“I loved the way in which even the so-called unsavory characters have been endowed with humane and just feelings.”
Villains in mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels are many times more important than the hero and heroine. Antagonists drive the story, create the suspense, and put the main characters at risk. The worse they are, the more tense the story. We want our readers to turn the pages as fast as they can, but if they don’t feel the hero or heroine is threatened, that their life is on the line, we probably haven’t written a memorable villain.
However writers craft their villains, we have to be careful. The reviewer who prompted this post wasn’t talking about the true villain in my book Threads, an unrepentant psychopath, evil through and through. He is a rare character for me. I like to imbue my bad guys or gals with characteristics that make the reader care about them; otherwise, they become stereotypical clichés, direct from central casting.
Authors spend so much time creating their heroes and heroines, bestowing them with defining traits, we sometimes forget that our villains are people too. We want to cheer when they get their comeuppance, but we should have some sympathy for whatever made them the way they are. Is the shark in Jaws the villain or are the people hunting him down? Is Moby Dick the heavy, or is Captain Ahab?
Now that’s a villain. His young life was a disaster, and he had no hope to be anything but what he turned out to be. He knows he’s on a downward spiral to hell because he’s smart, but he can’t stop his trajectory. Knowing his history makes the reader that much more sympathetic toward him. We wonder what he would have been like if someone had loved him as a child.
My work in progress, Backlash, has what I hope to be a sympathetic villain, even though he’s a cold calculating killer. Actually, there are multiple murderers in the book, and ridding the world of their victims starts out as a noble mission. If the law can’t deliver a just verdict for these sinners, then this band of avengers will. Unfortunately, committing immoral acts to balance immoral judgments tends to result in bad endings.
I was discussing villains with my son, and he made a blanket statement about comic book villains: they’re all products of something bad that happened to them early on in their lives. So as evil as they might be, the reader, especially kids, can find something sympathetic about them.
How do you craft your villains? Do you make them all bad, or do you leave a little light to shine in their eyes?
Polly Iyer is the author of six novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and two books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games and Goddess of the Moon. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.