I’ve been watching a show called “The Following”. The premise was intriguing – a brilliant serial killer reaches out from prison to create a cult of like-minded would-be serial killers. The only man who has a chance of stopping the madman and his army is the burnt-out former FBI agent who caught him the first time. But the agent has a pacemaker (thanks to a stab wound from the killer years ago) which impairs his ability to fight and run and chase the bad guys. I should mention he’s in love with the killer’s ex-wife. This fellow is not just flawed, he is all broke up in little bitty pieces.
The killer, on the other hand, is flawless. Everything he tries succeeds. Every episode ends with his plan moving forward, even though the full force of the FBI is devoted to chasing him. His people obey him without question. He has followers in every level of law enforcement and around every corner. If he doesn’t have followers, he’s got blackmailed people who are doing what he says because he knows something they don’t want shared. No matter what complicated plan the FBI puts in place to catch him, the killer is fourteen steps ahead. And because of that, the show is pretty terrible. The good guys play it stupidly every time, and the bad guys romp away laughing.
We’ve talked many times here about the hero needing to be less than perfect, that he needs to be flawed in some way so that we, as readers, can empathize with what he has to suffer in the story. The same is true of the villain. Even if the bad guy is an emperor with enough soldiers to hold Asia in the toughest game of Risk ever, if he has no weaknesses, the reader isn’t going to believe the hero can win, and you run the risk of her not finishing the story at all.
I’m not suggesting you make your bad guy a weakling who’s only hanging on by the skin of his teeth. In order to be a bad guy, he needs to be scary and powerful. In The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers created Horrabin, a terrifying evil clown who leads a pack of beggars in 19th century London. He uses magic to twist and mutilate his beggars to make them more pitiful and hopefully increase their earning power. He seems invincible, except for one thing – he walks on stilts because if he touches the earth, he’ll lose his magical power. It’s a great weakness that isn’t obvious at first glance, but which eventually assists in his undoing. In my own book, the Danisobans control magic and seem to be unbeatable, except for their sensitivity to salt water.
It doesn’t have to be a physical weakness, either. Emotional weaknesses are just as debilitating, and in some cases, harder for the villain to overcome. Say the all-powerful wizard in his impregnable tower has a sister who ran away from the magic in her family years before, because she could see what was happening to her brother. The wizard still loves his sister, and secretly admires her strength for escaping. He’s kept an eye on her for years, from afar, but has done his best to keep anyone from knowing who she is. His love is the chink in his magical armor.
Let’s look at your characters for a minute, specifically your Big Bad. What’s his weakness? What’s the one thing that could distract him enough for the good guys to find their way in? If you can’t think of it, you might want to take some time with that character and work it out. Everyone’s got an Achilles heel – even the worst villain ever. You just have to find it so that your heroes can take advantage of it, and so your story will flow.