The Killer Inside You

Folks, we have a special treat for you today. The extremely talented and charming thriller writer Tim Maleeny has graciously joined us. Read on to discover what villainy lurks beneath his seemingly cheerful demeanor…and remember, comment to be entered in a drawing for a $50 gas card!

This past week has been dedicated to villains we love:

Con men who seduce us into parting with our life’s savings, charismatic academics who persuade us to invite them over for dinner and then eat our livers. Smiling politicians who pretend to be our neighbors and then turn out to be, well, politicians.

All variations on a theme, all creatures with an innate magnetism that draws us towards them when every rational instinct is telling us to run away. It’s no wonder the consensus among writers is that you can’t have a great story without a great villain.

So here, for your consideration, are some rules of thumb for keeping your villains suitably loathsome over time.

OK, this guy gives me the creeps, but he is kinda cool…

A lot of first-time novelists — and many bad Hollywood films — make the mistake of painting villains in two dimensions, with no redeeming or aspirational qualities. But if you think about your favorite bad guys, many of whom have already been mentioned in this killer blog by other authors, the villains are pretty damn interesting.

Often it’s their power. Darth Vader might be evil, but he sounds like James Earl Jones and can choke a guy from across the room, just by bringing his fingers together. Who doesn’t want that power the next time their boss (or spouse) berates them?

Sometimes it’s their charm. Think of Alan Rickman in the first Die Hard movie. Smart, funny, even likable — but still a convincing villain willing to kill scores of people just to steal some money. Now try to remember the bad guy in the second Die Hard movie, then give up immediately because it sucked. The series didn’t get back on track until they brought some personality back to the villains.

Bigger and better

It’s not only OK, it’s essential that the villain be better than your protagonist in some way — smarter, stronger, perhaps more money or charm. Or perhaps just more determined.

Lex Luthor is a lot smarter than Superman. The Joker less conflicted than Batman. Hannibal Lecter is less prone to acid reflux than Special Agent Starling.

But it’s the contrast that’s important, the juxtaposition of qualities you loathe with characteristics you wish you had. A great villain makes you hate them at a visceral level because, deep down, part of you envies them as well.

Don’t fall in love

Your antagonist is not your protagonist. Say this again like a mantra before you write another chapter.

Caveat — this isn’t about all the superb novels and films in which a flawed character follows an arc of redemption — recognizing that most great stories since The Odyssey have been about that inner quest. This is about writers who fall in love with their villains to the point that they sacrifice some of the moral repugnance needed as an essential ingredient for a memorable bad guy.

(Easy example is Hannibal Lecter in any of the titles written after Red Dragon and Silence Of The Lambs. If those books had been written first, he wouldn’t be the icon of evil he is today.)

I want to be intrigued by your villain, but I also want to feel some self-loathing or fear at my own attraction to him.

The killer inside me is also inside you

I believe reading or writing crime fiction is cathartic. It is the literary genre driven by a moral compass that finds true North in the heart of the characters. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances making impossible choices.

Crime fiction can also reinforce a set of values shared by most people but which often aren’t politically correct. Reading Lee Child might satisfy your own personal sense of justice that’s frustrated by the countless slights and indignities of everyday life. Reacher can do the things you only imagine doing but which you know are right. Rules or no rules, he’ll see that the right thing gets done.

But another great aspect of crime fiction is that it lets you work out your inner demons, especially the ones you didn’t know were there. It’s a sidelong glance in the mirror for those of us who don’t always want to look ourselves in the eye when shaving. That’s where the villains come in.

The brilliant Patricia Highsmith demonstrated with The Talented Mr. Ripley that every character believes he or she is in the right. They might be acting out of necessity, ambition, or some twisted sense of honor, but most villains don’t see themselves as being in the wrong, not in the absolute sense. I’m protecting my family has been a great defense for everything from bank fraud to suicide bombing.

Under the right (or wrong) circumstances, any of us is capable of doing horrible things. Great villains give you goosebumps not for what they do, but because something about them sends a frisson of recognition up your spine.

For one terrifying moment you saw yourself in them, and you felt the blood on your hands. And much to your horror and secret delight, it felt damn good.

Happy reading. See you in hell.

Special Note: Join us next Sunday, August 31 when our guest blogger will be international bestselling author and International Thriller Writers VP, David Hewson.

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The Best of the Worst–Villainy Week continues

By Joe Moore

As villains week continues in the Kill Zone, it’s time to discuss some of our favorite villains and what motivated them to be so villainy. Before we get to my list of favorites, let’s start with a review of some well-known rogues and scallywags. Of the books and movies we’ve all read or seen, which villains remain in our memory as truly great? Some obvious names come to mind:

norman-bates Dr. Hannibal Lecter. If he says he’d like to have you for dinner, have some reservations.

Norman Bates. He and his mother will shower you with attention.

Dexter Morgan. You don’t want him working on your case.

Darth Vader. Anyone that sounds like James Earl Jones with asthma can’t be all bad.

Count Dracula. What a pain in the neck.

dracula1Freddy Krueger. Maybe he’s just fashion challenged.

Lex Luthor. It takes guts to match wits with the “S” man.

These are some of the more memorable villains, but there are many others that may not immediately pop into your mind. Yet when you think about it, they are every bit as worthy of mention. They all have one thing in common–they scared us.

Here’s my honorable mention list along with their motivations:

Wicked Witch of the West. She was frightening enough, but her flying monkeys did me in. Like other great villains, she was out for revenge.

hal HAL-9000. “Open the pod-bay door, Hal.” Dave had enough to worry about. Add a computer with a mind of its own in outer space and you’ve got a really bad situation. Of course, HAL was just trying to protect himself. Self-preservation is a great motivator.

The Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). Here’s a classic case of jealously. There can be only one “fairest of them all”.

jaws The Alien (Alien) and the Shark (Jaws). These two are pretty much the same character in different environments. What’s scary about them both is that they’re just doing what comes natural, but they’re doing it to survive in their world. In reality, the humans were the invaders.

Martians (War of the Worlds). Here’s another case of self-preservation. Their planet has gone down the toilet and they need a new neighborhood to homestead. First item on the invasion agenda: kill all the earthlings. BTW, other than the flaming passenger train scene, I thought the remake of this movie was not very scary. But when I saw the original version as a child, it had me cowering under my theater seat, especially during the basement scene.

Bonnie Parker & Clyde Barrow. Here’s a good example of anti-heroes. Yes we knew that B&C were bad. Yes, they robbed banks. Yes, they shot people. Yes, Clyde had E.D. But they were so lovable, you just had to sit back and watch them self-destruct. Sort of like a car wreck you pass on the highway.

myers Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th) and Michael Myers (Halloween). These two guys are also one and the same, just different masks. Both are out for revenge, although Michael’s hard drive has definitely crashed. I think they’re memorable because, unlike most villains, there’s no reasoning with either one of them. It’s like talking to a block of ice only with less response.

The Blair Witch. I know, most people thought this movie with its shaky-cam and cheesy documentary style was really lame. But if you got beyond the hype, it was built on the tried-and-true “haunted house” scenario that had some very scary undertones. Again, a case of self-preservation. And how many villains can you remember that frightened their victims to death without ever making an appearance?

frankenstein The Frankenstein Monster. The ultimate anti-hero villain. The creature was created out of different human body parts justifying his extreme mood swings. Brilliant.

We can’t have a good story without conflict between the hero and the villain. Whether the villain is a person, place or thing, it must be compelling, three-dimensional, and driven by a motivational factor of which we can all relate. And in some dark recess of our mind, the villain must reach down, grab our fear, and expose it like a raw nerve. Otherwise, we might as well be watching Saturday morning cartoons.

Final thought from the master villain, Dr. Lecter, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

Did I miss any of your favorite villains?