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.



13 comments to Weaknesses

  • I began watching but was creeped out Blythe way the son was being groomed. I did like Kevin bacon, but I also thought that the FBI was ineffective and couldn’t figure out how the bad guy managed to be so powerful from jail. It strained credulity. And you are right. He is too lacking in weakness and the good guys are too overloaded with it.

  • You lasted way longer on the Following than I did. The stupid cops in the episode with the “abused” wife did it for me. That and the animal killing/maiming. That’s it. I was done. Fabulous premise. Horrible execution. And please, can we have a non-homicidal English professor for once? I mean, I know it’s realistic and all, I’m sure AJ has a tomb of dead co-eds somewhere, I know Sarah and I do, but really, it’s getting old.

    As for villains, in my current WIP, the Big Bad has a Big Bad of her own, and that’s her driving motivation, so that’s what her own weakness is. And it is a parent-big bad story of a sort, (YA/NA) so that relationship is a weakness for the villain, too.

  • MaCrae

    My big bad has a magical equivalent of cancer that makes her weak and shunned by her own kind. Her need for a cure and a way to be more powerful gives her motivation. And revenge is a nice side dish too. What she lacks in physical and magical strength, she makes up in brains.

  • Hubris. Forgetting to be malleable. No longer being human enough to be compassionate. And also the fact that he’s a blood-sucking BBU.

  • Very helpful post as I work out the final chapters of my WIP and try to find a way to destroy the villain I’ve spent 300+ pages building up. Hubris is a big one, as is obsessiveness in pursuit of aims (vengeance, world domination, the perfect pizza . . .).

  • Emily, maybe a homicidal math professor instead? We all know they’re evil already. 😉

  • Yeah, we’ve been waffling over continuing to watch The Following. Dude just seems like he has thousands of sleeper followers he can tap at a moment’s notice while the whole of the FBI are inept fools. Bring Booth and Bones in on the thing, he’ll be taken down in no time. 😉

    I think his weakness isn’t so much internal, though there may be something to be said for Bacon’s character shaking his confidence and pulling on that rug of sanity that they seem to be hinting hides something a bit less controlled, but external. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and I think that link is Emma. It was a mistake to sleep with her and I think that may come back to bite him on the hind parts. Still, I hope something gives soon or even my patience will wane. I’ve already given it far more time than I’ve given most shows.

  • Oh, and I shoulda actually said something about weakness itself. Overconfidence is a good one. Shaking that tree tends to make one who might be a little unhinged lose it, make mistakes, do something drastic or risky. I have one villain in a novel that prides himself on order and he slips further throughout the book as he can’t seem to quell what he sees as the chaos around him growing. I have a BBU in another that’s actually LBU to a BBBU. He’s already power hungry, driven insane by the chaos magics he wields, and doesn’t take failure well. He doesn’t realize he’s being used, which will not make him happy. The BBU is massively powerful, patient, but very overconfident. His problem may arise when that confidence in the outcome is shaken.

    The current I’m writing, the BBU is more a corporate entity controlled by a megalomaniacal sociopath, but the LBUs under him have a number of issues themselves. This one’s basically gonna be a series.

    And I have a bunch of other works.

  • Daniel, yes, we’ve decided that every new character is either about to be killed, or is a sleeper villain. So far we haven’t been wrong very often. *sigh*

  • I only watched for one episode — I thought that “Marc Anthony” (can’t remember his FOLLOWING name, but that’s who he played in ROME 🙂 ) was compelling enough, and Kevin Bacon was doing a fine job, but the TSTL cops and the *way* over-the-top violence pushed me away.

    That said, I think it’s interesting when series evolve so that the antagonist *is* the protagonist. And vice versa (viz. BREAKING BAD). THE FOLLOWING only works if you’re *so* wrapped up in the bad guy that you’re rooting for him, on some level. And when he’s omnipotent, well, the sport becomes boring…

  • Oh yeah right. The big bad. I should include one of those in this novel, or more than one.

  • Razziecat

    One of my pet peeves is villains who are too powerful to lose. Everyone’s got a weakness. A favorite example: In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf (or was it Elrond?) explains that Sauron will never expect the good guys to try to destroy the One Ring, because Sauron himself would never do so. A BBU who sees everything through the lens of his own desires is often blind to other ways of being. If he can’t guess what the good guys will do against him, he may not be able to counter it.

  • Well, then. That’s one show that mildly piqued my curiosity, but which we never got around to recording. I’ll take this post (and the subsequent comments) as a recommendation not to bother.

    I know it took a little while, but I love how in Once Upon A Time, the Evil Queen’s weaknesses are really showing now, especially Henry.

    Agreed with Daniel – Overconfidence is a good weakness. The BBU acting on the theory that s/he’s already won, and making mistakes as a result. Also, in my UF WIP, I have an evil faerie who’s been kicked out of Faerie whose major weakness is her homesickness, even though if she were to go back, she’d just resume her same evil deeds as before rather than meddling with humans.