The Tricky Task of Writing a Villain

Whether in fiction or in journalism, telling stories about bad guys isn’t clear-cut: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Black-and-white photographs of an eye and pursed lips cropped on a black background
Getty; The Atlantic

In literature, and in real life, many times the villain makes the story. But writing a nuanced account of these characters, whether in fiction or in nonfiction, can be tricky. In her book Putin’s People, Catherine Belton uncovers important details from Putin’s past and tells what we might consider his origin story. One evening in December 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a group of protesters started making its way to the KGB station in Dresden. Putin called for reinforcements, but none came. This was his turning point, Anne Applebaum writes, the moment that “marked the end of [the Soviet] empire and the beginning of an era of humiliation.” She describes his disdain for democracy as his answer to that “trauma,” but she’s clear that his success has “proved a terrible tragedy for the rest of the world.”

Holding bad guys to account can feel more horrifying than triumphant, especially when the story focuses on their victims. In her essay on a spate of books about the #MeToo movement, Megan Garber notes how dread colors their pages: It’s hard to write these narratives without feeling like monsters are all around. In some cases, a person’s cruelty is treated as a footnote to their art, but authors still have a responsibility to address it. In the first volume of his biography of Lucian Freud, William Feaver “doesn’t quite take his subject to task” in this respect, according to Sophie Madeline Dess, but readers might turn to the memoir of Celia Paul, one of Freud’s muses turned lovers, for a fuller picture.

Even in fiction, we can’t easily cast characters as purely good or evil. In Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa, Vanessa is clearly a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, though she doesn’t see it that way, Sophie Gilbert writes. The novel is built around Vanessa’s belief that she’s complicit in the things her abuser did to her, in a way that destabilizes the victim-perpetrator dynamic. And in The School for Good Mothers, the protagonist, Frida, isn’t really a wrongdoer at all but ends up locked up in an institution that rehabilitates “bad” mothers after leaving her child at home alone—Jessamine Chan uses her to demonstrate that when you’re a mother, all it takes is one mistake to make you a villain.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

A photograph of Putin against a red background with shadow cutouts of other people

Illustration by Celina Pereira; BStU; Ulrich Hässler / Ullstein Bild / Getty

A KGB man to the end
“For hundreds of millions of people, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a great triumph: The moment marked the end of hated dictatorships and the beginning of a better era. But for the KGB officers stationed in Dresden, the political revolutions of 1989 marked the end of their empire and the beginning of an era of humiliation. In interviews, Putin has returned to that moment—the moment when reinforcements did not come—always describing it as a turning point in his own life.”

An illuminated door at the end of a dark hallway

Photography Tristan Brazier / Getty

The ongoing horror of #MeToo
“For all those triumphal dimensions, though, the defining mood of these books is not exultation. It’s horror. What the books share is a sense of abiding fear—fear that is, just like the Overlook’s, infrastructural and architectural. Fear that derives not only from the alleged villains themselves, but also from the environments that have given them their power. The memoirs tell stories not only of monsters, but also of the spaces that the monsters roam.”

Lucian Freud

Jane Bown / Camera Press / Redux

The conundrum of Lucian Freud’s portraits
“The painter’s critics tend to note the way these merciless aesthetic precepts bled into Freud’s personal life, which involved endless and usually overlapping sexual affairs—often with his young, female sitters—and only intermittent attention paid to certain of his children. On this front, Feaver doesn’t quite take his subject to task; instead he leaves his subtle imbrication of anecdotes and analyses up for interpretation. For a more personal perspective, readers might try Celia Paul’s new memoir Self-Portrait, in which the artist chronicles, in part, her time modeling for Freud and the devastation his objectification and philandering inflicted.”


martin-dm / Getty / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

The controversial novel that immerses readers in teen abuse
“To spend substantial time—roughly 350 pages—in the mind of a person defending the assault of an underage girl isn’t particularly pleasant. The more salient question, though, is whether it’s illuminating—whether Vanessa’s narrative offers something distinct about the mental aftermath of teenage trauma that makes its graphic descriptions of abuse worthwhile.”

An illustration of a woman holding a baby against a purple background that looks like cracked glass

Claire Merchlinsky

The redemption of the bad mother
The School for Good Mothers is crafted like a sinkhole, all the more nightmarish for how plausibly it pulls Frida in and entraps her. The book’s futuristic twists—at the school, robots simulate toddlers—jazz up its defiantly simple premise: This is a novel that portrays what it’s like to make a terrible mistake that costs you your child. We are party to Frida’s doubt and exhaustion and panic.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Maya Chung. The book she’s reading next is The Scent of Empires, by Karl Schlögel.

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