Friday, May 04, 2018

Bad Girls, Bad Boys

It's happened again. I've been seduced by my villain. The first time it happened, I was writing Old Murders, the third book in my Lizzie Stuart series. Being a plotter (or, at least a hybrid), I started writing feeling sure I knew whodunit. But during the last fourth of the book, I realized I couldn't do it. My killer had convinced me that someone else should take the fall.

It happened again, that time much earlier, when Lizzie went in search of her mother, Becca. She had never seen her mother, who was 17 when Lizzie was born and got on a bus and left Drucilla, Kentucky five days later. Lizzie was raised by her grandparents, and she wanted to find her mother before accepting her lover's proposal. I knew from the beginning that Becca was not going to be a cookie-baker. As Lizzie followed her mother's trail, Becca took shape. When Lizzie finally came face-to-face with her mother, Becca was smart, beautiful, and cold-blooded. I loved Becca -- and she threatened to walk away with the book.

Now, I'm writing my 1939 historical thriller. I like my characters. But my protagonist -- decent, intelligent, a believer in justice and doing the right thing -- was boring me. When his antagonist was on-stage and I was in my villain's post of view, I was intrigued, not sure what he would do, waiting to see. In desperation, I switched my protagonist's point of view to first person. That helped. He turned out not to be as squeaky-clean as he at first seemed. In fact, he has a secret that is going to walk up and bite him in the middle of the book. He is in turmoil, and that's makes him more interesting to write.

But I will need to dig deeper to make him the equal of my villain. Not that I am dealing with a comic book super-villain. But he is complex, and his downfall will come about because my hero discovers his vulnerabilities.

The thing about villains is that they have few compulsions. They don't feel the need to be good. And, for writers, who spend our real lives trying to be as decent as our heroes, villains are freeing. My closest analogy is that villains are like avatars. To do a villain well, one has to step into his body and walk and talk and think as he would. To play an unfamiliar role.

The good news is that most of us are only temporarily seduced. Being in the head of someone who rejoices in villainy is disturbing. Unsettling. Being in the head of the killer in my last Lizzie Stuart book convinced me that I would never be able to go too far to "the dark side". The villain in my 1939 book may "smile and smile," but he is up to things that I find despicable. He is someone who may carry me along with him -- good for the plot and pace of the novel -- but in the end, he must be stopped.

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