Scary monsters (and super creeps)
The other day one of my readers asked which of the bad guys in my books was the worst – meaning the best or most interesting villain. I admit, I had to think for a while. There have been quite a few monsters who have opposed my heroes Robin Hood and Alan Dale over the course of the nine books so far published in the Outlaw Chronicles. And this led me to ponder what makes a good villain (ie, and effective foil for my heroes) and what makes a poor one.
Absolute power corrupts
The first quality that a villain has to have is power. If the bad guy doesn’t have any power over our heroes, he is inconsequential, not a problem at all. The power can be localised, he (or she – Nur, the Syrian witch, was one of my best antagonists) doesn’t need to be omnipotent. Nur’s magic exists entirely in her own and her victims’ imagination. The bad guy I am writing about right now in Robin Hood and the Castle of Bones (Book #10, which will probably be out in August 2020) only has control over one small, forested part of Burgundy, though he does wield almost absolute power there.
The next quality a baddy often has – at least in my books – is that he or she is deformed in some way. Once-beautiful Nur was horribly disfigured by an enemy of Alan Dale’s, the villain Malbête, and that ugliness become part of her power to terrify folk. It is also why she turns towards evil – the power to do evil things is better, she reasons, than no power at all.
One of my most effective antagonists was The Master, the lord of an Order of Templar-esque religious zealots, who runs a similar outlaw operation to Robin Hood but in France. (This is a riff on the old trope: “We are much the same, you and I,” says the bad guy to the goodie). The Master was deformed – Spoiler Alert, I’m about to give away a plot point from Warlord Book #4 (pic below) – by having two thumbs on one of his hands. He’s also, naturally, very powerful both as a charismatic priest and a commander of warriors.
Sadly, sadism sells
Probably the least interesting but most effective quality of my bad guys is their sadism. Most of my villains actually enjoy inflicting pain – usually on Alan Dale – and this always give my hero a powerful motive, much more visceral than an intellectual concept, to go out and kick the bad-guy’s arse.
Malbête was a sadist – he boils an innocent girl to death in Holy Warrior (Book #2) and the White Count, my loathsome baddy from The Death of Robin Hood (Book #8), peels the skin from his living victims and turns it into gloves; he also deliberately snaps the leg of a sweet kitten! I’d have to say that I think the White Count is the greatest villain of the whole series.
Rotten sheriff of Nottingham
Perhaps oddly, the traditional enemy of Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests (there was no post of Sheriff of Nottingham until 1449), a historical character called Sir Ralph Murdac, was one of my weakest villains. He was described cruelly by one reviewer of Outlaw thus: ‘Alan describes the Sheriff as “sibilant,” “whining,” speaking with a “lisp,” and wearing “lavender-scented” cologne. Really, Donald, if you were going to go that direction, you could have just called him Pansy McLimpwrist and saved us all a block of pointless homophobic descriptions.’ Ouch! That stung. So I killed off Murdac as quickly as I could.
The villain in my most recently published book, Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold (Book #9, cover pic below), is called Khalil, and he’s a prince of the Almohad Dynasty that ruled North Africa and much of Spain in the period in which the novel is set (1191-92). He is powerful, of course, he’s the Emir of Valencia. He’s also corrupt, ruthless and indifferent to the suffering of other people, and quite prepared to punish them with unimaginable horrors to make a point or get his way. But he’s not an out-and-out sadist. Just an absolute bastard.
I think the most important thing I’ve learnt about writing villains is that they must be fully rounded, believable people. They can do horrible thing – indeed, it’s part of the job description – but there has to be a reason for their crimes. You have to “get” them; you have to understand why they do the terrible things they do. Sadists just enjoy causing pain to others, and that makes them nasty but also a little bit boring. The best bad guys, I’ve come to believe, are the ones who are uncomfortably similar to you and me.