By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole, wrote that “most of the interest and part of the terror of great crime are not due to what is abnormal, but to what is normal in it; what we have in common with the criminal rather than the subtle insanity which differentiates him from us.” I couldn’t agree more – for me, it is the commonality rather than the abnormality that makes a villain truly villainous.
Take Doctor Crippen – an unremarkable man in real life, the least likely man perhaps to have poisoned and dismembered his wife or to have been pursued across the Atlantic with a young mistress in tow disguised as a boy. Part of the fascination with this case is the sheer ordinariness of the supposed murderer – and now, with DNA evidence casting doubt on whether the woman whose body was found was that of Doctor Crippen’s wife, Cora, the mystery of what actually happened may never be solved.
In fiction of course, some of the most fantastical crimes that occur in real life can never be used simply because readers would never believe them. Take for example the man who murdered his wife over an affair that happened 40 years before and then left her body as a gift beneath the Christmas tree. Writers have to walk a fine line with villains too, making them both believable as well as intriguing. Are they merely the flip side of the protagonist? Are they an ordinary person pushed to the brink? Or does some deep psychological wound create the monster within?
As a historical mystery writer and fan, I have a preference for the enigmatic ‘villain or not’ character. I still recall the terror I felt as a twelve year old reading Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca late one night when I realized Maxim de Winter may have murdered his wife.
Part of the pleasure of reading Dickens, for me, is his rendition of such memorably odious characters as Mr. Murdstone, Uriah Heep and Steerforth (and that’s just in David Copperfield!)
As for female villains, I love Annie Wilson in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Even though no murder is committed her vitriolic outburst and her ability to mask her hatred beneath sheer ordinariness and subservience made her a perfect villainess in my book. Then of course there’s Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca and that other Annie in Stephen King’s Misery…now they’re just downright bloody terrifying.
So what makes the ideal ‘fictitious’ villain for you?
Please also join me as I guest blog at Good Girls Kill for Money where I discuss what makes the ideal ‘fictitious’ husband…which is in no way inspired by my musings on villainy…
Ah, Maxim de Winter. But isn’t the fact that his unnamed wife was willing to forgive his indiscretion just as scary?
So true, Chris…how I remember the terror when I read that book all those years ago!
Clare, I think the antagonist must always be worthy to face the protagonist. Too much advantage on one side or the other creates a boring story. After all, even Superman has his kryptonite. The hero and villain must be equal in both talents and flaws with the hero hopefully having a slight edge in the end. The thing that makes the story interesting for me is watching the hero find that edge just in the nick of time.
I think you’re right – that edge is so important. A one sided story never really satisfies.