Kingpin: How to Write a Badass Bad Guy
Villains should be scary.
I hold no truck with modern sympathetic emo villains. Nothing turns my stomach more than the “he’s just misunderstood” trope. Even when it comes in an appealing package (hello, Kylo Ren), I’m not down with it.
I’m also not fond of stories where the antagonist is the main character. “He’s fighting against himself. It’s super deep,” explains the annoying guy in every film class.
What I like is a proper, terrifying bad guy, one who embodies proper villainy. And I don’t mean the cartoonish mustache-twirler. This is a human, with vulnerabilities. Despite those vulnerabilities, the villain should be unambiguously frightening, dangerous, and a force to be reckoned with. This is how you construct a villain. I will accept no substitutes.
For me, there are few examples in modern storytelling better than Kingpin in the Daredevil series (now available on Disney Plus).
I’ve written about Kingpin before here, but I’ve never gone deeply into why I find him to be a good villain, or the qualities that other writers should consider putting in their evil-doers. So let’s do that now, shall we?
Please note, Kingpin is a man. Female villains often have different behavior patterns, motivations, and mannerisms, as is natural. This article centers on male villains, as they are most common in all genres of fiction.
Obviously, this is not an all-encompassing list. These are just some of the qualities that invest me in a villain (and make me afraid for the protagonist) and are present in my example of Daredevil’s Kingpin.
Iron will, strong motivation
A villain should have a complex, all-consuming motivation. Part of that motivation must be for power, but it shouldn’t be limited to that. In the case of Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, he basically owned the entire underworld of New York before Daredevil even heard of him. Wilson didn’t want to be famous like the Italian mobsters of old. He didn’t even want anyone saying his name. But he wanted power. ALL the power. More than that, he wanted respect.
In seeing his violent childhood and the cruelty he endured as the fat kid in class, how he turned out is entirely understandable, and may even have been sympathetic were it not for his propensity to murder folks on a frighteningly regular basis. We watch what kinds of remarks trigger his anger. Likewise, we see the type of personality and behavior that softens him up, changing him into a downright charming, dare I say, soft-spoken gentleman. It’s masterful writing and an exceptional performance from Vincent D’Onofrio and I never get tired of watching it.
Part of being powerful means having people who work for you, people who are loyal to you. People who have signed up to die for you. Lone wolf types can be scary too, no doubt. But a true villain isn’t just one man with skills and a violent streak. He’s the man who can, in the words of the great Peoples Hernandez, “Point, and two people on either side die.” It’s one thing to be violent, it’s another to have a group (or army) of people willing or compelled to do as you say. In Kingpin’s case, he owns the whole city, cops too. Sometimes it’s just a value proposition to the scum bags who work for Fisk. Sometimes, as we found out in Season 3 of Daredevil, it’s because he selects you… and makes sure you can’t say no.
Not all terrifying villains are big men. You can be slender and/or short and still make someone shake (see David Thewlis in Dragon Heart for a great slightly-built villain). But if the recent Reacher series has taught us anything, it’s that size matters. Kingpin is played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who is… large. He stands 6’4 and has packed on some width to go with his height. The effect is substantial.
Within the Marvel universe, Kingpin does not have supernatural powers, but he is big and he is strong. In Season 1 of Daredevil, for instance, he beats a man to death with his bare hands. The man he killed was not some weakling; he himself was a hardened criminal. But Kingpin pounded him out like dough. It was… wow, it was something.
Size is especially valuable for members of the criminal underworld, as they will be mostly dealing with grown men with violent pasts, so having an element of size offers a subtle discouragement to all those who might consider acting a fool. In the case of Kingpin, he is the walking, talking embodiment of “Fuck around and find out.” And I enjoy that. From a distance, of course.
So what did I miss? What do you like to see in your villains?
Last week’s video analyzes the plot and characters of the first three books from 90s YA horror books powerhouse Richie Tankersley Cusick to examine the common tropes and experiences of young women and why these books were so popular (and are STILL in print).