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.