The Villain of the Piece

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A good villain is hard to find.

Much harder than a good man.

I’ve struggled with this since the beginning of my novel. Most of the time I move my villain around the plot like a piece on a chess board. Need to block the hero from getting what she wants, enter the villain. Need to up the stakes, enter the villain. Need to…. well you get the idea.

It feels contrived. I don’t want to take the easy way out by saying “Hey, he’s evil – he doesn’t need a reason.” I believe that often the most evil outcomes occur when people do the wrong thing for the right reasons. The road to Hell and all that.

Part of my dilemma is all the communication training I had in one of my previous lives. I just can’t help but ask….

“Why would a reasonable rational human being do that?”*

I know there are some obvious reasons I could use – my villain isn’t human, reasonable or rational. Yet at the end of the day their behavior has to hold water and not leak. Leakage, or rather seepage is what took me from absolutely loving Connelly’s The Poet to feeling a little let down. Brilliantly Connellly sets up a new flavor of serial killer, finds a voice for his hero that is both literary and believable, then he takes us on a plot that has twists and turns which kept me guessing until the very end… but that is where things broke down for me.

Part of the thrill I have when I read a serial killer thriller (forgive the alliteration) is finding myself in the inner workings of a world view I have little connection too. We all have fantasies – we all act on them from time to time – most fantasies that are acted upon do not involve killing/mutilating/raping individuals. My fascination is with the physiology of the monster inside. That is why I love Val McDermid – the physiology of her killers is precise, organic, and breathtakingly perverse.

(I hate spoilers but there is a sort-of-spoiler ahead – The Poet was written in the ’96 so I’m hoping you’ll forgive me – and I’ll try to hide as much as possible without making you read the book to follow me.)

When Connelly’s Poet was finally revealed, we were left not knowing the why behind the Poet’s actions. Our glimpses into the Poet’s head were limited, seen from the view of a third party, and used as much for misdirection as for revealing character. Beyond that, Connelly develops several characters all of which have surprisingly rational, abet twisted, back stories that could make the motivation of the Poet killings rational-ish – just not the Poet. We have absolutely no idea why he does what he does.

Don’t get me wrong, the book has made me a Connelly fan and I have a lot of catching up to do… but I wanted to know the why – to understand the why – to feel that sense of catharsis that is the reason I love thrillers so much.

Hmmm… it is just possible I’ve spent more time thinking about The Poet because it wasn’t tied up in a bow – no one lived happily ever after – everyone in the book had their world altered forever – no one really got what they wanted (yet again something that Connelly does brilliantly).

…and yet I still want to know, “why would a reasonable rational person do that?”

So, back to my personal villain problems…

He needs a code to follow, a history from which his actions organically derive, what he is doing needs to make sense to him and by extension to us. I want a great villain, one who could have been the hero but his path was twisted somewhere along the way.

That is what I’ve been working on because I don’t like the cardboard cutout that I’ve been moving around on the page and want Darth Vader – not the rent collector who bows out, at the end of the book with “Curse’s foiled again”.

Guess I need to get back to work… 🙂

~ Tess

*Crucial Conversations – the book is amazing (especially if you want to do things wrong, right is so much harder) and they also have Crucial Confrontations.



Filed under Process

3 responses to “The Villain of the Piece

  1. Jeff Crow

    Not sure any of this will be of assistance but I thought I’d pass it along anyway.

    Several things occurred to me while reading this post.

    Do you have a solid back-story for your villain – childhood traumas, bullied at school, lost of a pet, person, thing that left an indelible mark?

    Is there an inherent psychological condition or weakness that makes this person susceptible to villainy?

    Most of the great villains ‘turned’ based on a culminating event – something that was just one thing too many in an otherwise righteous (or, at least, acceptable) life. What happened to your villain and what lead up to that turning point?

    Is there an external motivator at work – religious beliefs, a desire for something unattainable, a perceived wrong that can’t be directly righted?

    Is your villain redeemable? If so, do you want to redeem him/her/it? If you don’t want redemption, how can you make sure it doesn’t happen?

    Is there something in the villain’s life that he/she/it loves? If so, what is it and what makes it immune to the villainy? Even Blowfeldt loved the cat.

    Just rambling….

    • Umm… Blowfeldt?
      Yes, all good ideas, that I will save for the next villain to help me when I get stuck again, and all things (in a frenzy of creation over the last few days – god I love being on vacation) I now can answer. (Go me!) My latest struggle is escalation – what aspects of the plot, actions of my hero, are putting barriers in the way of my villain? What pushes his buttons? What do I need to do to force him into a corner?
      And who doesn’t love the cat? ~ Tess

      • Jeff Crow

        Blowfeldt – old James Bond villain – head of SPECTER (and, no, I don’t remember what that stands for) who had a beautiful white Persian that he stroked continuously while planning the takeover of the world and condemning Bond to a grizzly death.

        Speaking of cats, you should see my two little fur people. The move seems to have brought out some interesting personality traits in both of them. Loving Yaki has gotten positively aggressive and stand-off Obi is suddenly loving and needy as hell. Not sure it will last when the place gets organized and somewhat settled but for now I’m loving it.

        Consider taking things way over the top – into the completely absurd – and then backing up from there. Let your dark side have free reign for a while and see where it takes the them. The nice thing about writing is, if you don’t like where it ends up, you can always rewrite it.

        Somewhat related: Have you checked out “Geek and Sundry” on Goople+ with Felicia Day (The Guild)? She conducted a 12-hour Hangout earlier this week and it was amazing. There was one segment with a panel of writers on the topic of building characters. A slimmed-down version of the whole 12 hours is supposed to be available o u-Tube. I caught chunks of it throughout the day. Very interesting. Actually, something you might consider at some point even if it was aimed specially at the Rose City group.

        I’m just delighted to see that you’re still writing. I hope to get to read something at some point in the near future. Are you still on the Green Man?

        Right at the moment I’m a bottle of wonderful red wine from Passive Aggressive Winery in Walla Walla down. Love the name and the wine. And my mind, such as it is, is wandering in some strange places I don’t let myself go very often. I’m weaning myself off the anti-depressantes and finding it quite interesting to feel things again. Not bad, really, just unusual after several years of chemically-induced numbness. Rather enjoying it actually. Tears and strong reactions to the oddest things. I haven’t had strong reactions to music in quite a while and it’s oddly refreshing. Still need to take Paul SImon in small doses just yet. Hoping to work up to a complete album in a while. I got hold of four “unreleased” CDs by the Doors that have been a induced some interesting trips through Jim Morrison’s rather twisted (not necessarily in a bad way) mind. Taking these in small doses also at the moment.

        I really miss talking with you. I’m really glad to see that you’ve surfaced again. And I’m delighted beyond belief that you’re still writing. You have a genuine talent and it would be a true shame if you didn’t pursue it. You go, girl!

        If you’d ever like to do lunch, dinner, drinks (which sounds unlikely) or coffee or tea, just let me know. I’d love to sit across the table from you and watch your mind work for a while. And, since you’ve already pegged me as a manipulative son-of-a-bitch, no sense in denying that I’d also just like to see you again. You are completely unique in my experience and I find that incredibly fascinating. And, no, I mean nothing at all by that other than what is stated in the sentence. If I live long enough, I really want to be able to brag that “I knew her when….” You’re going to be a force to recon with if you can keep your focus. Besides, think of the biographies in a hundred years. 😉

        Ok, that’s more than enough drunken rambling for one evening.


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