Real-Life Villains Translate Into Great Fictional Characters

The conflict between good and evil never fails to fascinate and thrill.

I love to write villains because they’re a lot more challenging and more fun to write than good guys. Making a villain frightening is easy, but making them somehow sympathetic is always a challenge. The bad guys may or may not see themselves as evil individuals, but they all somehow justify their behavior . If I write effective villains it’s because I’ve met a few in my life and they made one heck of an impression of me.

I think you have to have tasted evil, been laid open by it to write a good villain. I first encountered evil as an impressionable youngster, and it made its impression. As with the majority of young boys my father was the ultimate good guy–a liberal Methodist minister during the Civil Rights era. No big deal except for the fact that he was a preacher in the great state of Mississippi during that time. He made a moral stand and could not be moved by outside forces. He opened his church to blacks, and even sent ushers home who couldn’t go along. “This is God’s church,“ he said. “And it is open to all of His children.“ To me, and a lot of others, he was a flesh-and-blood Atticus Finch.

Ah, Mississippi in the sixties. I have always loved Mississippi. It was my first home, but it was in those days it was a paranoid schizophrenic setting. A lot of the people in Mississippi during that time were being robbed of their long-held convictions that white people were the bomb, and black people were subhuman. The other people throughout the state knew this was a flawed theory, but the prevalent historical viewpoint, passed down by their forefathers, and largely accepted. As a small child I thought Mississippi was an idyllic world. Small towns were great places to grow up. We children wondered the neighborhoods pretty much unmolested and unaware of the evils that surrounded us due to the fact that the media hadn’t yet discovered the value of scaring the cold crap out of the populace so kids weren’t encouraged to stay in their houses and grow sedentary and fat watching TV because parents weren’t under the impression that their homes were under siege by child-abducting pedophiles.

I ran across two pedophiles before I was a teenager. One of them was a man with limited intelligence who pushed his lawnmower all over Starkville, Mississippi. He wore a yacht captain’s cap and was cross-eyed and dentally challenged. Instead of calling this man “cross-eyes,” or “Captain Briggs and Straton,” we kids called him “Goober Puller” due to the way he was always straightening his equipment with his hand as he walked about searching for tall grass. One day he stopped and asked a group of us kids if any of us might be interested in being corn-holed. According to Mr. Puller it paid a quarter. We didn’t know what he was inviting us to do, so we laughed and ran off hollering “Goober Puller! Corn Hole! Corn Hole!” That night I related the story to my father, who had me retell the story to the police. Mysteriously, after that night anytime Mr. Puller saw any of us he would turn and rush off, pushing his mower down the street at amazing speeds. The second pedophile was a man who was the music director at my father’s church. He gave several of the male boys choir members masturbation instruction in his music room. His tenure was short, he was invited to leave the state, and I suppose he modified lots of young boys in Southern California for many years afterward. These men were certainly both villains. If they weren’t truly evil men, they were certainly evil doers.

At Boy Scout camp one year, carved into an upright post along with scores of other names, I read the name of a boy along with his troop number and home town. Other scouts had pointed out the name as it was one immediately recognizable. I had heard of the young man, John Mattox, from Columbus, Mississippi, who a few years earlier had been convicted of murdering a female socialite using a coat hanger. I remember feeling chilled to think that this young boy grew up to become a murderer and he had stood in that very spot years earlier and used a pen knife to leave his signature. I doubt at that point in his life if he imagined he’d be famous and be electrocuted at Parchman.

I was in middle school the year John Kennedy was assassinated. That year things were heating up in Mississippi, and people from the north were descending on the state in droves to change the way things had worked in the state for hundreds of years. The air was crisp with racial tension, and people were choosing sides. It was about changing one very complex, but large social evil against one larger good. My father chose easily–to behave as a Christian, and his public stance put him at odds with a lot of people, some of them very dangerous individuals.
One day in 1963, I walked the few blocks to middle school, and I was in a store across the street from the school, and I was buying candy. The owner was in the back of the small store and I was at the counter. A tall, skinny man entered the store and walked straight to the counter. He asked me if my father was “Red” Miller, and I said yes. My father had red hair, so I assumed he was referring to that. At this point the man grabbed my shirt and twisted the material in has right hand and lifted me off the ground so that we were literally nose-to-nose. I can remember the smell of liquor on his breath and the hate in his eyes. “Your daddy is a nigger lover,” he told me, adding something on the order of, “Tell him we know where you Millers live and if he doesn’t shut his communist mouth we’ll be visiting your house late one night real soon.”

I remember the store’s owner rushing up and yelling at the Klansman, who set me back on the floor, left the store and got into a car with several other people. The store owner called my father, who came to the store and took me home. The store owner told the police who the man was–a known lowlife Klansman–and some time later my father told me that the man who’d assailed me had passed out with a lit cigarette in his hand and burned up in his plaid recliner. So, not only had I seen the face of evil–and smelled its breath–but I got the distinct impression that God had punished him for his evilness, which also gave me a sense of divine justice.

In 1982 I spent a day on Death Row at Angola, Louisiana photographing Death Row inmates who were in lined-up cells waiting for the executions to start up again after years of them having been stopped cold. After over a year lining up permissions from inmates, attorneys, and prison officials, I set up a formal studio with a backdrop and lights in the main hallway on “The Row.” I photographed those men wearing street clothes, and there is nothing in the pictures that lets the viewer know these men are anything but normal individuals in average circumstance, not men awaiting their scheduled deaths. There is nothing at all frightening or threatening in their eyes or their expressions that would telegraph the horrific acts that put them on Death Row. I always look at the pictures and wonder why murderous history doesn’t show through. All of the men–now long executed–looked like anybody you’d see anywhere. Normal. Not at all evil. Not at all. Killers, once in captivity seem to be extremely personable individuals.

Often, when I speak to book-loving groups, I tell the Klansman-in-the-store story to illustrate why I write thrillers. As an author I am always trying to make my readers feel some of what I felt when real villains crossed my path, and I realized that they could do me serious harm. And I also realized at some point that my father wouldn’t always be there to make the world safe again. I have met more villains than I can count, and I do my best to protect myself and those I love from bad things and evil people to the best of my ability. Some evil is obvious, but most of the time it lies just beneath an innocuous and seemingly harmless surface. And sometimes the most dangerous things come to us with open arms and a smile. But seeing evil first hand allows me to write about threat and fear. Evil isn’t usually all that well defined, and it certainly is not simple. Villains should be complex, and human, and understanding them well enough to adequately portray them (in words) remains the ultimate challenge for writers.

11 thoughts on “Real-Life Villains Translate Into Great Fictional Characters

  1. I hardly know what to write here. Thank you for sharing your stories. Don’t think I’ve ever come up against evil at the level you were exposed to. Minor evil, I’d guess I’d call my experiences now.

    But reading about your run ins, and about your father, explains a lot about the man you have become. Glad to call you friend, John.

  2. I wish I could have met your father in the sixties, John! I was in South Carolina and a bit bewildered by the place–we had just moved from Connecticut. I couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t serve us ice cream at the restaurant that was next door to the train station (I found out later it was because our housekeeper was with us). I couldn’t figure out why my mother was too frightened to let this wonderful lady’s children, with whom I was friends, play in our front yard, even though it was okay for me to play at their house. I certainly couldn’t figure out where all the black children went to school. I wish more grown-ups in my world had had the courage to stand up to the injustice like your father did, rather than being so afraid and complicit.

  3. So often we hear the friends and neighbors of a heinous criminal tell the press that he was so quiet, never caused any trouble, always waved. Evil can come from anywhere, anytime, so often from the least expected source. Good backstory, John.

  4. For me, the realistic villian works best. I don’t need the cannibal or the sex torturer or the world-destroying master mind–it’s too easy to close the book and say “well, that was intense, now back to real life.” I may not sleep well for a couple of days, but the evil that really terrifies me is the one that creeps up unnoticed or that is buried under righteous anger, the moral catastrophe that the perpetrator doesn’t even recognize. This is the type of evil any one of us could commit, where stressful circumstances disable our moral compass and we don’t even notice. That’s what I can’t scrape off my shoe.

  5. Great post, John. Amazing stories of the evils you’ve faced. (And yes, I got chills reading about the Klansman.) Thanks for sharing.

    It is true that the villains are so hard to write well. I realized today how flat my villain is in my current manuscript and as I reread a particular scene, I knew I had to make some changes to him.

  6. Wow, John.

    When I was a teenager in Alaska during the eighties I had a cool image in my mind of drug dealers and gangster types. Miami Vice and Scarface had built ideas of what that criminal reality was like.

    Then, in 1987 at the young age of 19 my own wanabe criminal ideas grew to the next level. My roomate’s father owned an after-hours club that featured the full services of everything the Hell’s Angels had to offer. Whores, Cocaine, Pot, hairy men with tatoos, and guns, and knives, and dead eyes.

    Although I had been what could be considered a petty criminal for a couple of years, I had never been in the presence of real evil. Those men, and some of the women, were seriously bad, even evil. Later I found that some of them were murderers hiding out in the Last Frontier. One of them had tortured and dismembered a drug courier who stole some stash. He dismembered him medeival style…with an axe..alive. The dude kept a couple of man’s tattoos as souveniers.

    I quickly decided that I needed to change my circle of friends and shortly after leaving that group of “buddies” met my wife and eventually became a youth minister. I now try my best to de-glorify criminals and evil people for the teens and college students I teach. Sadly, I also realize that most of them had no clue as to the real evil that men can do.

  7. Perhaps more indepth research, or any research at all for that matter, would have revealed, that Jon Mattox in fact did not die at the hands of the executioner at Parchman, but was instead a model prisoner, and was eventually released on parole. Perhaps in some cases, evil is transient, or only in the eye of the sensationalist.

  8. Mattox at Parchman was a model prisoner was eventually released on parole in 1971. Sounds Great! I still never got to meet her, as she was my Grandmother.

  9. I guess you are referring to the beautiful lady who was murdered, Mrs.
    Gene Tate. She was loved and admired,gone way too soon. This happened in my neighborhood so long ago. By those of us who lived then, it will never be forgotten. Jon Mattox still lives after only ten years in prison. To my knowledge, he never admitted it. It is amazing that he is or has been a deacon of his church. I suppose his friends there believe he is forgiven or that he was innocent…but how to forgive if one doesn’t confess?

  10. Mattox served as a deacon at a Huntsville AL Church of Christ in the 1980s. He was a trusty at Parchman in 1966 and was allowed to carry a gun. He was often assigned to my Dad, who worked as a guard at Parchman.

Comments are closed.