Monday, February 23, 2009

Creating the Villain

By Villainous Victoria
If you live in the Western U.S. or Hawaii and you haven’t yet checked to see when Debby and I are going to be in your area, hurry right now over to Booktour.
As Charles would say, I’ll wait.

Back? good. Because here’s a sneak peak at one of the highlights of our tour. On Friday March 13th (right, that’s a Friday the 13th) we’re giving a very special workshop at Barnes and Noble on creating the villain. In order to help me get my thoughts down, you have been chosen to be the test audience.

The villain in a mystery novel can be a pretty tricky creature. The villain drives the plot, by committing the crime, the villain is the focus of the protagonist’s attention, as he or she attempts to solve the crime and apprehend the villain, and the villain must be the focus of the reader’s interest. In a good book, the reader will despise the villain and keep reading anxiously to the end in the expectation of seeing the villain get his just deserts.

But – no one knows who the villain is.

In a thriller novel – think James Bond – you know practically from the beginning who’s the bad guy, and that he has some nefarious plot in mind. The hero, James, must pursue the villain in order to bring him down and save the day. The reader can focus his emotions on the villain, and hiss and boo his every thought and action as if at silent movie.

In a traditional type of mystery, the writer doesn’t have that luxury. The villain must remain secret, while at the same time having a part, usually a complex part, to play throughout the book. The villain cannot be revealed as the mad-wife in the attic, or the evil-twin ten pages from the end. The villain needs to be a multi-dimensional character, and in the context of the story they must be able to switch rolls: Killer with motive X, person hiding their secret, in most cases good at lying and deceiving. The villain must also be able to hold the reader's attention so that the reader wants to read on, to find out what happens to him or her.

Whew. Now that I see it written down like that, I think this mystery writing stuff is too hard. Perhaps I’ll take up knitting.

Tell me – what do you consider to be a good example of the villain in mystery? What works? What doesn’t work?


Charles benoit said...

I like my villains to be flawed heroes - they wanted to do good at some point, maybe they still think they are, but things just got away from them and stuff happened. If they could, sure, they'd go back and fix things, but they can't and have to live with the way the game's being played today.
I don't like villains that are petty or motivated by greed or love. Too common and too boring.

Susan D said...

Well, I'm going to share a really bad example.

A few years ago I read a mystery where the killer turned out to be a walk-on character who didn't show up until more than 2/3 of the way through, and then only when the detective interviewed him for a couple of pages to clarify a minor point in the life of the victim.

This was a seasoned writer of some repute, but that's the first and last of her books I'll bother reading. (That'll teach her, eh?)

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