How to Describe a Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) and Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) in Murder, My Sweet, the film version of Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Following up on my post on scene descriptions, I turn today to describing characters. The basic principle is the same: we want to create a feeling over and above a mere picture. And the way we do that is to filter impressions through the point-of-view character.

I’d like to break this subject down into two parts. First, how to describe the main character, the protagonist. Second, how to render the other characters through the eyes of the protagonist.

Main Character Description

There are two schools of thought when it comes to describing a main character.

The first is to give little or no visual info about the character. This allows the readers form their own picture. There’s a vividness that springs directly from the reader’s imagination.

This approach––minimalism––seems to be the preferred style these days. The exception may be category romance, which usually puts the main characters right on the cover.

If you want to offer a fuller character description, your challenge is two-fold. How much detail, and how to deliver it? In the past it was common to give full information via an omniscient POV, as in the beginning of Gone With The Wind:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Here eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin––that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

These days, however, the more intimate Third and First Person POVs are favored. So how do you describe a main character without her sounding vain? I brushed aside a wisp of my auburn hair and focused my startling green eyes on him.

Here are a couple of ways:

Have another character provide the description

In my first Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Way, I wanted readers to know Mike was in great shape and looked like a fighter. So the first scene finds him jogging and stopping to talk to a middle-aged woman trimming flowers (just before a church blows up):

She put out her hand. “Nell,” she said.

“Mike,” I said.

“Happy to meet you, Mike. Except …”

“Yes?”

“You don’t look like a flower man.”

“What do I look like?”

“Football player, maybe?”

I shook my head.

“Then what exactly do you do with all those muscles?”

“Are you flirting with me, Nell?”

She pushed her hat back slightly. “If I was thirty years younger, I’d rip your T-shirt right off.”

The mirror trick

It is frowned upon by keepers of the craft to have a character pause in front of a mirror (or window or bright, shiny toaster) and report what she sees. I looked in the mirror and saw my red hair hanging there like a bunch of kelp. My jade eyes, which men normally went wowsers over, seemed dull and lifeless. Was I really that depressed?

You know what? I don’t think readers care about it as much as writing teachers and critique-group nannies do. So if you really want to put in such a moment, I’m not going to throw a pencil at you.

There’s an alternative: imagine what another character would see when looking at the protagonist.

I could just imagine old J.D.’s reaction. “What’s with those baby blues of yours, Hal? They look scared. And why don’t you just give in and cut your hair? You want to be a Viking or a lawyer?”

No matter what style of description you choose, be sure to put it somewhere up front, because it only takes a few scenes for your readers to lock in a picture. If you give them some startling descriptive element in the middle of the book, it will be jarring.

Describing Other Characters

Now let’s turn to when the POV character in a scene describes another character. As with setting, I have a checklist:

  1. How do you want the reader to feel about this character?

This is a strategic decision. What’s the tone and purpose of your scene? How will this new character figure into that?

  1. Using the sense of sight, make a list of what the POV character notices about physical appearance

Jot down five to ten items. As you go along, push beyond the familiar. See if you can find one “telling detail.” That’s one image that seems to sum up the entire character. David Copperfield’s first sight of the unctuous Uriah Heep begins:

The low arched door then opened, and the face came out. It was quite as cadaverous as it had looked in the window, though in the grain of it there was that tinge of red which is sometimes to be observed in the skins of red-haired people. It belonged to a red-haired person—a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older—whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand, which particularly attracted my attention…

What got me was “no eyelashes.” That’s surprising and vivid. And it goes with Heep’s character, for his is always secretly observing. He is not to be trusted. He’s creepy. Dickens captured all that.

  1. Consider the other senses

Smell, hearing (the voice), touch (a handshake) … think about these as well. I’d leave taste out of it (eww).

  1. What personal impression does the character make?

Here is where you can use the POV character’s personal interpretation, like we did with scenes. He wouldn’t stop talking. He was a New York traffic jam full of angry cabbies.

  1. Write the description, let it rest, then edit

Give it your best shot, then take a little break. Grab some coffee. Watch the news.

On second thought, don’t watch the news.

Then come back and tweak the description as you see fit. 

The grand master of character description was Raymond Chandler. He wrote his Philip Marlowe detective stories in First Person POV. Here’s Marlowe’s description of Moose Malloy in Farewell, My Lovely:

He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.

Here is the snarky voice of Marlowe, and the perfect image—beer truck. Chandler could have chosen anything. …not wider than a schoolhouse…not wider than a cow pasture. But those images would not be how Marlowe thinks nor how Chandler wants to set the scene. A beer truck is urban. It is for people who drink in bars. That’s the feel of the whole chapter, which takes place inside a saloon.

A few paragraphs later, Moose Malloy returns: 

A hand I could have sat in came out of the dimness and took hold of my shoulder and squashed it to a pulp. Then the hand moved me through the doors and casually lifted me up a step.

Not a big hand. But a hand I could have sat in. Then what that hand does to his shoulder, and not just lifting, but casually lifting Marlowe. Two lines, and we know this character is huge and dangerous and in control.

Additional Notes

You can characterize by comparing the person to something

Robert B. Parker does this in The Godwulf Manuscript: 

He looked like a zinnia. Tall and thin with an enormous corona of rust red hair flaring out around his pale, clean-shaven face.

I like what a middle-schooler once wrote as part of a metaphor exercise in English class:

John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met. 

Needs some editing, but perhaps with a little coaching this kid will be a writer someday.

Minor characters should have at least one unique, visual tag 

Minor characters are an opportunity to add spice to your book. Don’t waste their descriptions by making them plain vanilla. Give them at least one unique visual tag.

Instead of the doorman let me in try a doorman too fat for his faded green coat let me in.

You can characterize by what another character is not 

In my current WIP, a Mike Romeo thriller, he is describing the banal bathing-suited men and women at a Hollywood pool party. They are all pose and giggles. Mike observes:

A meeting of the American Philosophical Society this was not. 

You don’t have to describe everything at once 

It’s often a good idea to drop in descriptive details along with the action. Think of it as you would in real life. You see someone at a distance. You form an impression. As you get closer, you notice other things. It’s sort of like a camera starting with a long shot then moving in for a close-up.

Let me end this post with my favorite descriptive example of all time. It comes out of the popular Bulwer-Lytton bad opening line contest from several years ago.

With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned, unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.

Any thoughts you’d like to add on the subject of character description? 

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NOTE: For years people have asked when my writing seminar might come to their town. Well, now their town can come to my seminar. WRITING A NOVEL THEY CAN’T PUT DOWN is live. You can get all the info by going here. And here’s a little promo:

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Choosing Character Names

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’m winging my way to Australia today so apologies that I won’t be able to join in the discussion. I will, however, be trying to do a little writing on the way (although you all know how hard I find it to write ‘in public’!). I started a new project last week and have been enjoying coming up with my new characters’ names – something I always have a lot of fun with and yet also suffer way too much angst over…

A character’s name can be critical to establishing the voice and feel of that person in the world that I am creating, and I often spend a considerable amount of time tinkering with main character names until they feel and fit the character exactly right.

Since I mainly write historical novels, I have a number of resources at my disposal to help me come up with names. These include lists of popular boys and girls names for  the time period I’m writing about as well as handy British last name resources like census data, historical records, newspapers, magazines and even Debrett’s (I often write about aristocrats, after all!). I’m like a sponge at first, soaking in all the details about names and then I play around with combinations until I find the right fit. Since I’ve also been writing with a renewed sense of appreciation for the humor in certain names, I have also been rereading Charles Dickens. He is, in my opinion, one of the cleverest ‘namers’ in literature (who can forget names like Uriah Heep, Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Pumblechook!). I recently discovered the often hilarious Dickens name generator and have spent many an hour or two concocting my own ‘Dickensian’ type names. 

So how do you come up with your character names? What resources do you use and how much time and effort do you spend? Is it something you agonize over, trying to make sure the name ‘fits’ the character or do you find the names just come to you and slide on your characters as easily as a silk glove? Apart from Dickens, who do you think has come up with some of the greatest, most memorable character names? 

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Does Hardship Improve Your Writing?

We just got back from a vacation in northern Michigan. We had a great time, but now I’m way behind on my novel. I need to get busy.
I’m too tired to write a long post tonight, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this question: Does hardship make you a better writer? A lot of people think so, but I’m skeptical. A little hardship might be a good thing — it can fill you with grit and determination and perhaps even some righteous zeal. I’m thinking now of Dickens, whose miserable childhood spurred him to write some remarkable novels. But constant misery isn’t good for anyone.
I can think of many desperately unhappy people who produced works of genius — David Foster Wallace, Kurt Cobain, etc. — but it’s easy to confuse correlation with causation. Did Cobain write great music because he was unhappy, or was he a musical genius who also happened to have problems with addiction and depression? When Cobain killed himself in 1994, many people assumed that the pressures of becoming a rock star had contributed to his suicide, but I think music helped him far more than it hurt him. Without it, he would’ve killed himself even sooner.

Wow, this is morbid. I’m going to end this post on a more cheerful note: I’ve discovered a wonderful new thing to eat. It’s the spicy lamb noodle soup from Xi’an Famous Foods on Broadway and 102nd Street. Truly delicious and only eight dollars! The next time you’re in New York you’ve got to try it.
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Baloney Advice Writers Should Ignore

Some time ago I cheekily posted the three rules for writing a novel. It produced a spirited discussion on what is a “rule” and what is a “principle,” but by and large there was agreement that these three factors are essential to novels that sell.
Today I’d like to discuss some writing advice writers would do well to ignore.
Where does such advice come from? I have a theory that there is a mad scientist in Schenectady, New York, who cooks up writing advice memes and converts them to an invisible and odorless gas. He then secretly arranges for this gas to seep into critique groups across the land, infecting the members, who then begin to dispense the pernicious doctrine as if it were holy writ.
I now offer the antidote to the gas.
1. Don’t start with the weather
Verdict: Baloney
This meme may have started with Elmore Leonard, who once dashed off a list of “rules” that have become like sacred script for writers. If his advice were, “Don’t open a book with static, flat descriptions” I would absolutely agree.
But here is why the rule, as stated, is baloney: weather can add dimension and tone to the opening disturbance. If you use it in that fashion, weaving it into action, it’s a fine way to begin.
Look at the opening of Bleak House by Dickens, or the short story “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” by Stephen King. Or the quieter beginning of Ann Lamott’s Blue Shoe. All of them use weather to great effect. Here’s a Western, Hangman’s Territory, from a great writing teacher, Jack Bickham:
   The late spring storm was breaking. To the east, boiling blue-gray clouds moved on, raging toward Fort Gibson. To the west, the sun peered cautiously through a last veil of rain, slanting under the shelf of clouds and making the air a strange, silent bright yellow. The intense, muggy heat of the day had been broken, and now the early evening was cool and damp, and frogs had magically appeared everywhere in the red gumbo of the Indian Nations.
   Eck Jackson threw back the heavy canvas under which he had been waiting. His boots sank into the red mud as he clambered out of his shelter between two rocks and peered at the sky.
If you think of weather as interacting with the character’s mood and emotions, you’re just fine to start with it.
2. Don’t start with dialogue
Verdict: Baloney
Starting with dialogue creates instant conflict, which is what most unpublished manuscripts lack on the first pages. Sometimes this rule is stated as “Don’t start with unattributed dialogue.” Double baloney on rye with mustard. Here’s why: readers have imaginations which are patient and malleable. If they are hooked by dialogue, they will wait several lines before they find who’s talking and lose absolutely nothing in the process.
Examples:
“TOM!”
No answer.
“TOM!”
No answer.
“What’s gone with that boy,  I wonder? You TOM!”
No answer.
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room . . . 
        – (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)
 “Any thoughts that you’d like to start with?”
“Thoughts on what?”
“Well, on anything. On the incident.”
“On the incident? Yes, I have some thoughts.”
She waited but he did not continue. He had decided before he even got to Chinatown that this would be the way he would be.
       –  (Michael Connelly, The Last Coyote)
“Name?”
“Robert Travis.”
“Occupation?”
“Mining engineer.”
“Place of residence?”
“Seventh Base, Jovian Development Unit, Ganymede.”
“Reason for visiting Luna?”
“I’m checking on performance of the new Dahlmeyer units in the Mare Nublum fields. We’re thinking of adapting them for use in our Trendart field on Ganymede.”
“I see . . .” The port inspector fumbled through my papers. “Where’s your celemental analysis sheet?”
– (Dwight V. Swain, The Transposed Man)
3. No backstory in the first fifty pages
Verdict: Spam (a step up from baloney)
If backstory is defined as a flashback segment, then this advice has merit. Readers will wait a long time for backstory information if something compelling is happening in front of them. But if you stop the forward momentum of your opening with a longish flashback, you’ve dropped the narrative ball.
However, when backstory refers to bits of a character’s history, then this advice is unsound. Backstory Bits (I call them BBs) are actually essential for bonding us with a character. If we don’t know anything about the characters in conflict, we are less involved in their trouble. (Read Koontz and King, who weave backstory masterfully into their opening pages).
I’ve given writing students a simple guideline: three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages. You may use them together, or space them apart. Then three paragraphsof backstory in the next ten pages, together or apart.
I’ve seen this work wonders for beginning manuscripts.
4. Write what you know
Verdict: Baloney
Sounder advice is this:
Write who you are.
Write what you love.
Write what you NEED to know.
5. Don’t ever follow any writing advice
Verdict: Stinky baloney
There may be a few literary savants out there who can do this thing naturally, without thinking about technique or craft. And those three people can form their own group and meet for Martinis.
Every other writer can benefit from putting in some time studying their craft. I’ve heard some writers say they don’t want to do that for fear of “stifling” the purity of their work. Some of them get a contract and their books comes out in a nice edition that sell 500 copies. And then they get bitter and start appearing at writer’s conferences raging how there is no such thing as structure and you’ve all wasted your money coming here, and you should just go home and write. (This has actually happened on several occasions that I know of).
So here is my final bit of advice for today: don’t be that kind of writer. 

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Books on the Installment Plan

Books published by installment are not new. Charles Dickens is generally credited with beginning, or at least popularizing the practice. Genre novels appeared in serial form in magazines such as Colliersand in science fiction and mystery magazines regularly in the 1940s, sometimes in abridged form, sometimes completely.  More recently, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe was published in twenty-odd installments — in Rolling Stone, of all places — before it appeared in book form. Michael Connelly and Colin Harrison,  among others, have published short novels in Sunday newspaper magazines. The attraction for the reader is easy to see: be the first on your block to read the forthcoming novel, by your favorite author, before it’s actually published in book form, even if it is in installments.
So it was that a couple of mornings ago I flicked on my Kindle and learned from My Precious that Amazon has revived the serial novel for the electronic age. We are now in the era of serial e-books. Make a selection from list of e-books published under one of Amazon’s imprints, lay down (or should that be transmit?) a couple of bucks and you immediately receive the first installment which consists of about forty pages. That price also includes the rest of the book, released in six monthly installments. Late to the party? Not to worry. Plunk down your two dollars at any point along the way and you get all of the installments published to date and the future ones as they are released.
I tried to talk myself out of it. I failed. First argument:  Why bother? I would forget what happened from month to month.  I quit reading comic books twelve years ago, after a half-century of four-color fandom, because I could no longer remember from month to month what had happened in the previous month’s issue.  X-Men, to name but one example, had with all of its alternative time-lines and such had become incomprehensible. Rebuttal: that isn’t a problem with the Amazon serials. The next installment will be solidly fused with the presently published ones on Your Precious and if I can’t remember who did what to who, as the limerick goes, I can just do a search on the character’s name and bring my poor addled memory right up to snuff. Second argument:  I already have a couple of hundred books on my Kindle that I will probably never read. Why throw another one (or two. Or three.) on there?  Rebuttal: righto. But, I told myself, I can read forty pages or so while in the drive-through line at Sonic. I might be intimated from starting a six-hundred page book, but forty pages? No problem. Third argument…well, I didn’t have a third argument. I saw that Andrew Peterson, an extremely talented author, all-around good guy, and member of the F.O.S.J. (Friends of Sweet Joseph) has a novel titled OPTION TO KILL among the serial e-books. I bought that one. There is also a brand-new traditional western,  THE CIRCUIT RIDER, by Dani Amore, which looked so good that I could not resist.  Actually each and all of the books which comprise this inaugural launch seem to have something to recommend them. And, of course, Amazon’s sample feature is in place, in case you’re unfamiliar with the author or otherwise on the fence about purchasing a particular book.

Is this a gimmick that is going to fail? Or does it have a place in the market? I feel that anything different — if not necessarily new — which gets people buying and reading books, and gets money in the author’s pocket, is worth a shot.  How do you readers think about it? And while we’re on the topic, think about this: what if Amazon opened this up to other publishers and offered an either/or deal for the reader? Let’s say that one of your favorite authors has a novel dropping next Tuesday. Suppose you had the choice between buying and receiving the entire e-book at its full price, or paying a fraction of that full price (fifty percent or less) and receiving the book on the installment plan, at several dozen pages a month over the course of six months? Would you go for it, delaying gratification to save a few bucks? And authors…what do you have to say about any of this? DO you have a problem with your novel being divided up? Or does it sound good to you as well, as a way of drumming up interest? 
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The Great Backstory Debate

Last week we looked at the great semi-colon debate, which was a bit tongue-in-cheek (but only a bit!) Today we look at a real writing controversy, a little thing called backstory. Specifically, how much (if any) do you put in your opening pages?
You will find those who argue that there should be no backstory at all in those first chapters. Why not? Because, by definition, backstory is what has happened before your narrative opens, and you want to establish the action first, get the readers locked in on that.
This is, on the surface, sound advice. These days we do not have the leisure time, a la Dickens, to set the stage and do a ton of narrative summary up front. Or, a la Michener, begin with the protozoa of the pre-Cambrian earth and record their evolutionary development into the Texans of today.
I am an advocate of beginning with action (which doesn’t mean, necessarily, car chases or gun fights). The best openings, IMO, show a character in motion. And further, manifesting a “disturbance” to their ordinary world.
I tell writing students, “Act first, explain later.” A big mistake in many manuscripts is that chapter one carries too much exposition. The writer thinks the reader has to know a bunch of character background to understand the action. Mistake. Readers will wait a long time for the explanations when there’s a character in motion, facing a disturbance.
However, I believe in strategic backstory in the opening. I say strategic because you do have a strategy in your opening, one above all—bond your character with the reader.
Without that character bonding, readers are not going to care about the action, at least not as much as they should. Backstory, properly used, helps you get them into the character so there is an emotional connection. Fiction, above all, should create an emotional experience.
I also stress properly used. That means marbled within the action, not standing alone in large blocks over several pages.
The guys who do this really well also happen to be two of the bestselling novelists of our time, King and Koontz. You think that’s a coincidence?
So here’s the simple “rule.” Start with action. Let’s see a character in motion, doing something. Make sure there’s some trouble, even minor, on the page (disturbance) and then you can give us bite-sized bits, or several paragraphs (if you write them well!) of backstory.
An early Koontz (when he was using the pseudonym Leigh Nichols) is Twilight. It opens with a mother and her six-year-old son at a shopping mall (after an opening line that portends trouble, of course). On page one Koontz drops this in:
To Christine, Joey sometimes seemed to be a little old man in a six-year-old boy’s small body. Occasionally he said the most amazingly grown-up things, and he usually had the patience of an adult, and he was often wiser than his years.
But at other times, especially when he asked where his daddy was or why his daddy had gone away––or even when he didn’t ask but just stood there with the question shimmering in his eyes––he looked so innocent, fragile, so heartbreakingly vulnerable that she just had to grab him and hug him.
Koontz bonds us with this Lead through sympathy. We don’t know why the boy’s father isn’t there, but we don’t have to know right away, do we? In this way Koontz also creates a little mystery which makes us want to keep on reading.
Now, a word of warning when writing in first person POV. It’s much easier for the narrator to give us a backstory dump. But the “rule” remains the same: act first, explain later. To see how it’s done, check out the opening chapter of Harlan Coben’s Gone for Good, which begins:
Three days before her death, my mother told me – these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close – that my brother was still alive.
We then cut to the mother’s funeral, and the narrator, Will Klein, leaving the house to walk through his old neighborhood. He has a specific place he’s going, the place where a terrible murder happened years before. Along the way he describes the setting and drops in some backstory, especially about one night when his big brother explained the “facts of life” to him from a ninth grader’s perspective. It’s a warm, human bit that creates sympathy. But Coben weaves it in with the action, which is about the narrator getting to the murder spot. That happens on the very next page. Very little time is lost to backstory.
Some time ago I interviewed Laura Caldwell, author of the Izzy McNeil series. She told me the following:
“I wish I’d known how to weave in background information instead of dumping it in big chunks. It’s still something I struggle with, although I think I’ve improved a lot. It’s a skill that has to constantly be refined so the background information which gets delivered reads and feels organic right at that point in the story.”
Good point from Laura.
How do you handle backstory in your opening pages? Are you strategic about it?  

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The All Important Final Clause

By John Gilstrap
http://www.johngilstrap.com

As an author, I believe that I make a silent contract with my readers to provide them with a complete entertainment experience. The suspense is a given (I hope) but there are also the light moments, the warm moments, and even the occasional tear-jerking moment. If I do my job right, I’ll hook ’em with the first line, run them through a roller coaster through all the middle chapters, and then, at the end, leave them feeling . . .

Well, it depends. More times than not, I want that last moment we have together to be one of those where you gently close the book, maybe squeezer it a little, and then say, “Jeeze, I wish it wasn’t over already.”

Think about all the ink we’ve spilled here in the Killzone talking about kick-ass beginnings. I think that endings are even more important. It’s not just about tying up loose ends, either, although obviously that’s important. I’m talking about that final note in the literary symphony. Is it a cymbal crash or a sweet pianissimo? Maybe we want them to have trouble reading through their tears.

Whatever our plan, it’s up to us and us alone to make it happen. That last scene—the last moment my readers and I have together—mean a lot to me. I agonize over it. I look at those last sentences as the final clause in the contract that I make with the people who choose to read my work.

I’m a student of last lines. Here are some of my favorites:

“And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.” — William Golding, Lord of the Flies

“He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” – Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

“But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” –Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” –Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.” –Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

“But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.” –A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

“. . . together they cried like babies on national television.” – John Gilstrap, Nathan’s Run

Come on, you must have a favorite finale to share. Let’s have it.

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The Ideal (Fictitious) Villain

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com

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…

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