A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Avast there, ye swabs

As has often been stated, the whole point about the bad guy is that he thinks he’s the good guy. From Hitler or Stalin down, they’re convinced that they’re doing the right thing for the best possible motives.

When this cardinal rule of villainy is broken, what you get are the cardboard, pantomime baddies of the Bond movies — one trick ponies with no inner life. Or you get monsters, distinguished from real villains by their primary defining characteristic: implacability. There’s nothing you can say to Godzilla that’ll dissuade him (it?) from ripping your head off and using it as a bowling ball to knock down skyscrapers.


If you want a great villain, go back to Treasure Island and Long John Silver.

Admittedly he’s under no illusions that his actions are, from a socially-sanctioned point of view, ‘good’. But he is utterly convinced that he is entitled to Flint’s treasure and that the story’s good guys — the sanctimonious Squire Trelawney and his gang of self-righteous gentry — are trying to make off with what is rightfully his.

But what makes Silver such a truly fascinating and charismatic character is his affection for the book’s narrator, Jim Hawkins. Silver seems to regard Jim as the son he never had — an attachment that the fatherless Jim returns. Silver struggles desperately to separate Jim from Trelawney and his acolytes and bring him over to the pirates; not from any ulterior motive, but because he likes — maybe even loves — him.

Seen through Jim’s eyes, it is this fascinating moral ambiguity that makes Treasure Island one of the greatest of all children’s books. Speaking for myself, at the end of the book I’d like to have seen Jim escape with Silver, Flint’s booty tucked under their arms, to become joint scourges of the high seas. That’s a proper future for an intelligent, resourceful lad.

(And by the way, since we’re talking pirates, Captain Hook isn’t a villain. He’s a fabulous, symbiotic, cyborg monster: 45% man, 45% crocodile, 10% alarm clock.)

So anyway, what’s the takeaway, as the grownups seem to call it these days?

If any villain is to come off the page and engage the reader, they must, I think:

  • believe that their actions are right and justified;
  • act in such a way as to throw the motives and behaviour of the ‘good guys’ into question;
  • have a complex, ambiguous relationship with the main character;
  • be sympathetic to the audience, who must, at some level, see the villain’s point of view and even want them to succeed.

And you, the author, must love your villains, enjoy their company, and understand where they’re coming from and why, in their own eyes, they deserve to succeed. You may even weep when (if) they get their comeuppance…


DH mugshot

Donald Hounam

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Donald Hounam grew up just outside Oxford. He toyed with medieval history at St Andrews University, and wrote a PhD thesis on apocalyptic beliefs in the early Crusades. He threw paint around at the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford, then found himself in Dublin where he threw more paint around and reviewed films until his flatmate set the building alight one Christmas, whereupon he scuttled back to England and started making up stories.

He is guilty of two novels featuring forensic sorcerer Frank Sampson: Gifted (2015) and Pariah (2016).

2 comments on “Avast there, ye swabs

  1. moira Butterfield
    March 22, 2017

    Fantastic timing for me, this! A great way to get me thinking about the villain that I’m about to create. It’s all to easy to slip into ‘Bond’ cliche. Thank you.

  2. dhounam
    March 22, 2017

    Pleased it helps. If only I could follow my own prescriptions…

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