The problem with blogging after Alex is that I feel inferior. She knows so much
more than I do about story and story structure that I feel wholly inadequate.
But I wanted to talk about villains, because villains are near and dear to my
heart. So even though I’m practically dying to hear more about what Alex says
about villains, I’m going to put out my own theories about what works—and what
doesn’t—with I read villains.
I never realized that villains were so important in my writing until I received
my revision letter for my debut novel. My editor said that the scenes where I
went into my villain’s POV were so strong that she wanted more of them.
I was taken aback a bit because I had not consciously thought about the structure
of the story and the villain’s POV specifically. Since I write
organically—without an outline or plan—I tend to write whatever scene is
logically happening at that time in the story. So I went back and added a
couple scenes in logical places where my editor felt that either adding or expanding
on the villain’s POV would make the book stonger.
Then the marketing material came out about my debut trilogy. My publisher likened my
style to “Julie Garwood meets Thomas Harris.”
I have a confession to make. At that point (2005), I had never read Julie
Garwood OR Thomas Harris.
I thought then that Julie Garwood only wrote historicals. And while I had seen the movie
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, I’d never read the book.
What did I do next? Well, the obvious. I bought all the Julie Garwood romantic
suspense novels and all Thomas Harris novels (though I haven’t read HANNIBAL
I still don’t quite get the connection, but at least I have a glimmer
of understanding. The Julie Garwood connection was more to establish my romance
roots, while the Thomas Harris connection was to show how I was different than
a traditional romantic suspense. Because few romantic suspense novelists go
deep into the psyche of the killer. (My friend Karen Rose is one—if you haven’t
read her, you should.) But honestly, Garwood and Harris are so phenomenal as
storytellers that I knew the comparison was more a marketing gimmick than
I have another confession. I’m not a huge fan of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Yes, it’s a
brilliant movie and a great book. The primary villain, Hannibal, is alluring on
many different levels (largely due to Anthony Hopkins performance which in many
ways influenced my reading of the book, so I don’t have a good assessment of
the novel because it’s so intertwined with the movie.) But I’m not a fan because
of the heroine: I did not like Clarice Starling. I wanted her to succeed, and I
admired her overcoming her fears at the end of the book and going into the
lion’s den to rescue the girl in the pit from Buffalo Bill, the serial killer.
But as a heroine, I thought she made several TSTL mistakes.
First, she revealed far too much about herself to Hannibal. Second, when Hannibal
escaped, she didn’t fear for herself. What she says to her friend at Quantico
that he “won’t go after me” is just stupid. Okay, maybe she thinks he wouldn’t,
but good Lord! He just skinned a man and put the dead man’s face over his and
lay there waiting for someone to “save” him. He’s ruthless and vicious and a
genius. Alluring and repulsive at the same time. So yeah, she might have
intuitively known he wouldn’t go after her, but dammit, she should be scared
anyway—if not for herself, then for everyone else in the world.
Hannibal is the best of villains. Clarice Starling wasn’t worthy of him.
And that is the crux of the villain/hero conflict. To make a villain worthy of your villain. And, unfortunately, Clarice Starling wasn’t worthy of Hannibal—even though she got the bad guy in the end. Why? Because of her, Hannibal–an evil, brilliant,
maniacal, meticulous predator–escaped.
So I didn’t hate SILENCE OF THE LAMBS because honestly, it is the standard bearer
for all serial killer novels that followed. (And though it ticked me off, it's still a great movie in so many ways and I'm happy to watch it over and over again.) It is a classic. But RED DRAGON, the story that came before SILENCE, was, in my opinion, superior in every way to its sequel.
Perhaps I liked this book more because I read it before I saw the two film versions of
the book. Hands down, RED DRAGON was superior to MANHUNTER. IMO, though
MANHUNTER was fairly true to the book until the climax where they totally
deviated and cut off the movie before the end and I felt CHEATED, the movie was
also plodding; Will Graham’s conflict and introspection that worked fabulously
in the written story was slow and tedious as a verbal monologue; and the
villain was two-dimensional and hollow, the opposite of the depth of character
revealed in the book. RED DRAGON, though more violent on screen than its
predecessor, showed Will Graham’s conflict on screen rather than had him
verbally expound on it; the villain (played by Ralph Fiennes) showed the depth
of character as portrayed in the novel; and the ending was true to the book.
RED DRAGON is Will Graham’s story, the FBI Agent who caught Hannibal Lecter in the
first place. He almost died in the process. (And presumably, almost eaten.) But it's not about Will capturing Hannibal; it's about how will handles the aftermath of what happened, and how he can once again go after another sadistic killer. Will is tortured in so many ways, but he is truly one of the good guys. He has
many battles, including drinking, but he has so much empathy with the victims
that you, the reader, have empathy with the victims. You feel Will’s pain. If I
learned anything about storytelling from this book, it’s that how your
characters feel about their job, their duty, their honor, and the very real
conflicts that arise from such is just as important as the current case they’re working. We don’t live in a vacuum; we are the sum of our past, of our emotion and experiences. True heroes are not fearless; they are not without conflict or pain; they make
mistakes and they worry about their decisions. True heroes are you and me who
overcome or fears and limitations to do the right thing.
And a villain, to be a strong character, must be worthy of the hero. Francis
Dolarhyde is a superior villain. He is worthy of Will Graham in the same way
that Hannibal Lecter is worthy of Will Graham. In fact, Hannibal Lecter in many
ways created the person Will is today (i.e. in RED DRAGON.)
Reading RED DRAGON taught me that the villain’s backstory is as important—if not more
important—than what the villain is doing in the present.
In Christopher Vogler's THE WRITERS JOURNEY, he said that the villain is the hero
of his own journey. As soon as I read that, so many things clicked for me. Any
story must be fully fleshed out to avoid stereotypes or caricature. As we go
into our hero's head, so must we go into our villain's head. We must understand
his GMC (goals, motivation and conflict) perhaps even more so than the hero and
A killer who kills for the sake of killing isn’t interesting on any level; there
should be a reason that the reader can buy into. The reason doesn’t have to be
justifiable for the reader in the sense that the reader, in the same
circumstances, would kill; but the reason must be justifiable for the
villain—that based on the personality and backstory of the killer, under the
circumstances yes, we understand why he/she is committing just evil and violent
A three-dimensional villain, even if he doesn't see much page time, will always
make a story stronger. The stronger the villain, the stronger the conflict and
more important, the better your hero and heroine. Who cares if your hero
defeats some weak criminal? Your story villain should be equal to or stronger
than your hero. So that when the hero wins, we feel as if we’ve just been to
the pit of Hell and back.
Now you might think I’m contradicting myself (and I’m not surprised!) because I
earlier said that Clarice Starling wasn’t worthy of Hannibal. Hannibal was
certainly the stronger character, as it should be suspense. My problems had to
do with her thought processes. That she wasn’t scared when he escaped. That she
didn’t feel guilty of culpable in his escape. Giving him a reward for giving
her information is fine: that doesn’t bother me. Her idiocy in not being scared
of him bothered me.
One thing Thomas Harris does particularly well in RED DRAGON is to get into the
characters heads—both the villain and the hero. We see the battle within both
of them as they move toward the finale. Will Graham is battling not only the
unknown killer (Dolarhyde) but the psychologically destructive Hannibal Lecter.
Hannibal will say or do anything to destroy Will—on the surface he claims to
admire him because Will figured it out—that Hannibal was guilty—and put him in
prison (a mental hospital.) But underneath he is furious that Will—someone he
considered inferior in every way—stopped him and took away his freedom. Which
is why he does what he does in the book. (I don’t want to give it away—I think
anyone who writes serial killer novels should read this book.) Hannibal both
helps Will reach his goal, and he sets up Will so that Hannibal might attain his goal: destroying the man who denied him freedom.
But RED DRAGON is not Hannibal’s story, and in fact Hannibal plays a small but
important catalyst role. It’s truly Will and Francis Dolayhyde’s story.
Dolarhyde is a tragic villain. While I have always understood the sympathetic
villain, this was the first time I understood how the past truly shapes the villain, and in many
ways, the villain is still living in the past. By killing “happy families”
taking special care with the mother—Dolarhyde is returning to his childhood and
the rejections he faced early on by his mother. Dolarhyde would have been just
another monster with a so-sad childhood if he hadn’t been made human by his
affection for a blind colleague. In that relationship, we see how he wants so
badly to be loved for who he is, not only identified by his physical handicap.
That gives him depth of character that few villains achieve in fiction.
And it’s something I constantly strive for.
A villain has specific goals. Murder is not the goal. Murder is the means to an
end. Very few villains kill simply to kill. It's the feeling the murder gives
them, or how they felt before, during, or after the crime that is A goal, but
it may not be the ONLY goal. That Dolarhyde breaks the mirrors in his victim’s
homes; that he kills the children quickly and without pain (or little pain) but
makes the mother’s suffer, is all significant. But what is his goal? Revenge
for how his mother treated him? No. His goal was more a manifestation, from a
physical monster into a beautiful creature; the more “beautiful” he became in
his mind (i.e. turning into the Red Dragon) the more of a monster he became in
real life. But his goal was ultimately to be reborn. (Though again, that’s just
my opinion, and there are other valid commentaries on this story.) And there's also the cruel dead grandmother, and a bit of PSYCHO in the story, but in an even more twisted (and fantastic) way. So we are left with the question that if Dolarhyde's beautiful mother didn't leave him because of his physical deformity (which is actually quite minor) with his cruel grandmother, and if his cruel grandmother didn't abuse him physically and emotionally, would he have turned into a psychopath and killed complete families? Or was that his destiny? The ultimate question I could argue on both sides: is a killer born or made? Nature or nurture?
In KILLING FEAR, my villain's goal is not to kill, but to feel. He has never had a
real human emotion–he can't. He was born without empathy or feelings. He
learns early on that he receives a physical adrenalin rush when he causes pain
to others–either emotional pain or physical pain. Over time this escalates. He
attempts to satisfy his need for adrenalin by becoming involved in extreme
sports–and for a time that works. But over time, even those challenges are
lacking. That he kills is incidental. Yes, he enjoys it but not for the killing
part. He needs to kill to receive that physical rush—the adrenalin which is a
FEELING–by watching the terrified faces of his victims. He lives vicariously
through the emotions of others. (An example of NATURE creating a killer.)
In SUDDEN DEATH, I ended up challenging myself and trying something beyond what I believed I was capable of. I have two villains. (I’m not giving anything away because by the end of the first chapter you know that there are two villains), but one of the
villains is insane. In my first draft, I didn’t get into his head because, to
be honest, I was scared to. I’d never gone into the head of a villain who
really was not truly there. I had no idea how to do it. But my editor felt that
if I wrote the scenes from his POV rather than his killing partner’s POV they
would be more powerful. So I read up on certain disorders and how someone
“snaps” and why, and how they function on a day-to-day basis. I realized as I
got into his head that he would have killed himself before he killed anyone
else. I had to deal with that knowledge—so his partner ultimately stops him
from killing himself, and that changed everything. I could feel his pain and
conflict, why he killed and what he thought he’d get out of it, and what he
really got out of it. It was a difficult exercise for me because I’d never done
it before with that deranged a character. Most of my killers were logical (in
their mind) and because of that, I could understand them. Ethan is not logical.
His partner, however, is. (An example of NURTURE–or rather, unusual circumstances in Ethan's adulthood–that turned him into a killer.)
Of course, you'll want to know exactly why your villain is committing this particular crime.
What happened in the past? Had his mother cheated on his father? His father on
his mother? Or maybe his ex-wife cheated on him. Was he sexually abused as a child? Physically? Emotionally? Many kids are tragically abused and never grow up to be serial killers or predators; what makes your villain snap? Why him and not others? Most serial killers (but not all) were subjected to abuse by one or both parents (or step-parents.) Most (but not all) serial killers display some sadistic tendencies as children or young teens (setting fires, killing small animals, etc.) Another obvious conflict with
villains is that most of them don't want to be caught. Most villains want to
remain free to continue their dastardly deeds. That is an internal
conflict–their need for killing is greater than their need for freedom, but
their need for freedom will make them cautious and provide valuable tools for
the author to make them smart. Dumb criminals are caught. Dumb criminals do not
make interesting, or worthy, villains.
The Hero's Journey is a valuable tool for your writer’s tool chest. If you remember that the villain is the hero of his OWN journey, your bad guy will
be richer–and scarier–for it. But it's not just the "bad guy"–it's
any antagonist in your story. WHY characters do things, even minor characters,
is important to know, so if you can identify where they are on their personal
journey, it'll help enrich your story. This isn't to say every character needs
a backstory on the page, but every character needs a backstory in your mind.
Remember, Joseph Campbell said that the Hero has a Thousand Faces; don't forget that the
villain has a thousand faces, too.
Take chances and put yourself in ALL your character's shoes. You'll be surprised at
how much richer your story will be.
Some articles about the hero's journey:
Villains People Love to Hate By Lee Masterson
the Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy — Some great stuff even if
you're not writing fantasy.
And THE WRITERS JOURNEY by Vogler is still, IMO, the single best condensed explanation
for The Hero’s Journey and universal storytelling in general. Campbell is the master, but his books are also dense and detailed and I've never been able to get through all of them. Vogler boils it all down to the key elements. And frankly, I'm lazy. I like Vogler's conversational tone. I don't have to think too hard :)
So, other than Hannibal Lecter, who’s your favorite novel or movie villain and why?
And guess what? I got extra ARCs for SUDDEN DEATH. This is huge for me, because I usually get five or six; I have over 25. I'd love to send one to a Murderati friend, so please comment and I'll randomly pick a winner.