Paranormal Thriller Author E.F. Watkins Tells Us What Makes a “Good” Bad Guy

E. F. Watkins is my next guest for the 2012 Fall Into Winter Darkness Book Blast. She’s here to talk about one of the darkest parts of a story — villains. Welcome, E.F.!

E.F. Watkins is giving away a free download of One Blood

What makes a “good” bad guy? by E.F. Watkins

More than any other type of fiction, the success of a “dark” story hinges upon the villain. What would The Silence of the Lambs by without Hannibal Lecter? What would Rebecca be without Mrs. Danvers (and, of course, the unseen title character)? What would Dracula be without-? Well, you get the idea.

In a good thriller or horror story, the villain keeps us not only frightened but intrigued, so we eagerly turn the pages. He or she may be even more compelling that the hero. But it’s not enough to write the 21st-century equivalent of Snidely Whiplash, twirling his moustache and cackling in delight over his evil deeds. Readers today look for something more complex in their bad guys.

A memorable villain today should have these key traits:

  • Advantages over the good guy. If your villainis younger and stronger (or older and more experienced), wealthier, and/or has special skills your hero/heroine lacks — such as military training or supernatural powers — he’ll seem unbeatable. Of course, he’s got to have a weakness, too, but it should take your hero a while to discover it.
  • Three-dimensional. If he’s evil 24/7, towards everyone and everything, he becomes predictable, boring…and frankly, unrealistic. Dracula in the novel is intelligent, with diabolical charm; Mrs. Danvers runs Manderley well and remains loyal to her late mistress; Michael Corleone was a war hero before taking up the “family business.”
  • Bizarre or extreme. On the other hand, a scary villain goes further in his evil than anyone else. Dracula became an immortal vampire—of his own doing? (Check the book.)  Lecter is a cannibal. Michael Corleone killed a cop and wiped out the leaders of five crime families in one day! This makes them…
  • Unpredictable. Because he’s controlled sometimes, extreme at other times, you’re never sure what to expect. The psychopathic killer who might spare someone under certain circumstances keeps you guessing. Will he suddenly change his mind?
  • Not 100% self-centered. If he cares for even one thing beyond himself, it humanizes him. Plot twist — if he loses that thing, he can go berserk! The “Tooth Fairy” serial killer in Red Dragon falls in love with a blind woman, but when he thinks she’s cheating on him, all hell breaks loose! This also gives you the option of evolving a bad guy into a good guy, as I did in my novels One Blood and Dance with the Dragon.

The villains in my books embody the kind of folks I despise I real life, bullies who feel superior to everyone else. If you’ve ever listened to a truly vicious criminal trying to justify his actions, most have that kind of arrogance. But I try to keep my bad guys surprising in a few ways. Most are physically attractive, and in a couple of cases unusually handsome or beautiful—I think this plays against our human expectations that evil and “ugly” go together. Also, an attractive, well-dressed and well-spoken person can manipulate others much more easily than a crude, offensive slob! (Remember Ted Bundy?) My villains also tend to be highly intelligent and self-controlled, only losing their tempers when pushed to extremes. Isn’t that scarier than someone who blusters all the time? The people who have truly scared me in real life were the ones who wielded such power that they never needed to raise their voices to make people quake in their shoes. (Think Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.)

I think a “good” bad guy appeals to both the writer and the reader for several reasons. First it’s fun to be scared, harmlessly. The villain also can express our own dark side. By identifying with him, we can break the rules, do things we wouldn’t dare to in real life, and get away with it…for a while.

On the other hand, though, the bad guy also becomes a stand-in for people in real life who have treated us badly. That’s why, no matter how fascinating he may be, we really do want to see him punished in the end!

More About One Blood

Disgusted with his long, bloodthirsty existence, Jon Sharpay discovers a fresh challenge—the last living descendent of the arch-enemy who nearly destroyed him a century ago. He travels from New York City to Princeton to hunt down Kat Van Braam, a curator at the university’s art museum. But Sharpay also is being hunted, by two men—one determined to avenge the death of his pregnant young wife, the other a foreign agent out to recruit Sharpay’s paranormal skills for an international crime organization.

When Sharpay meets the brilliant and beautiful Kat, his plans for her expand beyond mere revenge. Kat also is drawn to “Dr. Sharpay,” the mysterious Eastern European scholar… until she learns his true nature and identity. Then she fights his enslavement of her will and vows to succeed where her ancestor failed—to keep this creature from ever harming anyone else. But will she be undone by her own “sympathy for the Devil”?

E. F. Watkins
Photo by Eugene Parciasepe, Jr.

E. F. Watkins specializes in paranormal suspense, and since 2003 has published six novels with Amber Quill Press LLC. Her first, DANCE WITH THE DRAGON, received a 2004 EPPIE Award from the national organization EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Connection) as Best Horror Novel. Next came the romantic mystery RIDE A DANCING HORSE (as “Eileen Watkins”). Her third book, BLACK FLOWERS, was a Finalist in the Thriller category for both the 2006 EPPIEs and the 2007 Indie Excellence Book Awards. She also has published the paranormal thrillers PARAGON and DANU’S CHILDREN. Her latest, ONE BLOOD, is a prequel to DANCE WITH THE DRAGON and was a Finalist in the Paranormal category for the 2012 EPIC eBook awards. E.F. Watkins lives in northern New Jersey. Her personal website is and her books also can purchased through Amber Quill Press.

Tell us which bad guy is your favorite, or least favorite, and why in the comments for a chance to win a free download of One Blood. Thank you, Eileen, for guest blogging today. Hope everyone is having a great weekend!


Published by

Jill Archer

Jill Archer is the author of the Noon Onyx series, genre-bending fantasy novels including DARK LIGHT OF DAY, FIERY EDGE OF STEEL, WHITE HEART OF JUSTICE, and POCKET FULL OF TINDER.

12 thoughts on “Paranormal Thriller Author E.F. Watkins Tells Us What Makes a “Good” Bad Guy

  1. Out of all the villains Eileen mentioned in her post, Michael Corleone is my favorite. His motivation, and his slow, reluctant descent into evil is mesmerizing and feels realistic. He’s a family man and a killer. It’s a chilling transformation.

    The winner of the free download of One Blood is… Goria Richard! Gloria, please e-mail Eileen at “eilwatkins at aol dot com” to coordinate delivery.

  2. I’ve read too many antagonists to choose merely one BBEG as a favorite. The antagonists are highly dependant on the setting and plot, so while one BBEG may be intense and personal (as in the movie Alex Cross) another may be distant and cold (like Skynet from the Terminator series). Surveys have picked out Darth Vader as the #1 movie villain of all time — there isn’t much to like about a traitor.

    Getting away from movie references, two BBEGs come to mind. First, there is the Emperor Jagang in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Second, there is Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. Both are human – powerful, but still human – and yet are so corrupt as to be irredeemable.

    I should note that I’m ambivalent about the “well-meaning” villain. The one who isn’t really evil, just misguided or misinformed or perhaps deluded or whatever the case may be. To some degree I think that the very human, redeemable bad guy has been overused. Antagonists like Jagang and Voldemort know that what they do is wrong but choose to do it anyway. I find that makes a much more compelling villain. Many of the most heinous serial killers know that there is something wrong with them but cannot stop themselves. They accepted their own twisted nature.

    None of that, however, eliminates the requirement of fleshing-out the character, as Ms. Watkins noted in the post. I can think of a few individuals I know who would make fair villains, at least from the point of view of certain people. And as she mentioned, arrogance plays a big part in it. The other motivation (good for plotters like Jill who write out GMC!) is revenge, which can make normal people irrational. I remember someone telling me, “Yes, I was a total _____ to him, but he deserved it.” Perhaps it was true, or perhaps he got carried away.

    1. Skynet’s a great example of a non-character villain. (So is Frankenstorm!) Although Eileen’s article is focused on character villains. Interesting that Darth Vadar is the #1 movie villain. I don’t think that would be my choice but I admit, I liked seeing his backstory developed in the last three/first three Star Wars movies. Revenge motivated his first steps toward the dark side. I read somewhere that revenge can be an even more powerful motivator than love. Possibly true and if so, sad.

      Thanks for the in depth comment! For any non-RPG’ers, BBEG = Big Bad Evil Guy. 😀

  3. I really enjoyed the post. “Bad Guys” are difficult to get right. Especially when he or she goes around tripping up your precious hero or heroine. Very annoying.

  4. Thank you, E.F. (and hostess Jill)!

    I’ve bookmarked this post.

    It could not be more timely. I’ve studies many craft books and intellectually know the villain has to be three dimensional and believable. It’s difficult for me to craft the “good guy” side of villains because I (unlike the reader) know from the onset that they mean to cause mayhem in my protagonist’s life. When I’m in voice, I live vicariously through my protagonist (and, her interactions with Alpha Male). It’s difficult for me to translate what I intellectually know into a character chart.

    I just want to bonk the bad dude on the noggin!

    This offers concrete advice even I can tolerate when crafting some good into my evil.

    Off to write with renewed faith. I had several AHA moments while reading. this and have some character charting (ugh!) to do while the bad guy synapses still ping.

    1. Hi Gloria, I thought Eileen’s post was excellent and I’m glad you found it helpful. Sometimes, it is hard to write scenes knowing what the ultimate ending will be, but I try to put myself in the character’s head at that moment in time. Eileen’s 2nd and 5th points (that a villain be three dimensional and care for something beyond themselves) can be helpful during those moments. Every character is the hero of their own story. Thanks for the comment!

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