Type the word villain into Google and here is what you see: villain: noun: (in a film, novel, or play) a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot. The definition sent chills up my spine. Google gets it! Love it when life works with me—don’t you? The only thing that would make it better is a gif of Snidely Whiplash twirling his mustaches. Cue the eyeroll and the cheesy music.
I’m a pantser (and I’m trying to fix that because it makes my life hard). When I start a novel, I know two things. My point of view character—I write a series—and the circumstances of a death. In the current WIP I have a dead man found without a mark on him in a car in an isolated area of rural Miami-Dade County. He’s in front of a group of houses that look like futuristic pods abandoned for years and due to be demolished. Last known use of the houses, any illegal activity you can think of, including meth lab and waiting room for air drop of certain illegal substances from foreign countries.
There’s the setup. I have an idea of a cast of characters that accompany this scenario too. Right now, I know five pivotal characters in addition to my protagonist, her boyfriend, and her best friend (who happens to be the sister of the dead man). Any one of them could be the villain. “What,” you say. “Even the protagonist?” Sure. The villain doesn’t have to be the killer. The villain needs only have a dark enough side to incite the death.
Everyone has a villainous side. No one is immune. The fun part of writing characters is digging until you find it. Peeling away those protective layers of civilization until the primitive core of each character is exposed then covering up the hideous bubbling cauldron of emotion before it escapes is a writer’s job. The character’s secret may be safe with the writer, or not depending on the particular circumstances of the crime.
Writers are watchers. The raised voice, the change in pitch during a discussion between friends or family members, the body language that accompanies the words, the way a driver reacts when another pulls in front of him, all of these are noted and used. Mini-studies in human nature and individual tipping points. Villainy on a small (and sometimes large) scale demonstrated on a daily basis. All of those get woven into the fabric of characters until they become complete human beings on the page.
It’s important to me that my villains are participating characters in the story– not Jack in the Box jump ups at the end of the novel. I want my readers to have a relationship with them throughout the book. Now that I have a handful of well-rounded named characters, the fun begins. I outline a series of traits (usually three or four) and give each character motive, means, and opportunity. Each character gets their own mini crime story and their own alibi. No character gets an ending. That comes later. It’s fun to watch them point fingers at each other or disavow any knowledge of the crime. All the red herrings in a row. This is where my villains are apt to get cut if they can’t support the story. No saints allowed. Viable suspects only.
If I’m feeling particularly wronged by someone, I’ll write in a special character. Like the idiot whose sense of entitlement led him to cut me off on a narrow two-lane bridge over a canal because he was too important to wait for the light and nearly drove me off the road into the water below—not that I’m still upset about it. Which means, I get to give some of my villainous emotions to a character or two! Very cathartic.
Be careful what you do—you might end up in my book!
Writers – do you enjoy writing villains?
Readers – do you enjoy reading the villains or the good guys and do you want the villains to be characters throughout the book or just guests with cameos?