I couldn’t resist this picture. For all I know, these are the masks of the cast of characters for some ancient play–well, some play written after Pinocchio. But I’ve had fun assigning my own interpretations to them. And in my interpretation, they’re all the masks of villains.
At the bottom, we have the aforementioned Pinocchio, the seemingly benign minion whose growing nose the main character never sees. His lies fit what the MC wants to hear: “It’s only one drink. What could it hurt?” “Go ahead, no one will know.” “You don’t have to do it today. There’s plenty of time.” He works subtly, amicably, until his marionette strings wrap around the MC’s throat, and it’s either sever or die.
Then comes the clown-faced character whose motives are hidden behind a plastic smile. This is the one that the readers begin to suspect by mid-book and wait anxiously for the MC to catch on to his gimmicks–which, of course, doesn’t happen until it’s too late. These marionette strings wrap around the MC’s legs, causing him to stumble, pulling him away from his goal, or dragging him unwittingly into danger.
The beautiful woman with the vacuous eyes beguiles our hero from his task. She’s stunning, sophisticated, desirable. She ensnares his heart with her strings and turns him from the simple, pure love found in the arms of a plainer woman. She emasculates him, guides him for her own selfish needs and pleasures. Then it’s out he goes with yesterday’s newspaper.
Shift left from the woman, and you’ll see who pulls the strings of the previous three. This mastermind is the source of conflict and tension, the cause of self-destruction and failure. And as the villains trap the MC in their strings, the mastermind gains more control, and leads him, one faltering step at a time, toward the mask of death. Physical death. Emotional. Spiritual. Depends on the genre. But just as in real life, this mastermind is ever-present, awaiting his opportunity to draw the MC one more step closer to death.
All the masks hide motive. All the masks present the character to be something he’s not. All the masks can be removed at any point to reveal the character beneath. It’s up to the author and the confines of the genre.
Subtle antagonists are fascinating, and they’re definitely fun to write. We’ve come a long way from the mustache-twisting villains of silent films or the black-hatted antiheroes of the old westerns. Bad guys now have backstories. Authors dive into their psyches to determine the whys of their actions. We strive not to allow them to be so obvious, and we also strive to present something good about them, even if it’s nothing more than allowing them sympathy for a wet cat.
The picture above doesn’t come near to portraying all the different types of malefactors we authors can conjure. In The Cat Lady’s Secret, the bad guy wasn’t really bad at all–just a man whose job of sniffing out secrets clashed with the woman who had secrets to keep. To her, “death” would be the end of a relationship.
Who are your favorite villains? Was he/she obvious from the start, or one who took you by surprise?