by Zoë Sharp
A hero is only as good as the villain he or she faces.
Sounds obvious when you put it like that, doesn’t it? But when you think of the most fun movies, who can forget baddies like Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs, Tommy Lee Jones’ William Stranix in Under Siege, or even the mysterious – and largely absent – Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects? And it’s not just the actors themselves. Jonathan Pryce came across as a genuinely nasty piece of work in Ronin but was almost laughable as the chief bad guy in the Bond flick, Tomorrow Never Dies.
I like the duality of villains. I like light and shade. I like quiet menace. I like the good-looking guy who smiles while he’s threatening unspeakable acts, and I like the notion that it might not always be the enemy who tries to stab you in the back.
But do I plan out every character trait and flaw of my villains before I begin a new book?
Erm … no, not really.
When I first started to write, I tried to come up with huge biographies of all my main characters, but it’s like trying to describe someone you’ve never met. Until you see them in action, how can you really have a handle on who they are, or how they behave? Those little quirks of mannerism or speech that just jump out at you as soon as they open their mouths, but which were strangely unapparent beforehand.
I’m sure we’ve all met people who seemed quite reasonable on first acquaintance, but gradually became more tiresome as you got to know them better. Not to mention the ones who seemed initially quite dour, but eventually relaxed enough to reveal an arid sense of humour, a quiet wit. Our heroes and supporting cast do this, so why not our villains?
And in villains, of course, you have the opportunity to include all kinds of little tweaks that come from real life. I’ve long since exhausted my list of people who really annoyed me, so I now ask for suggestions from friends and family. Somebody wound you up? Just give me a part of their name, a little trait, et voila! They’ll be a corpse or a villain in the next book – maiming a speciality. Just think of me as the equivalent of a literary contract killer.
I knew one author who had somebody she particularly didn’t like, but rather than include the person in her book, she included that person’s house instead. Oh, not by location or even description of the architecture, but more the contents. She had a group of thieves break in while the owner was away and wreck the place, selling off whatever valuables they found inside, bit by bit. And enormous satisfaction it gave her, too.
It doesn’t always work, of course. I desperately wanted a particular character in HARD KNOCKS to come to an unpleasant end, as he represented one of the two little toerags who were caught red-handed having stolen a motorbike that belonged to me. Sadly, when push came to shove, no amount of twisting on my part could frame him in the book for the crime I had in mind. So I had to content myself by having him roughed up a little in print instead.
So far, at least, I don’t believe my villains have been outright caricatures – not for me the deformed dwarf or the sadistic deviant. Perhaps it’s time that changed, but I’ve always found a certain degree of normality and ordinariness more sinister in the end. How about you? What most scares you in a villain, and why? Have any of your villains not played ball when it came to guilt?
There are a couple of reasons why this topic has come up, and one of them is because it’s that time again. The corrected page proofs of THIRD STRIKE are winging their way back to the publisher and I’m up to my neck in planning the next in the Charlie Fox series. A 1000+mile trip to Scotland at the end of last week ensured plenty of time in the car to kick around ideas, and certain themes and aspects have been rising to the fore.
THIRD STRIKE is a book about Charlie’s search for respect, from the people she works with and, perhaps more importantly, from the stiffly disapproving parents who’ve never really understood who she’s become and how she does what she does. Everyone goes on a journey – psychologically as well as physically – and by the time we reach the end of the story there are some for whom life will never be quite the same again.
But I have it in mind that the new book will also be about redemption. It’s about Charlie coming to terms with herself, amid the rage of loss. She’s going to come up against her most terrifying foe, because he will be someone utterly reasonable, someone with whose views she might privately agree, however she is forced to act.
And, of course, it’s about this time I start sorting out names for the key characters. Always a difficult choice, as a William is a very different animal from a Bill, or a Billy, or a Will. I generally use a random name generator site, and plump for something that catches my eye. After a recent suggestion here, I did start looking through my spam folder more carefully, but decided some of the names in the email addresses there would only be any good if I was writing erotica.
But, on this recent trip to Scotland, we had dinner with someone I met at Harrogate a couple of years ago, a real crime aficionado. During the course of the meal, he happened to mention that he really fancied being a villain in a book, and had no objections to dying horribly, providing he’d done something to truly deserve such a fate. As the meal went on, he quite warmed to the theme of his own fictional nastiness and ultimate demise.
Bit of a turn-up for the books, that one. I’ve included real people – at their request – before, of course. Frances L Neagley and Terry O’Loughlin both bid in Bouchercon charity auctions to be characters in the books, and I’ve been delighted to write them in. Andrew Till, who became an FBI agent in FIRST DROP, is a supportive librarian in real life. They’ve always been good guys in the end, although working out how much reality to include in the character is always an interesting one.
But I’ve never had anyone ask to be a villain before, with such a wicked twinkle in his eye. And I’m not even going to mention his name at this stage, just in case I want to mask that character’s intentions when I come to write the book. Should be fun, though …