkelsen was allowed to do nothing but speak in a monotone voice.  No emotion, no flash of passion or rage in his eyes, nothing.  We see nothing, we experience nothing.  Kaecilius is written as nothing more deep than an animatronic at Disneyworld.

Fortunately, Doctor Strange was saved by the incredibly deep hero’s journey Dr. Strange is forced to undertake, as well as the tension between him and his ally Mordo.  Mordo becomes as disenchanted with the Ancient One as Kaecilius when Mordo also learns of her using ‘forbidden’ powers.   However, we experience Mordo’s fall from grace because we get to see him react with shock, disbelief, and, finally, betrayal.  Sadly, Kaecilius, the actual villain, is monotone, boring, and utterly forgettable.  If the director were going for a subtle expression of Kaecilius’ humanity (in the manner of Jared Harris’ understated, but powerful, performance as Moriarty), then he didn’t just hit a foul ball; he fouled the ball so badly that it missed the entire ballpark.

Characterization is the art and science of making characters truly come alive.  Heroes must, of course, be characterized properly, or else the story is sunk.  However, characterizing your villains properly will enhance the story, turning it from a pen-and-ink line drawing of the plot into a vivid, technicolor experience your audience won’t soon forget.

Check out my video on this topic at:   https://youtu.be/t2DLXrq7QFo                          

I discuss Disney’s stunning success in crafting Hector Barbossa’s character in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, and Warner Brother’s failure with Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin.

Study the villains you love to remember (and love to hate), and the villains you find forgettable.  Apply the lessons these characters offer, and your writing will be stronger, your stories more impactful, and your characters (heroes and villains alike) quite memorable!

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