On Creating a Villain
Hey. Hi. Yeah… it’s me. Look, I know it’s been a while, but that’s why my bio doesn’t include “responsible adult” in it anywhere. But I’m back now. Oh, and Dave is here, too. Say hi, Dave. Dave? Hmm, must be his nap time. Well, that’s all right. I’m here. And today, I’d like to talk to you about villains.
Villains can be some of the most fun characters to read and write about. A proper villain is as compelling—and occasionally more so—as the protagonist. When writing, often so much focus is put on the protagonist that the villain can fall by the wayside. A villain just can’t be a villain if he (or she) is underdeveloped. A good way to fully render a villain to completion it to loosely base the character on someone real. Want an example? I’ve got the perfect one.
The Personification of Hate and Rage
On September 5, 1930, Carl Panzram was hanged by the neck until dead at U.S. Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kansas. To say the very least, Panzram was not a good man.
In my life I have murdered 21 human beings, I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons and last but not least I have committed sodomy on more than 1,000 male human beings. For all of these things I am not the least bit sorry […] I hate the whole damned human race including myself.
That excerpt is penned by none other than the man himself and published in Panzram: A Journal of Murder. All quotes included in this entry are credited to that book. I highly recommend you read it. However, if you want an alternative, look no further than Last Podcast on the Left’s three-part series on Panzram.
So, what makes Panzram so appealing in terms of creating a villain? Everything. But I’m going to try to keep this short…ish. Panzram is simultaneously like and unlike the average serial killer. Well, maybe average isn’t the right word, but you catch my meaning. Of the unholy serial killer trifecta—bed wetting, animal cruelty, and arson—Panzram is known to have at least dabbled in two: arson and animal cruelty. However, Panzram regretted his cruelty toward animals. A bit unusual for a serial killer. Furthermore, he specifically used arson as a form of punishment. Arson wasn’t about pleasure or destruction, rather it was about revenge against someone who’d done him harm.
The Blissful Formative Years
Looking at Panzram’s childhood and encounters with authority—he was in and out of lock-up since age 11—it’s not hard to understand how his mentality could be so dark. So fucking angry. At 11, Panzram was sent to a reform school for stealing apples, a piece of cake, and a pistol from a neighbor. At this school, they would use punishment in the form torture:
They used to have a large wooden block which we were bent over and tied face downward after first being stripped naked. Then a large towel was soaked in salt water and spread on our backs from the shoulders to the knees. Then the man who was doing the whipping took a large strap about ¼ of an inch thick by 4 inches and about two feet long. This strap had a lot of little round holes punched through it. Every time that whip came down on the body the skin would come up through these little holes in the strap and after 25 or 30 times of this, little blisters would form and then burst, and right there and then, hell began. The salt water would do the rest.
That was happening to 11-year-olds by reformers trying to beat religion into them. But it gets worse. After his release, around age 13-14, Panzram was gangraped by hobos on a train. He says:
I told them no. But my wishes didn’t make any difference to them. What they couldn’t get by moral persuasion the proceeded to get by force. I cried, begged and pleaded for mercy, pity and sympathy, but nothing I could say or do could sway them from their purpose. I left that box car a sadder, sicker but wiser boy than I was when I entered it.
And that shit happened again not too long after! Panzram’s only education was in the form of the strong physical brutalizing the weak. Through his encounters with everyone from hobos to law enforcement, he learned that “might makes right.” From his early encounters with men, Panzram learned that sodomy was a display of strength. It wasn’t about pleasure, it was about power.
During one particularly lengthy prison stay—he was constantly breaking out early—Panzram had to carry the 50-lb iron ball shackled to him three miles to the rock quarry, work eight and a half hours busting rocks, then carry the ball the three miles back to prison. This lasted for six months. You better believe that motha’ fucker was jacked after that.
So began Panzram’s reign of terror.
Writing a Villain
By looking at Panzram’s own account of his life, we get to see a great deal of his thinking, his beliefs, his motivations, and so on. Combine that with others’ view of the man—many of whom stated that his very presence was larger than life—and we start to get a complete picture. This man, whose motto was “rob them all, rape them all, and kill them all” is definitely not one-dimensional. And neither should fictional villains be.
When creating a villain, start from the beginning. Look at the formative years of some of the world’s most prolific serial killers and use that psychology to help you form a background for your character. Think of how you want your villain to be seen by other characters, and by readers. I picked Panzram as an example because he’s both charismatic and terrifying, manipulative and driven by unadulterated hate, uneducated and intelligent. He’s the basis from which you could create the sociopathic villain that everyone likes and trusts until it’s too late or the seeming monster who seeks power and revenge. Either of those choices could build a striking, engaging villain that captivates readers.
Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be posting a four-part fiction series focusing on a villain. This particular series came about in a creative writing class from years ago, and sees a Disney villain going on a blind date. My villain is Chernabog. I’ve revisited the original series to incorporate elements of Panzram. I look forward to sharing it with you.