Lemony Snicket’s 3 Keys to Memorable Villains

August 11, 2022

Who is the best literary villain of all time? Various people would argue that Dracula, Shakespeare’s Richard III, Voldemort, and Sherlock’s rival, Professor Moriarty, are top contenders. But, for me, the answer is clearly Count Olaf from A Series of Unfortunate Events. 


My nomination might confuse you. Count Olaf is a recurring figure in a set of middle-grade books about three orphans who have been placed in his custody. He steals from the defenseless—that’s his defining vice. How can he be the paradigm of villainy?


The reason, though simple, warrants paying attention to: as selfish and conniving as Count Olaf is, he’s not the embodiment of Satan. He’s the Baudelaire’s distant cousin who allowed a loss in his past to mangle his sense of morality. His acting experience gives him an advantage when stalking his targets, and he even has a love interest. 


Snicket developed Count Olaf beyond his role of inflicting misery upon the children. If you flesh out the same three areas, you can take your villains several notches deeper too.


1. Skills

Count Olaf is not a cartoon bad guy who throws fits, stumbles around, and boasts less intelligence than a ten-year-old. He harasses the Baudelaire siblings for more than a year before they finally defeat him, which demonstrates his determination and adaptability. But those traits alone don’t earn him the accolades of a compelling villain. 


Count Olaf’s schemes rely on his talent at disguising his identity. No hideaway is safe because any new person the Baudelaires meet could be Count Olaf masquerading as a friend. And he succeeds (or almost succeeds) at fooling them and other spectators on multiple occasions.


His occupation also reveals his egotistical personality. He casts himself as the star of every play he organizes and gloats over his flair at lying. Each idiosyncrasy is meaningful because it adds to the picture of who he is and how he threatens the children.


What does your villain’s expertise betray about him? His backstory? Flaws? Wounds? Superstitions and values? All of the above? Even better. When you craft an arc for your villain that encompasses his strengths and interests, he’ll seem more real. He’ll be a paradoxical conglomeration of frightening and sympathetic.


2. Motivation 

A villain resonates with readers because he reminds them of sin issues they detect in themselves. He doesn’t wreak chaos as a hobby. He may covet power, immortality, or wealth. But, more often, a villain is on a mission to retaliate pain. 


Count Olaf is misunderstood as being greed-driven, but his obsession with the Baudelaires’ inheritance has more behind it than the ambition to become rich. He blames their parents for his father’s death. Although Scripture teaches that revenge belongs only to God, readers can relate to the urge to strike back. And they understand how grief can distort someone’s outlook.


Can you (and readers) recognize the hurting person behind your villain’s crimes? His agenda needs to be intimately personal. If it isn’t, he’ll come across as a caricature of evil who can’t even justify his actions to himself.


3. Heart

In The Grim Grotto, the omniscient narrator summarizes the author’s approach to character development: “People aren’t either wicked or noble. They’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.” Count Olaf mistreats the children, but he spends his last living moments helping a woman who’s special to him. The children strive to protect their heritage, but they succumb to bad choices in stressful circumstances. All of them carry the potential to act either rightly or wrongly and display a full range of emotions.


Giving a villain redeeming qualities poses a danger, however. Throughout the Harry Potter series, Professor Snape favors students from Slytherin, his own house, and bullies others. Despite his unfairness, his loyalty to his childhood sweetheart earns him respect from Harry, who insists that the professor’s portrait hang in the hall at Hogwarts. Readers haven’t seen Snape behave nobly, yet they’re expected to agree.


Snicket lets readers make up their own minds instead. Count Olaf’s final sacrifice (saving Kit) doesn’t erase his trail of destruction. He faces consequences that challenge readers to examine their own impulses for the seeds of corruption—which is the reaction every villain should elicit. Is yours complicated enough? Will he make readers ask difficult questions? And can he stand as strongly on the threshold of “Do Not Enter” as he does on the path to the protagonist’s goals? 


Humanizing Your Villain

Next time you brainstorm ideas for a baddie, think of him as a character, not a villain. Explore his virtues as much as his vices. Pack him with history and heart. Show all the harm he causes alongside his good deeds and the tragedy he’s endured. As readers grapple with his dichotomy, they’ll be confronted with—and learn from—their own.


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