Friday, February 14, 2014

Loving Villains

I've been thinking about villains. As I work on the next book in my series, I'm also making progress on my 1939 historical thriller. I have bad guys (i.e., criminals) in both, but the 1939 stand-alone presents me with a unique opportunity because it is a standalone. I have the opportunity to create a villain who is dastardly and evil.

I should confess that I have a fondness for villains. I cut my villain teeth on Shakespeare's plays -- first in high school than in three semesters of college English courses. I love a villain who can "smile, and smile, and be a villain". But -- as we are told in writers manuals -- a good villain must be complex (i.e., three-dimensional). Serial killers who pick the usual victims and kill them in the usual grisly ways for the usual reasons do nothing at all for me. If my villain is going to kill that many people, I want him to have a reason that merits that much mayhem. I want to sit with him as he contemplates the blood on his hands and justifies in his own mind what he has done and why it was necessary.

I want my villain to be as smart and as courageous as my hero. "Creating Villains 101" -- the villain should be worthy of the hero he is pitted against. He also should be the hero of his own story. As we all know, a character who is "the villain" in a book or movie, sometimes returns as "the hero" in the sequel.

As media commentators have observed, in modern popular culture, the "hero" often engages in behavior that is as violent and psychopathic as the "villain" and the only way we can tell them apart is the goals they are attempting to achieve. These are the heroes on TV and in movies who use "whatever means necessary" to find the hostage who is buried alive or prevent the bomb from exploding.

But even flawed and violent heroes are being upstaged by badder than bad villains. As Anthony Breznican observed in Entertainment Weekly (1/8/2013), "it's a very good time to be a very bad person." A well-crafted and well-acted villain -- for example, Heath Ledger as "The Joker" -- is often critical to the success of big-budget films.

Good villains always have been crucial to a good story. But my dilemma -- or, rather, my challenge -- as I sit down to create my villain for my 1939 thriller is that my villain is someone who I would hate and fear in real life. I can see him and hear him, and I don't like what he is saying. I need to get into his head and learn to love his villainy. I need to understand why he is as he is so that when he is on stage and speaking for himself, my disapproval of what he intends to do is not hampering him.

I want my readers to feel the same conflict that I hope to eventually feel -- to root for his downfall while wishing he might be redeemed and saved. I need empathy. I haven't gotten there yet. I'll working on his bio, giving him a family tree, thinking about his relationship with his father. But I'm still at the "I don't care that your father did . . . that doesn't justify" stage. Besides his father was a nice guy, and my villain is using that as an excuse. . .

I need to find that point of entry in his bio. That wound in his psyche that isn't hackneyed and that will make me want to sit down with him and listen. But right now, he is all glib, shiny surface, and he isn't letting me in. He is a stereotype and someone I don't like. I need to love him.

On the other hand, I don't love either of my male protagonists yet either. They are heroic, save-the-world types. The only character who is speaking to me at this point is a female character who was supposed to be a minor character, but now has her own voice. She's starting shy and sweet, but I can see her kicking villain butt by the time we get to the end of this.

I need to go darker with my male protagonists. Think of my federal agent and my heroic sleeping car porter from the standpoint of my villain. Think of who my heroes would be if they allowed themselves to be as bad as my villain. And who my villain would be if he were acting in the name of a noble cause.

Flawed heroes and tragic villain, that's what I need. And a woman who can keep them all in line.

Happy Valentine Day!


Rick Blechta said...

Is that Snidely Whiplash?

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Yes, I believe so.