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Old 12-21-2012, 12:57 AM   #1
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What Makes a Villain Sinister?

A friend and I got into a discussion the other day about villains. I mention wanting creating a charming villain with a sinister side. The only thing is, no matter how long we discussed it, neither could really define what a sinister character was. We couldn't define what makes a character sinister, what characteristics they would have, how would they behave that would make them sinister?

Maybe some people on the forums could help me with this.
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Old 12-21-2012, 01:05 AM   #2
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sin·is·ter (sn-str)
adj.
1. Suggesting or threatening evil: a sinister smile.


With that said, it's not exactly being evil or acting evil, but with a hint of it. A sinister smile is a great example because a smile is regarded as good and nice, but a certain tinge hints that the person has a hidden addenda. Someone holding a knife behind his back, waiting for you to turn around.
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Old 12-21-2012, 01:07 AM   #3
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I think Will hit the nail on the head.
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Old 12-21-2012, 01:20 AM   #4
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My thoughts -

A good backstory.

The villian in my stories has a compelling case. One you could almost relate to - the foggy grey area. A character becomes evil by choosing the wrong paths in life, hardening them, making them become sinister, so what they do they believe is right, even though it is very wrong.

Last edited by WriterWho; 12-21-2012 at 01:45 AM.
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Old 12-21-2012, 01:24 AM   #5
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My thoughts -

A good back story.

The villian in my stories has a compelling case. One you could almost relate to - the foggy grey area. A character becomes evil by choosing the wrong paths in life, hardening them, making them become sinister, so what they do they believe is the right, even though it is very wrong.
I have to second this. Yes, a good backstory. A good reason why they are the way they are. I don't care about villains that are evil just to be evil.
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Old 12-21-2012, 01:41 AM   #6
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Old 12-21-2012, 01:52 AM   #7
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Just occasionally he or she or it should throw back their head or heads or analogue and "MUHAHAHAHAHAHA I will destroy you ALL." As long as you don't do it too often the readers will notice, but the characters might not.

Less subtle but even better is just one thing off, repreated, a glitter in the eyes, a look that appears momentarily but is quickly snatched away when someone notices. A penchant for collecting something a bit off, polished horse bones or something.
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Old 12-21-2012, 03:39 AM   #8
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I know sinister by what runs a shiver down my spine. Sometimes it's word choice, sometimes it's a gesture. I never know what, but that little something the character says or does that hints that they're not being entirely truthful in an important moment, that they really could intend harm to the character(s) I care about.

I think sinister (which actually means "left", FWIW) is in the nuances and little things. It's the secret behind the facade that you only get a glimpse of now and again--not so often that you believe it instantly, but too often that you can't help but notice the niggle. It's in the subtle details.
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Old 12-21-2012, 05:05 AM   #9
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What villains did you personally find sinister, and what was it about them that gave you the creeps?

I think little details make a lot of difference, as well. Jonathan Harker sits down to elaborate meals in Dracula's castle and notices his host never eats any of it. Asenath is outspoken in public but somber and withdrawn in her house. Hannibal Lecter is calm and collected while surrounded by people who are screaming, yelling, and throwing things out of their cells... and yet he's under stricter security measures than they are. Subtle things that do not, in and of themselves, mean anything but pile up to a serious set of red flags that something is really, really wrong with this person; that can play a big part in achieveing a sinister effect.
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Old 12-21-2012, 05:32 AM   #10
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Characters become sinister to a reader through the characters' actions and reactions. Some of these could be told via backstory, but they are way more chilling if the reader experiences them while they are happening, particularly if those actions/reactions are shocking, despicable, or downright mysterious. As with all characters, the reader will best identify with what he/she directly experiences in the story. Much more so than if the same information about the characters is just told to that reader.

A good writer could make a white-collar cheat seem just as sinister as a flesh-boiling cannibal.
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Old 12-21-2012, 05:58 AM   #11
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We're trying to represent in print what a good actor can portray with a look or mannerism. Take James Mason in The Prisoner of Zenda, Damien Lewis in the recent adaptation of The Forsyte Saga, or Christopher Walken in just about anything.

‘Sinister’ should hint at motive and intent, not just current behaviour.
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Old 12-21-2012, 06:18 AM   #12
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Neuro hit it right on the head, and to add, sinister does not have to mean evil.
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Old 12-21-2012, 07:19 AM   #13
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I think there is a certain unapologetic air about a truly sinister villain. They know exactly what they're doing, and won't be stopped. While they might be calculating, they are never hesitant. Rather than suddenly waking up on the Dark Side like, say, the Well-Intentioned Extremist, they step over the line quite conscientiously.
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Old 12-21-2012, 08:07 AM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by DeleyanLee View Post
I know sinister by what runs a shiver down my spine. Sometimes it's word choice, sometimes it's a gesture. I never know what, but that little something the character says or does that hints that they're not being entirely truthful in an important moment, that they really could intend harm to the character(s) I care about.

I think sinister (which actually means "left", FWIW) is in the nuances and little things. It's the secret behind the facade that you only get a glimpse of now and again--not so often that you believe it instantly, but too often that you can't help but notice the niggle. It's in the subtle details.
This ^^^.
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Old 12-21-2012, 01:01 PM   #15
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A "sinister side" for me would be a ruthless side. Charming or not, this character would cross dead bodies for something and feel no remorse. It could be building houses on polluted and unfit ground for profit; it could be killing someone and eating their liver; it could be blowing up up a building full of civilians for a Cause.

The sinister aspect for me, would be the whiff of that ruthlessness, that complete feeling of entitlement, that makes this character do those things and not even question the basic premise that only his wishes matters and that others are pawns to be used and abused according to his wishes. It's about, IMO, giving the reader glimpses into the dark void that lies beneath the charming exterior. I think it's about giving the reader a little vertigo by allowing brief glimpses into just how far he could go. That can be done very subtly; with gestures, in trivial choices, in conversation or by bursts of sudden repulsive actions.

Someone mentioned The Prisoner of Zenda - I haven't seen that, but I've read it and Rupert is very charming, handsome and funny, but he also kills friends and foes without feeling any sort of remorse, and that's made obvious pretty early on. Once that's established (through his actions) he's a Charming Villain™.
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Old 12-21-2012, 02:00 PM   #16
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Old 12-21-2012, 03:46 PM   #17
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Quote:
Spy on the Inside: We couldn't define what makes a character sinister, what characteristics they would have, how would they behave that would make them sinister?
A sinister character is not who he appears to be. He's driven by unnatural wants and needs which he keeps carefully hidden from the public eye. He spends countless hours thinking about them and planning ways to fulfill them. No matter what he says or does, his intent is always self-serving. He lacks empathy. He is amoral.
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Old 12-21-2012, 04:02 PM   #18
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A clear sense that they're willing to go beyond the moral limits of the protagonist to achieve their means. Understated, too. Like it's no big deal. To me, that's the difference between "sinister" and "scenery chewing".

Non sinister: "I'll kill you! I'll kill your wife, your sons, your daughters AND your dog!"

Sinister: "Look, I understand where you're coming from, I really do. It's just, how do I put this? It's just, I really need you to play ball on this one, OK? I need you to be a team player. I don't have time for people who don't wanna be part of a team, see? Got no no time for them. And if I've got no time for them, then they're of no use to me. You understand? You wannna be useful, STAY useful? Then do what I say, OK? Otherwise, well...I don't know otherwise." Pats the protagonist on the cheek. "You're a good boy, Eddie. Don't go making me think otherwise, OK?"
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Old 12-21-2012, 06:38 PM   #19
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Quote:
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Non sinister: "I'll kill you! I'll kill your wife, your sons, your daughters AND your dog!"
That reminds me of the protagonist reading her work out loud in Romancing the Stone:

"...murdered my father, raped and murdered my sister, shot my dog, burned my ranch and stole my Bible!" Which illustrates your point: the line is played effectively for laughs. Overcompensating villains tend to be harder to believe in, and are therefore often funny.
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Old 12-21-2012, 06:40 PM   #20
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My take on a sinister villain is as follows: Sociopath.

Psychopaths are out of their mind, often bent on something. Screaming, yelling, can't be talked down, can't be reasoned with, can't be predicted.

Sociopaths, however, are quite logical, conversive, even relatable at times. They simply don't believe what they're doing is wrong. They think they are doing the right thing, the necessary thing. They can be reasoned with, though they may never be talked out of what they're doing.

Sociopaths are my favorite of the two to write, if you hadn't noticed.
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Old 12-21-2012, 06:46 PM   #21
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Except that sociopath is the new shiny word for psychopath.
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Old 12-21-2012, 07:30 PM   #22
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Except that sociopath is the new shiny word for psychopath.
It makes me very sad. Because there is a difference, many people have just forgotten or ignored it.
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Old 12-21-2012, 08:29 PM   #23
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Quote:
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That reminds me of the protagonist reading her work out loud in Romancing the Stone:

"...murdered my father, raped and murdered my sister, shot my dog, burned my ranch and stole my Bible!"
YAY!

RTS is one of my favourite guilty pleasures, and I absolutely LOVE the opening of the movie - it tweaks the nose of romance stories, then plays with the tropes in Joan's own romantic adventure. Think I might just watch this tonight schnuggled up on the couch with the bunny and a glass of wine

BTW, regarding what makes villains sinister (as opposed to outright evil) is that subtle indication that they're not quite right. It's nothing you can put your finger on, and if called upon to cite concrete evidence of your concerns you'd struggle, but you just get the feeling they are not what they seem, and could potentially be a real dangerous piece of work.

Conveying this in fiction usually entails a lot of dramatic irony.
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Old 12-21-2012, 09:01 PM   #24
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A sinister character is not who he appears to be. He's driven by unnatural wants and needs which he keeps carefully hidden from the public eye. He spends countless hours thinking about them and planning ways to fulfill them. No matter what he says or does, his intent is always self-serving. He lacks empathy. He is amoral.

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Old 12-25-2012, 10:52 AM   #25
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Quote:
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My take on a sinister villain is as follows: Sociopath.

Psychopaths are out of their mind, often bent on something. Screaming, yelling, can't be talked down, can't be reasoned with, can't be predicted.

Sociopaths, however, are quite logical, conversive, even relatable at times. They simply don't believe what they're doing is wrong. They think they are doing the right thing, the necessary thing. They can be reasoned with, though they may never be talked out of what they're doing.

Sociopaths are my favorite of the two to write, if you hadn't noticed.
Ooh I agree with this!
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