Sympathy for the Devil

I’m not sure if it is possible to have a story without a villain. Now, I’m not suggesting that we have to have some evil mastermind always working to thwart our hero/heroine. But there is always someone in the story that at the very least trips them up, shifts their focus or just acts to veer our hero off the right track.

In my books I often have more than one villain at work. Sometimes they are the evil mastermind, driven by demons in their past (or sometime actual demons!) that the main characters have to battle. And I love my villains, I really do. I try very hard to make my villains as human as possible so that you’re always hoping they’re gonna see the light by the end of the book and come around to the right side. Because we all know that there is no black and white in life and in right and wrong. Whatever is driving a villain is often some human flaw and we all have flaws, which I think is why we sometimes fall for the villain.

But I also have a lot of characters that I like to refer to as the antiheroes. They aren’t villains really and they aren’t trying to rip someone’s world apart, but they have issues and sometimes they just can’t deal with those issues in a proper, healthy way. Antiheroes are essential to a story. In my second book, Air, this is the character of Jeremy. Jeremy could be, should be a sweet, helpful boy. Jeremy should have a girlfriend and guys he hangs out with on the weekends. Jeremy should be getting better grades. Jeremy should be so many things. But Jeremy is not the one thing that his father wants him to be: Jeremy is not his brother.

Abuse and neglect have altered Jeremy, making him choose a darker path. When we meet Jeremy we just assume he’s a bad a guy, he’s got some dastardly plans in store for our main characters. But as the story goes on we realize he isn’t a villain, just an antihero. He’s someone who needed help, he is every bit as much a victim as the people he hurts.

It’s a strange idea that writers often ask us to feel sympathy for villains or antiheroes, but oftentimes that’s who we should feel bad for. We should wonder why they are the way they are. Who hurt these people? Who let them down?

My favorite antihero will always be Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series – I was always rooting for him and always had faith in him that he wasn’t actually a bad guy, just an antihero.

The Mystery Villain

Every mystery needs a Severus Snape to wrongly take the blame.

How do you write a great villain when you’re trying very hard to keep the villain’s identity a secret?

So many paranormal and urban fantasy tales have a mystery element, some murder or crime that needs to be solved. The villain is the one who eludes the protagonist until the very end, that troubling person we never wanted to catch in the wrong, but we’re still glad to see behind bars. And they can be so very fun because they’re not inhibited by those boring moral codes that drive protagonists to complete their quests.

They’re also much trickier to portray when you’re writing a mystery and you don’t want to give away the killer. When writing Shaken, I ended up with two bad folks—a killer and, well, someone else. (Hey, I can’t give away the farm.) And I had to walk the line between making it believable that they could be killers and misdirecting the reader toward a wrongly-accused person who was run-of-the-mill bad, not serial killer bad.

The trick to solving the mystery writer’s dilemma is to make all potential villainous suspects equally human, well-rounded characters. We need to like them as much as any other character, and we need to have false-suspects that we can really hate.

Take Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the Harry Potter novel with the most whodunnit plot elements and a plethora of possible suspects. We’re introduced to former Death Eater Igor Karkaroff, who hates Harry and wants his own contestant to win. There’s also Barty Crouch, Senior, who hates dark wizards and might do anything to draw one out. And finally we have Severus Snape, everyone’s favorite false suspect. No one even suspects kindly (not)Mad-Eye Moody/apparently-dead Bartemius Crouch Junior, and the revelation at the end is all the more shocking because we think we like Mad-Eye and sympathize with young Barty.

“The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters,” Sirius tells Harry. All suspects and false-suspects should have a mixture of good and bad traits. If we don’t have some reason to love and not truly suspect our villain, the shocking revelation at the end of the book won’t have the same emotional pull.

Can you think of some great mystery villains, characters you never suspected of committing the crime?

Know Your Villain Like Yourself

(c) samlavi

The other day, I saw a post in a writer’s forum. The writer wanted to know what the allure of villains was. She said she didn’t particularly like any villains, let alone the one she herself was writing.

It gave me pause, because writing and reading villains is one of my favorite things to do. Although… I am a psychology nut, so perhaps my views should be taken with a giant heaping of salt. Still, I say villains help us see deep into the writer’s soul; far deeper than the heroes do. What does the author consider despicable? What does the author think the world will see as unforgivable? And also, why is the villain the way he or she is? In other words, what is the “excuse” the writer gives for the villain’s behavior?

Ask those questions as you read your next novel. I guarantee you’ll be seeing your author in a much more intimate light than before. And if you’re a writer, ask yourself those questions before you write your next novel. What is your villain’s motivation? Why is he a rapist/child killer/spoon thief? Diving deep makes for a fascinating study of the human psyche, and a much more three-dimensional book.

And just for fun, here are some of my favorite bad guys: Anthony Hopkins in the movie Hannibal (isn’t this one on everyone’s list?), the Commander in the book The Handmaid’s Tale (talk about a three-dimensional antagonist!), and Ashley in J.L. Bryan’s Jenny Pox series of books (pure evil in such a lovely form).

If you love villains as much as I do, who are some of your favorites? I’m always looking to add to my list!

When Bad Guys Turn Good

Almost every story has one: a villain. Whether it’s thrillers, cozy mysteries, or even romance, there’s always a bad guy afoot. But there’s no genre that exemplifies the enemy more than paranormal. There will always be a plethora of bad guys to go around.

In my case, when dealing with alternate realities, I find myself with more villains that I can handle. What makes things even more complicated is when some characters are friends in one respective world, but an enemy in another. Talk about your split-personalities!

And often times we find villains making the grand leap from bad to good in both books, television, and film. This doesn’t weaken the character, but rather strengthens their role.

Let’s take some of my favorite “bad guy” turned “good guy” characters:

Eric Northman from The Southern Vampire Series. He’s a total jerk towards Sookie at the beginning, but towards the middle of the series, we grow to love him and he pursues a relationship with Bon Temps favorite telepathic waitress.

The Terminator. He went from trying to kill Sarah Connor and her son in the first movie in the franchise to a re-programmed killer bot, in order to ensure the destiny of John Connor in the subsequent movies.

We all saw The Avengers (if you haven’t, where have you been?) and did you know that Hawkeye was initially a villian in the Marvel comic universe? It wasn’t until he fell for the beautiful Black Widow that he decided to repent for his evil ways and join The Avengers. Even Black Widow had her moments.

And numero uno on my list: Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He wins the medal for making a complete character one-eighty. He went from killing slayers for sport, despising Buffy, to being a Champion. Buffy’s relationship with Spike didn’t hurt the ratings either. Can we say, “muy caliente!”

Who’s your favorite villain gone good?