I Like Complex, Competent Villains

By John Gilstrap

There comes a point in most stories where the villain and the hero face off and have a Dramatic Moment with each other. As many times as not, I find that beat of the story to be the nadir of the dramatic arc. In that moment resides definitive evidence of the writer’s strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read some version of this: “Well, Detective Huffnagle, since I’m going to kill you anyway, there’s no reason for me not to explain all of the things that the author who created me couldn’t figure out a way to clarify more elegantly. . .”

I spent fifteen years of my life as a firefighter and EMT, cleaning up after the handiwork of killers. Figure a couple, three murders a year, and they add up over time. Never once did I process a witness report of a dramatic speech preceding the fatal blow, shot or stab wound. Real bad guys pretty much just step out of the shadows and do what they’re out to do in as lop-sided a manner as they can. They point the gun, pull the trigger, and the rest plays out at 9,000 feet per second.

In my own writing, I find that the most vexing challenge can be to find the motivation for my bad guy not to pop the good guy on sight and get it over with. Motivating him to take the shot is easy; explaining his last-minute collapse in marksmanship skill is tough. Remember that scene in Behind Enemy Lines when Lt. Burnett is sitting on the rock taking a break? Our enemy sniper has for freaking ever to zero in on his shot . . . and then he misses! WTF?! How am I supposed to respect a bad guy who’s so ridiculously incompetent?

Not to run counter to the opinions of my colleagues here on The Kill Zone, but in the creepy worlds created by Thomas Harris (one of the two greatest thriller writers of all time, in my opinion), Hannibal Lecter is a lightweight compared to Francis Dolarhyde (Red Dragon) or Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs). Those guys are ninth-degree nut jobs who don’t even realize that they’re being evil. Man, that’s scary.

The other best thriller writer of all time on my list is Frederick Forsythe, whose book, The Day of the Jackal, is The Perfect Thriller. In it, the whole villain thing becomes a bit murky–just the way I like it. On the one hand we’ve got an assassin out to murder the French president, while on the other we have state security forces who torture citizens to death in their zeal to prevent the murder from occurring. I defy you to point with one finger at the bad guy in that story.

As I write this, I think I’m deciding that maybe bad guys are over-rated, and serial killers are overdone. In the wrong hands, it becomes too easy to create a character who’s bad simply because he’s crazy. There’s no moral complexity. All else being equal, I’ll take a Dennis Lehane character any day over a serial killer: a morally-centered cop, for example, who shoots a child molester simply because he has the opportunity.

Maybe morality matters less when it feels so good.

7 thoughts on “I Like Complex, Competent Villains

  1. John, you and I have similarly tastes naming Harris and Forsythe as the two top thriller writers. Throw in Jack Higgins and you’ve got a winning trifecta.

  2. Wow, John, you have me thinking deeper now. I’ve sold humorous mysteries and am creating my debut suspense. You have given me a wealth of ideas. Thanks so much.

    June Shaw

  3. Very good points, John. In my case, when I can really empathize with a killer’s motivation (for example, a parent seeking revenge for a child who was killed at random during an outbreak of gang violence), I become much more involved–and sympathetic–with the killer.

  4. Yes, definitely too many serial killers, mainly because they’re too often used just because they’re serial killers: elevate the body count, give the hero something to do.

    I agree completely about Forsythe and JACKAL. Think of it: you know he’s not going to kill DeGaulle, and you can’t put it down. The movie was excellent, too.

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