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
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