Light and Shade

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 …

17 thoughts on “Light and Shade

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    Villains are always my favorite characters to write, becuase it’s such a challenge to humanize them and make them real, not cardboard cutouts. I always try to keep one thing in my head: the villain thinks it’s his story. He thinks HE’s the hero and that it’s HIS goal that’s the righteous one.DeGroot, the nasty bad guy in SAFE AND SOUND is the closest to pure monster I think I’ve ever written, but to him, his goal seems reasonable. He’s a professional interrogator (i.e. torturer) who’s always seen it as just a job. Now, however, he finds himself starting to enjoy the work a little too much, so he decides to retire before he goes completely crazy. But to do that, he needs money. What’s ironic is that he crossed the line a long time ago and doesn’t realize just how bad he is. He was huge fun to write.

  2. Wilfred Bereswill

    Again, I find myself in line with Dusty. (Dusty, some day you’ll have to let me buy you a beer and chat.) I love fleshing out the bad guys.

    For a glimpse of an interesting bad guy in a recent movie, see Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. A ruthless killer with a sense of fair play.

    In my novel, A Reaseon For Dying, I feature 2 terrorists. One that was born and raised in the US and one that was born and raised in the Middle East. They are both ruthless, and fighting for the same cause but have very different belief systems.

    I wouldn’t want to meet either in a dark alley.

  3. Wilfred Bereswill

    “Always a difficult choice, as a William is a very different animal from a Bill, or a Billy, or a Will.”

    Oh, and Zoe, I’ve gone by the name Will my entire life. I agree that Will is a very different animal than a William or Bill.

  4. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Zoe,This is a wonderful post and very timely for me personally.

    One of the many ideas that resonated was that it’s difficult to write bios before you see the character in action. I’m doing a second pass of the new manuscript and find that some of the key players are too inconsistent/don’t have a core from which they operate (or they’re those damn cardboard creatures that often hit the page in the first draft).

    But without seeing what they’re up to, I can’t begin to understand them.

    Now I can make them real . . .

  5. JT Ellison

    Z, I started with the intense biographies too, and somewhere along the way they’ve faded. I guess we know the elements that are vital to the story and don’t need the rest in the forefront. Especially when writing a series, things can be more fluid if you don’t give every detail of someone’s background in the first book.

    I LOVE writing bad guys. My book in a drawer featured an incredibly crazy guy who was truly off the deep end. Very nasty. But I gave him a brain tumor, and that was the cause of his actions. I had a great comment from an editor who read it and passed — she didn’t like that he wasn’t culpable for his actions, that the brain tumor made him do it. He wasn’t a bad enough bad guy, despite slaughtering 8 people.

    Thank goodness for her! It was a great lesson in how to write a villain. I’ve taken that and made sure that no matter what my bad guys do, they are always, always responsible for it themselves, not by something out of their hands. Makes them more believable, and ratchets up the nasty factor.

    Have fun with the page proofs!!!

  6. Louise Ure

    I’ve certainly borrowed from people I dislike when I write. There’s a certain pharmacist I had a run in with who makes an appearance in The Fault Tree. Other than that, all my villains seem to resemble my sister-in-law …

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty – sorry to be slow coming back to everyone on this. That 1000+mile trip has now levelled out at 1800 miles in the car in the last eight days and we’ve another shoot in the offing tomorrow morning …

    I remember you making the point about the villain being the hero of his or her own story at a panel I saw you on at ThrillerFest last year, and I thought at the time it was such a good point to bear in mind.

    Apt that you should mention DeGroot, your torturer. I have a torture scene in THIRD STRIKE, but it’s carried out by someone who’s supposed to be a good guy. He ends up threatening to carry out the most appalling act in order to get information out of another character, and then has to live with the consequences of his actions afterwards. It presented some very interesting dilemmas …

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Will

    I haven’t seen No Country For Old Men yet, but I have heard that Javier Bardem was extremely good in the role – didn’t he win an Oscar for it?

    I wouldn’t want to meet quite a few of my characters in a dark alley. Or a light alley, for that matter. That includes Charlie Fox – and Sean Meyer for definite. Even though he’s supposed to be a good guy, I always had it in mind that Charlie’s parents were kind-of right to disapprove of her relationship with Sean. He’s a borderline psycho and deep down she’s well aware of the fact. It’s like owning a very big rottweiler that you love to bits but don’t entirely trust …

    Your two terrorists sound intriguing, but one man’s terrorist has always been another man’s freedom fighter. To the Germans during the Second World War, the French Resistance were terrorists, plain and simple.

    Did you see The Kingdom, with Jamie Foxx? I thought that gave a surprisingly balanced view for a Hollywood blockbuster.

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Oh, and I picked the name William at random as an example there!

    I could just have easily picked Elizabeth, who is a very different person from a Liz, or a Lizzy, or a Betty, or a Beth.

    Indeed, Charlie is always Charlotte to her parents, and this distinction is a strong reminder to me when I’m writing the books of the person they hoped she would become.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    I’ve found that it’s far more important to know in advance the journey you want your characters to make during the book, rather than the minutae of the characters themselves. I realised with something I’ve just been writing that one of the main characters has no clear start and finish point. She comes through the book almost untouched by events, and that having a much clearer idea of her story arc, and doing some re-writing to strengthen this, will improve the whole book no end.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT – after the copyedits, page proofs are a breeze!

    It’s an excellent point you raise about villains having to take responsibility for their own actions. What lay behind your particular villain’s motivation, if you took away the brain tumour? Do you think this book will ever make it out of the drawer, or do you view it as an apprentice piece that’s served its purpose and will never see the light of day?

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Wow, Louise, what did your sister-in-law do to you?

    Often, I find that including the smallest real-life quirk in a fictional villain is enough to bring a smile of satisfaction to my face ;-]

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Just remembered that I completely forgot to add a Word of the Week this week – so in view of the topic, how about ‘vitiate’? It means to render faulty or defective, to spoil, to make impure, to deprave, corrupt, pervert, debase, to violate or rape, to adulterate. From which we also get ‘vitiator’ and ‘vitiosity’ – the state or quality of being vicious.

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Ah-ha, JT! Long may our early attempts be the donor vehicles for the future!

    Actually, when I go over-length (which is always) my biggest reason for cutting out a scene is if its only purpose is ‘developing the character’. If it doesn’t move the story forwards, out it comes. But at least it’s told me something about the people who inhabit the book, and I’ll take that knowledge forwards even if the scene itself ends up on the literary equivalent of the cutting room floor.

  15. Tom Barclay

    One day I got an inquiry from That Tower Of Mystery Power known as Elaine Viets. Would I mind if she used my last name for one of the villains in a Dead End Jobs story? Because it had to do with dogs, you see. Bark, bark, woof, woof. The character didn’t deserve his dog, got his comeuppance, and that was good enough for me.

    I agree with Dusty et al, villains are heroes in their own minds.

    There was something Ian McKellan said in an interview that gobstopped me: he plays his villains as men with an inner sadness, and so they justify their cruelties because of how cruelly they’ve been treated. Memorable, that one.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tom

    That’s a very interesting way to look at a villain. I also like to think of some villains as having an inner joy. There’s not many of us are truly happy in our work, but those who have a naturally cruel streak – and are allowed to indulge it – make interesting characters!


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