I just attended a great workshop taught by Carol Bugge entitled Villains, Heroes, and Sidekicks–Crafting Characters that thrill readers (and SELL books). The workshop was put on by Sisters in Crime, New England.
I needed to learn more about villains and give them their proper place in my work. Not only do I leave their development until later, but, sometimes, I don’t figure out who they are until it’s absolutely necessary. I have one cozy set aside because I can’t decide who did it. But, I’m learning.
In order to write about a character, you have to know a little bit about them. Carol gave us some basic guidelines. Description. What does he or she look like? How do they conduct themselves–emotionally and intellectually? What is it about them (good and bad) that pulls the reader in? Do they have unique quirks? Write Better and More Despicable Villains
Naturally, we can’t provide the reader with everything we know about the villain. We can’t explain what made him the nasty, no-goodnik he is today. However, we can craft a character whose motivations and actions become clear on the page because WE know all about him–how he will act or react in a given situation. What will set him off? How can he live in our story world and not get caught?
Motives might be as simple as greed or as complicated as a traumatic life event that’s playing out again with our characters. Or, we could have an emotionless sociopath, an all-around good guy that everyone trusts. What drives him is important. It colors what he projects to others, what kind of crimes he’s willing to commit, and what he’ll do if cornered.
One thing to keep in mind while we build this character is that no one is all bad (or all good for that matter). There is always someone or something that gives our villain a bit of humanity. Maybe he loves his mother or small children. Perhaps he’s always trusted dogs because he had a faithful old mutt when he grew up. Maybe, as a reliable member of society, he’s in a position to be charitable, helping those less fortunate. Whatever it is, it should be something to make the reader feel a little sorry that the person had to be so bad.
I had a villain, good looking and well-liked in the community, who started out as a small-time crook and made enough money to re-invent himself. The new man used his money to fund charities and help out town government. Everybody wanted to be him or marry him. Of course his need for power never diminished and his crimes moved to the acceptable white collar variety. When he was forced to kill to keep his secrets, he rationalized that it was necessary because too many people would be hurt if his crimes were unearthed. What a guy!
Some people like to interview their characters. One technique I like to use is writing a monologue from the villain’s point of view. I’ve found that seeing the crime through his eyes is always enlightening. Most villains love to rationalize. They’re certain that if you knew their story, you’d understand and sympathize.
Of course, you can’t put all that information in your book. But you can drop a few hints toward the finish. How many times have you gotten to the end of a story and learned a little about the villain’s background and said to yourself, “Oh, that’s why he’s like that.” Readers want to be able to look back in the book and say, “Oh yeah. I should have seen that.” They can’t wait to read the next book because they think they’ve figured out the author’s formula. Here are some villainous posts you might consider: Villains People Love to Hate, Create Better Villains, 3 Techniques for Crafting Your Villain.
The more you know about your characters, the more human they become on the page, and the more interesting they become to readers. This workshop helped me realize that my villain has to be out in plain sight and posing as a normal human being. Perhaps he is an ordinary citizen until something triggers his rage or insanity. Once I figure out who he is and what he is like, I can have him interact with the other characters before fulfilling his dastardly destiny.
Have fun with your villains, and remember–Keep Writing.