Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Villains Are People Too

A line in a recent review of one of my books gave me the idea for this blog post.

“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?

One reviewer of Mind Games said this: “...the villain is marvelous--evil but human. I almost felt sorry for him.”

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.

The antagonist in Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, is a nasty piece of work. Yet even as he eviscerates his victims, the author imbues him not only with brilliance but with a spark of humanity that keeps us riveted. Lecter is fascinated by the novice FBI agent, Clarice Starling, and feeds her hints so she can find the murderer, Buffalo Bill. Reading that book was like watching a horror movie through splayed fingers, yet I couldn’t put it down. Lecter has to be one of the most compellingly evil villains in crime fiction, but....

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.

22 comments :

  1. Amen! The crafting of a villain is far more intense (and more difficult) because the tendency is to create a character that readers love to hate. Yet very few bad guys have zero redeeming qualities, and that spark of humanity -- tiny as it may be -- is what makes them a bit sympathetic, as well as memorable. We all (not just Darth Vader) have our dark sides and experiences (both good and bad) that shape who and how we are. A writer's ability to inspire the reader to identify on some level with the antagonist(s) separates a mediocre story from a great one.

    I really appreciate this post, Polly. It addresses the issue I struggled most with in my first novel.

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  2. I'm glad you agree, Linda. Villains are tough to write right. My first novel, which is the one published last, has the villain without any redeeming characteristics. I don't know why. He's just flat out evil. The greatest compliment I received about a villain was that a reader felt sorry for him. Villains are hard to write because we've heard make the badder than bad, but I don't agree. Except for the first one.

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  3. I hate cardboard villains and foes. I'll put those books down immediately. I'm a bit tired of the true sociopath with no redeeming features. There are so many layers of human conflict. I like the hero and villain to be equally matched in desire and justification for what they want.

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    1. I agree, Diana, except for my one villain who is a true sociopath. Oh wait, I have two now that I think of it. If a writer takes that course, s/he better do it right. I hope I did.

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    2. "I'm a bit tired of the true sociopath with no redeeming features." - Me too. There's an excellent Cracked.com article about antagonists being the protagonists of their own story. If you flip your characters, do you still have a convincing storyline? I decided to do this with a story that wasn't quite working, and, as a result, I gained an excellent antagonist instead of a protagonist with murky morals.

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    3. And just saw that Marilynn made the same point below :-)

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  4. I agree that one-dimensional characters are boring. However, I've known people raised in loving homes who've had no redeeming characteristics at all. Sometimes people are born bad-to-the-bone. Huh. Either I'm cynical or I spent too many years working in human resources.

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    1. I do think there are bad-to-the-bone people, Ashantay. I remember a movie from my childhood, The Bad Seed, and I still think of it. I haven't known any personally, but they're out there--people without compassion or the ability to feel guilt. They're in the news every day.

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  5. Polly, I write a bio of all my murderers before I start my story giving him/her a back story which leads to why he/she feels they must murder someone. I actually hate to lead this character down the path to what he/she feels they must do because I like them. There is much that is good about them. On the other hand, I don't make my victims that any reader will feel too sorry about their death.

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  6. I applaud you, Gloria. Sometimes I don't know who my bad guy is. I've had bad guys kill bad people and good people alike, but like you, it's important to give the bad guy a history to explain him better. As Shakespeare said, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in it." Yes, we want to know what makes a killer kill.

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  7. Hi Poly,
    Of the major thoughts that I rely on when I'm polishing a draft, one is to pay attention to the villain (the other is to pay attention to the victim). It's easy to put everything into the good guys, but a book becomes more readable when the villain and victim are likeable on some level too. The only problem is when you start to like a villain and then they get killed off!

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    1. Diane, good points. I have a yet unpublished book where I kill someone off in the beginning that the reader is invested in. I got chewed out by my critique partner for that. My character will go, but I'll have to revisit him to make him maybe not so likeable. What it boils down to is to develop all the major characters, even if they bite the dust. Maybe the next blog post is Victims Are People Too. :-) Thanks for stopping by.

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  8. Great post. I always try to make sure my bad guys really believe they are the good guys or at least have a good reason for what they do.

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    1. Thanks, Susan. I call those good bad guys, but they usually rationalize their bad actions, and that leads to more bad decisions, until they're way over their heads. Most of the time it involves a cover-up to protect what they've done.

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  9. A sentence in a book on writing has always stuck with me. "Bad guys are heroes of their own story."

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    1. Love that, Marilynn. It must be the case for many bad guys in fiction in order to justify what they do. Villains really are the most interesting characters in the story, but they have to be written just right. It's a slippery slope because an author doesn't want to romanticize them.

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  10. Hi Polly,
    I completely trust your judgement on bad guys! I've never written an unrepentant sociopath. My villains are driven by things like revenge, greed, payback, etc. And in a cozy, the format is to craft several people as potential killers, so the suspects all have some sort of grievance with the victim. Oftentimes, I think one suspect will be the guilty party but by the end of the book, it's often someone else! In order to cloud suspicion, the suspects are often shown in a good light.

    I especially loved your Hannibal Lecter example. Every one of us is a blend of good and bad, which is why we may be driven to study up on bad guys. Deep down, many of us wonder if things had gone differently for us, would we have chosen the wrong path?

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    1. Maggie, those are great points. I have written both sociopaths and villains motivated by the things you mentioned. Jealousy is another, as is control. I agree that different genres require different villains. A sociopath or psychopath is hardly material for a cozy, but darker novels can incorporate all of them. What fun.

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  11. Most of my books don't have 'typical' villains, but I'm in full agreement with the "Villain believes he's the hero of his own story" which I first heard at a RWA conference workshop.

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  12. That's the way it should be, Terry. We writers strive to keep our villains as well as our characters not typical. Otherwise our stories would all start sounding the same. I do like that quote too. That's how they justify what they''re doing.

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  13. My latest WIP is written from the POV of a serial killer. Totally conflicted, she isn't sure if she's a sociopath, a psychopath or a narcissist. Finally, she doesn't give a damn what others think of her. She remains conflicted to the end. Beta readers find her intriguing if not likable. Not easy to write in 1st person singular within the mind of what could have turned out to be a stereotype. Not this on.

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    1. I write in multiple POVs, always in 3rd person close, so I find myself writing in the mind of my killer. A couple have been really scary. I doubt I could write the whole book in his/her POV. The only time I've written in first person was for two short stories for anthologies. That is not a comfortable POV for me, but it worked better for the shorts. Good luck with your book. I can't think offhand of any book I've read that was totally in the POV of the killer. I'm not sure if the Dexter novels are written in first person and in his POV because I've never read them.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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