By Elaine Viets
This month got off to a pleasant start. My short story, “Dog Eat Dog” was nominated for two awards: the Macavity and the International Thriller Writers.
The story was in The Beat of Black Wings, an anthology based on the songs of Joni Mitchell. I chose “Dog Eat Dog.”
This story was difficult to write, because my protagonist was so dislikeable. We learn straight out that Tiffany Yokum is a gold digger – and a calculating killer.
Here’s her introduction:
“The first time I tried to kill my husband, I failed. Miserably. I gave him a little push at the top of the stairs and Colgate tangled himself in his walker and fell down twenty-seven marble steps, just as I hoped. And he cracked his head – but not hard enough.
“Now he’s in a coma. The doctors say there’s still brain activity and he could wake up at any time, so I can’t pull the plug. He could live forever this way. As I sit by his bedside, I watch the fluid drip through his IV, and imagine each drop is a dollar. Even his immense fortune will be drained away.
“I want desperately to finish him off, but I don’t want to get caught.”
Greedy Tiffany put a nice old man into a coma, and now she wants him to die. How do I make readers root for this little moneygrubber?
Unlikeable protagonists are extremely popular, thanks to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Before Gillian, there was the disgusting pedophile Humbert Humbert in Lolita. And Rabbit Angstrom in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and other novels in this series. Books I pretended to read in college but couldn’t finish because I found Rabbit, the protagonist, self-absorbed and dull.
Short stories don’t have time to create the subtleties of a novel. Which gets us back to Tiffany and how to make readers root for this crafty killer. Here are some ways to do it.
Give your villains a minor illness.
The award-winning Evan Hunter – a.k.a. Ed McBain – made that recommendation. It works if your villains aren’t too evil. McBain had a lot of sniffling and sneezing detectives in the 87th Precinct. But I could give Tiffany pneumonia – heck, Covid-19 – and she still wouldn’t be likeable.
Give your villains a sympathetic background.
Tiffany is by no means her rich husband’s social equal. She’s an 18-year-old clerk at a hardware store in Festus, Missouri. “Colgate Osborne was a randy seventy-two when he first spotted me behind the cash register, falling out of my tank top,” Tiffany says. She grew up in a trailer park. So she’s at the bottom rung of the ladder, looking to climb. Readers like to root for a rags-to-riches scenario.
Make your villains smart. Or at least crafty.
Tiffany quickly becomes the fourth wife of rich old Cole Osborne and they live in luxury in Fort Lauderdale.
“I never went to college, but I wasn’t stupid,” Tiffany said. “I knew now that Cole had tied the knot with me, my struggle had just begun. Cole was very, very classy, and I had to fit in with his rich friends.”
Make your villains self-aware.
The Joni Mitchell song was Tiffany’s anthem, and she recognized herself in the lyrics of “Dog Eat Dog.” Especially the part about slaves. Some were well-treated . . .
And some like poor beasts
Are burdened down to breaking
Tiffany said, “This was a dog eat dog world – more so than the trailer park where I used to live. I was a well-treated slave, and I’d sold myself into slavery, but I knew that.”
Our villain has knows she’s living in comfort, but she can’t get comfortable.
“One misstep, and I’d be one of those poor beasts, working again at the local hardware store or greeting people at Walmart. I had a prenup that would give me a measly hundred thousand dollars if we divorced, but if I could hang on until Cole died, I’d get half his fortune.”
Make your villains work for their success. That way, readers can root for them.
Cindy knew she’s landed her pretty derriere in a tub of butter, but she knew her work has just started. Among other things, Cindy changed her name to a classier “Tish.”
She also “made friends with his housekeeper, Mrs. Anderson. She’d been with him for twenty years and three wives. I slipped her a little extra out of my mad money account that Cole gave me, and Mrs. A told me where to shop on Las Olas, the local Rodeo Drive, and which saleswoman to make an appointment with. She also advised me to ditch my long fake nails and get a nice, refined French manicure, then sent me to a salon where I had my long hair tamed into fashionable waves and the color became ‘not so blonde’ as the tactful stylist said.”
Make your villains aware of the stakes if they fail.
Now readers have more reasons to root for them.
“As I got into my mid-twenties, I had to work hard to keep my girlish figure,” Tiffany said. “My trainer was worse than a drill sergeant, and I endured endless runs on the beach. Awful as it was, it beat standing on my feet all day on a concrete floor, running a cranky cash register for nine dollars an hour.”
Create a conflict – and an even worse villain.
Tiffany says, “I thought I could sail smoothly into Cole’s sunset years and collect the cash when he went to his reward. But then that damn preacher showed up. The smarmy Reverend Joseph Starr, mega-millionaire pastor of Starr in the Heavens.”
As much as we may dislike money-hungry Tiffany, the bloodsucking TV preacher is even worse. He plays on Cole’s fear of death and walks off with a check for a million dollars on his first visit – and the Reverend has his sights set on more.
“Starr would work on Cole’s guilt and milk him for every dollar – my husband was one big cash cow,” the practical Tiffany said.
Now that her husband was in the hospital on life support, Tiffany has to find a way to kill her husband and put the blame on the Reverend Starr.
Does Tiffany succeed? Or does the Reverend Starr walk off with the money? You’ll have to read “Dog Eat Dog” to find out – and see if I made you root for her.
Tell us, TKZers. How do you humanize your villains?
The Beat of Black Wings, edited by Josh Pachter, is an anthology of 28 crime writers who wrote short stories inspired by Joni Mitchell’s lyrics. The award-winning authors include Art Taylor and Tara Laskowski, Kathryn O’Sullivan, Stacy Woodson, and Donna Andrews. A third of the royalties will be donated to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation in Joni Mitchell’s name.
Order your copy of Beat of Black Wings here: https://tinyurl.com/38x2cyar