I read Silence of the Lambs for the first time and finished it last week. I went on to watch the movie, noted all the differences, disappointments and improvements (like a good writer) and then continued on with my life.
And yet something stuck with me.
Both the movie and book versions–and from this point onward, I won’t differentiate–did something that is incredibly difficult to do.
They created not one, but TWO of the most memorable villains in modern entertainment.
Hannibal Lecter we all know. The brilliant psychologist with a penchant for cooking and art, who is also an emotionless killer with a taste for human organs.
And, of course, Buffalo Bill, who kidnaps and kills young women so he can sew a suit out of their skin and transform himself–insert moth-to-butterfly symbolism–into a version of himself that isn’t so ugly.
Three qualities make them classic villains, the kind we can’t forget.
1) The first–Rule #1, for those of you creating villains–is motive.
Hannibal and Buffalo Bill both have clear and concrete motives that are easy to summarize.
Hannibal doesn’t want to help the FBI, but he does anyway. Why? Because he’s fascinated by Clarice Starling, and also because he wants a room with a window. He also wishes to know more details about the Buffalo Bill case.
Those are three reasons, right? Not really.
Hannibal Lecter is driven by his curiosity. In the first film anyway. It drives him to help Clarice Starling find Bill. He cherishes any glimpses he can get into the outside world, including her soul.
Buffalo Bill is the main villain in this story, and his motive is to transform himself out of the ugly thing he is and into something beautiful. He hates himself and believes that wearing a woman’s skin will make him hate himself less. That’s his motive for killing girls. He doesn’t do it because he hates them. He does it because he hates himself.
2) The second reason that Hannibal and Buffalo Bill are so compelling is that they both have special abilities.
Hannibal Lecter is brilliant. He can sketch images of classical Italian buildings from memory, in perfect detail. He can smell and identify exactly which creams and fragrances Clarice is wearing and can even smell the blood clotting on her leg when she is wounded. Not to mention his analytical genius, which allows him to see into anyone’s soul as easily as looking through a window.
Buffalo Bill is an excellent tailor. Think of him as a tailor gone mad, who makes clothes for women for so long that eventually he begins to play with the idea of making clothes out of women. He’s not just some psycho with a knife; he’s a creator, an artist of sorts.
3) …and the third quality that makes Hannibal and Billy so compelling–one all great villains share–is their belief that they aren’t doing anything wrong, which causes them to have no remorse.
There’s nothing more chilling than a villain who believes he’s doing the right thing by bringing death and destruction into the world. Hitler thought he was saving Germany. Psychopathic killers lack empathy and therefore don’t recognize there is such a thing as “wrong.”
Summary: The greatest TV, film and book villains are driven by a need, a motive. They don’t just kill and maim for pleasure. The ones that do are too crazy for us normal people to sympathize with. They also have abilities that make them much better hunters than we could ever be. To top it off, their lack of remorse gives them the clarity to do what they do without being dragged down by indecision and guilt.
Bring to mind your favorite villains. Do they share these qualities?