Writing Great Characters: Ben Linus from Lost

ben linus

Today we are discussing Rolling Stone’s #1 Greatest TV Villain of all Time, and a charter member of TV Network’s 25 Greatest TV Characters of All Time.

Every great story needs its villain, and Lost was no exception. Perhaps it was especially great, since it had several villains. Its most iconic and fascinating scoundrel was, arguably, Ben Linus. It’s a testament to the ‘Lost’ writers of this character and to the actor—Michael Emerson—that what was meant to be a guest character for a mere 3 episode arc turned into one of the primary antagonists of the show, and one of the most compelling TV villains. (The other two on Lost are obviously the Man in Black and Fate, and perhaps the polar bear.)

As writers, we could learn a few things from this guy.

The questions a writer needs to ask to glean literary knowledge from this character are: What makes Ben Linus so dang fascinating to watch, and what makes him unique to villainhood?

(It’s okay to conjure words; we are creators of worlds, after all.)

All the best villains possess two primary unshakeable traits that make them so compelling—among various other traits.

ben linus armed

  1. The first is devotion—that is to say, they are goal-oriented.

I know, not what you were expecting to find in a baddie, right? But if you think about it for a second, you’ll see that I am quite right here.

Look at Voldemort, Sauron, the Nothing, Mordred and The Crimson King. What do they all have in common? They are devoted to their cause. (Which is often themselves.) Like any strong character, these baddies don’t let anything get in the way of their goal. Perhaps this is why they often seem so brutal in their methods: they are driven, and in their fearsome focus they will annihilate any threat to the goal at hand. And so, naturally, most villains don’t even see themselves as the bad guy (or girl).

Hero and Villain are Often Alike

Some of the greatest, cleverest novels feature diametrically opposed antagonist and protagonist. But if you look deeper you will see that these two enemies have much in common. Their traits and natures and focus might even line up in many areas. In another life they might even have been the best of friends. Look at Locke and Linus.

Hero and Villain Sharing Traits

They both had a mother named Emily who had no hand in raising them. Both had abusive fathers who shaped their personalities. Both felt they were special and meant for greatness. They ended up on the island through causes beyond their control. They both came to love the island, and went to extremes to protect it (whatever that means).

  1. The second trait that makes a villain so compelling is his unique perspective.

They Think They Are Special

All the greatest, most disturbing scoundrels look at the world through a different-colored lens. It’s not a black and white, apples and oranges world for them. To them, there are not just shades of gray, but there exists the ability and opportunity to create their own shades, to conjure their own spanking new colors and add them to the establishment.

Ben Linus thinks he’s special, and in this view, he is an agent of Fate. Living with such a lofty self-confidence and looking at everyone else as pawns to be moved around by him from his exalted position, Ben can justify his extreme decisions (in his own mind) as the decisions of a superior being acting on superior purposes with a superior mind.

All of this lays the foundation for a great villain. But what really sets him apart as entertaining? What can we—as writers—pick up from this character as examples and excellent guidelines for creating our own legendary baddies?

Epic Recipe For Entertaining Villains

(That is, for villains who are entertaining, er–) 

  • Creepy physical feature: Ben’s protuberant ‘bug’ eyes
  • Distinctive speech patterns or voice: Ben makes everything sound important
  • Tragic, almost sympathetic childhood: Ben’s childhood (duh)
  • Willingness to make the choices others struggle with
  • Ignoring your conscience: Ben has a conscience, as seen best through his willingness to follow Locke to make up for getting his daughter killed
  • Manipulative: Ben is a world-class liar
  • Good and bad in extremes: He’ll risk his life to make amends for his daughter, but also kill a boatful of people and be all like ‘So?’

(1) final key to crafting a killer villain like Ben Linus: When you introduce him or her, you could make it so your readers wonder about this characters’ true nature. On first seeing Ben—as Henry Gale—in Lost, I was totally bamboozled. He seemed innocent. ‘He says I’m one of these ‘other’. Other what?’

ben linus furious

So there it is. I hope you picked up some useful tips of our trade as I did from this great character. Quote Catalog has some riveting quotes from old bug eyes himself; check it out here, you like.

Happy writing and God bless!