How Should a Character Say Nothing?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I had an amusing conversation the other day with another writer. She writes romance. I asked who some of her favorite authors are, and what they do that she likes.

Then she asked me about thriller writers.

“Have you read any Lee Child?” I said.

She rolled her eyes and huffed.

“What?” I said.

“I tried. But he kept writing Reacher said nothing …. Reacher said nothing. I just couldn’t take it.”

I had to laugh. Reacher said nothing has become a Lee Child signature. While he certainly didn’t invent this form of attribution (Hemingway used it, as you’ll see below), Lee has turned it into a personal trope. I’m sure he puts it in with a bit of a wink and a smile.

In fact, the phrase is now so familiar that the recent book by Andy Martin chronicling Lee’s writing of Make Me is titled Reacher Said Nothing. In the book Lee explains that Reacher “often says nothing. He shouldn’t have to be wisecracking all the time. He’s not into witty repartee. He’s supposed to do things.”

Nothing wrong with that. And though I personally love witty repartee, there are times when a character should stay silent.

How do we do that effectively? X said nothing is an option. I’ve certainly used it myself. But lately I’ve begun to consider other ways.

I often bring up Hemingway’s short story, “Soldier’s Home,” when discussing the telling detail. Krebs is a young man who has returned to his Midwestern home after serving overseas in World War I. Life can never be the same for him. He’s listless, doesn’t know what he’s going to do with himself. One morning as he’s eating breakfast his mother presses him to move on with his life. She even brings religion into the discussion.

“I’ve worried about you so much, Harold,” his mother went on. “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.”

Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

“Your father is worried, too,” his mother went on. “He thinks you have lost your ambition, that you haven’t got a definite aim in life. Charley Simmons, who is just your age, has a good job and is going to be married. The boys are all settling down; they’re all determined to get somewhere; you can see that boys like Charley Simmons are on their way to being really a credit to the community.”

Krebs said nothing.

Well there you go! Hemingway could have used Krebs said nothing both times, but I’ll tell you what: I’ve never forgotten that bacon fat hardening, and I first read the story way back in college. It is so stunningly evocative of Krebs’s inner life. Without it I don’t think the story would be the classic it is.

Let’s set up a sample exchange:

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Bill said nothing.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”

Here, said nothing does its work and gets out of the way. Fine. But overuse may call attention to it, so let’s consider alternatives: 

  1. The action beat

The character can do something rather than say something.

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Bill blinked a couple of times.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”

 

  1. The thought beat

With a POV clearly established, a thought can be a substitute:

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Uh-oh. He knows.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”

 

  1. The perception beat

Like Krebs, the character can notice something:

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Bill looked at the scuff marks on the floor.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”

So when a character is going to be silent, don’t just default to said nothing. Use variety, which is the spice of life, fiction, and all-you-can-eat buffets.

So what do you think? Chime in. You’re not allowed to visit TKZ and say nothing!  

***

 

Oh, and speaking of nothing, how about FREE? The ebook of TRY DYING, the first of my Ty Buchanan legal thrillers, is FREE at the Kindle store today and tomorrow.

12+

In Praise of Henry Pritchard

  

And who is Henry Pritchard? He is, among other things, a self-published author in the truest sense.

There is a British rock band named Temples that is currently touring the United States. They are quite popular in their native England and in Germany, and a few other places. Temples is currently attempting to replicate that success in the U.S. by climbing into a van every day or two, driving a medium to long distance, unpacking their gear and setting it up, playing a set or two at a small venue, then unplugging, loading up, jumping in the van and doing it all over again. They are assisted in this endeavor by a gent named Henry Pritchard, who is their driver and guitar tech. The latter job involves a bit of knowledge of sound acoustics, engineering, electricity, and the occasional use of duct tape and a glue gun when things go FUBAR in the middle of a hot guitar solo. It’s definitely a job for a young man who has an old and experienced soul.
Pritchard is also an author in the truest sense of that word. He writes what my daughter Annalisa calls a “zine” and I call a “chapbook” (“Oh, where did this chapbook come from?” “It’s a ‘zine, Dad.” “No, it’s a chapbook.” “No, Dad, it’s a zine.”). Regardless of what we call it (and Pritchard also calls it a zine), the title of Pritchard’s publication is applecore. It is a digest-sized paperback publication consisting of around seventy-six single-spaced pages, held together by a pair of small but sturdy staples in the middle of the spine along the crease. applecore is not entirely unlike the broadsides that Richard Brautigan used to give away or sell on the streets of San Francisco before he became unhappy and famous, or the Pocket Poets series that City Lights (the publisher and the bookstore) publishes and sells. Pritchard has been publishing it since around 2001. He’s up to twenty-three issues (which I suppose qualifies it as a ‘zine, if it’s numbered and issued on an irregular basis) as of this date. The content consists of his memoirs though he’s about ten years behind at this point (note: if you’re going to write your memoirs, start when you’re in your late twenties, so you can remember everything). Pritchard divides his first person narrative into chapters (which I believe qualifies it as a chapbook) and it’s not uninteresting. As one might expect when one hangs around with and is employed by musicians, Pritchard drinks and uh, smokes quite a bit but some interesting things have happened along the road of his life, from being unemployed to attending university to landing a pretty good gig as a band road manager.

How does one acquire applecore? While the world has moved ahead since applecore #1 was published some fourteen years ago, Pritchard is content to be very low tech in both the format and dissemination of his work. He sells issues of applecore for two dollars from the “merch” table (where one can buy music, tee-shirts, bumper stickers, and other band memorabilia) at Temples’ concerts. In a reluctant nod to the times, Pritchard also “markets” it from his Facebook account  and accepts payments through PayPal through his email address. And that’s it. No Amazon, no Barnes & Noble, no Hachette. Pritchard’s other writings can be found for free on his blog, if you want to sample his work before laying down your cheddar for a physical copy.

One takes the sense from the vignettes contained on Pritchard’s Facebook page, blog, and applecore that he leads what might tactfully be called a nomadic existence, one in which a fixed abode is not an element. One also, upon reading applecore, gets the feeling that Pritchard likes it that way. He is only responsible for himself, and does not have a home or apartment which owns him. Somehow, however, moving from town to town and couch to couch, Pritchard gets it done, and gets it done pretty well. His narrative moves ever forward with occasional side trips, and friends move in and out the scenes without warning, explanation or transition. It gets confusing, sometimes, but it also puts you in the moment in the best kind of way, even if the moment occurred a decade or so ago. The important thing, however, is that he runs his whole show. There is a downside to that, of course. I doubt that Pritchard sells enough copies of applecore to earn a living; he probably clears enough to buy some liquid refreshment, or, uh some other substances (if his stories in applecore are any indication). The important thing for our purposes, however, is that he cares about his art, and it shows. He has four people proofread his work; his writing is coherent, interesting at worst and (occasionally) riveting at best. Issues of applecore don’t feature a die-cut dust jacket, but they are functional — they can fit in your pocket, and don’t crack when you sit on them — and turning a page won’t leave ink on your hands or the feeling that you need to reach for the handjel or the Phisoderm.

No, what Pritchard does is tell a story without worrying about whether he’ll get an ‘A’ or four stars from this or that reviewer. He is pleasing himself, and hopefully the reader as well. Isn’t that what it’s all about, ultimately? And getting it done? I recommend that you check out Pritchard’s blog and Facebook page, see what you think, and buy an issue or two of applecore from the guy. It’s almost four times the page count and half the price of a new Jack Reacher short story, if that puts things in perspective.

While Pritchard may be unique, and not so much off as around the radar, I don’t think that he is alone out there in the backwoods of the lo-tech, primitive do-it-yourself world. Do you know of anyone else who is doing something similar? And are you? If the answer to either question is “yes,” please let us know how we can sample the goods.
0

What we can learn from pulp fiction

By P.J. Parrish

Now pay attention, kittens and bo’s, there’s a quiz at the end of this one.

I was an art major in college. This was before I figured out I couldn’t make a living at this. Unless I planned to teach, but I was scared of kids. (Not a good character trait in teachers). I was doing okay in art until I hit a class called Three Dimensional Design. I could draw and paint but I was terrible at this. Evidence of my ineptitude was my “final exam” sculpture, which I called Nude With A Paper Cup Head. So titled because I couldn’t get my figure’s face right so I just filled a Dixie cup with wet plaster and stuck it on top. I got a D.
I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t think outside the two-dimensional box. Finally, my instructor told me I had to stop seeing the world in POSITIVES and start seeing it in NEGATIVES. In other words, I was so hung up on adding things, I was missing the beauty of subtracting. “Learn how to leave things out,” he told me.
I ended up abandoning art for writing. But I think that little piece of advice must have lodged deep in my brain cells because it is something subconsciously I have always tried to apply to my fiction writing. Subconsciously I say because until recently, I hadn’t even thought about my art instructor and his advice. Maybe I am thinking about it now because of the book I am reading — “The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps.” I got it for Christmas but I keep it handy by the bedside, digesting it in small doses.
It’s a handsome book…a compiliation of the best crime stories from the “golden age” of pulp crime fiction — the 20s through the 40s. It’s about the size of the Manhattan phone book. And to be really honest, parts of it read about as well.
Many of these guys were dismissed as the hacks of their day, churning out their stories for cheaply printed magazines like “Black Mask” and “Dime Detective.” Yeah, they were lurid, the syntax cringe-worthy, the plots thin or nonsensical. But they tapped into a popular need for a new kind of human hero. The most memorable of the heroes became the prototypes for much of what we are seeing in our crime fiction today — lone wolves fighting for justice against all odds but always on their own different-drummer terms. Would we have Harry Bosch without the Continental Op? Jack Reacher without Simon Templar? Doubtful…
Some of my favorite “classic” crime writers wrote pulp. Like John D. MacDonald who churned out stories for “Black Mask” and “Dime Detective,” and Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark. Even my seminal hero Georges Simenon (creator of inspector Maigret who was a partial inspiration for my own protag Louis Kincaid) couldn’t resist the lure of the lurid and wrote two nasty little noirs call “Dirty Snow” and “Tropic Moon.” 
To be sure, not all the stories in “Lizard” have aged well. The slang sounds vaguely silly now, the sexism and racism we can explain away as anachronistic attitudes. But the armature these writers created is still sturdy.

Especially in pure writing style. That is the biggest thing I am getting out of these stories, an appreciation for that streamlined locomotive style that propels these stories along their tracks. I read these stories now — discovering most of these writers for the first time — with a smile on my face and a Highlighter in hand. There are lessons to be learned for us all, and you can almost hear James M. Cain whispering: “I’m not going to dazzle you with my writing. I’m going to tell you a helluva story.”

These guys sure knew what to leave out. Let me give you one little passage from Paul Cain’s “One Two Three”:

I said: “Sure — we’ll both go.”
Gard didn’t go for that very big, but I told him that my having been such a pal of Healy’s made it all right.
We went.

Not: And then we left the apartment and got in my roadster and set out. We took Mulholland Drive out of the canyon and arrived just before dusk.
Just: We went.
How can you read that and not smile?
I heartily recommend the “Big Book of Pulps.” And speaking of art, check out some of the best pulp cover artists of the day at Rex Parker’s terrific vintage paperback blog Pop Sensation. 
And now, in honor of our pulp forefathers, I am offering up this little quiz of pulp slang for your amusement. Answers at the end. And don’t chance the chisel for a cheap bulge, bo. We Jake?
DEFINITIONS.
1. Ameche
2. Kicking the gong around
3. Wooden kimono
4. cheaters
5. Gasper
6. Hammer and saws
7. Orphan papers
8. Wikiup
9. Bangtails
10. Can-opener
TRANSLATIONS
11. I had been ranking the Loogan for an hour and could see he was a right gee. It was all silk so far.
12. I stared down at the stiff. The bim hadn’t been chilled off. Definitely a pro skirt who had pulled the Dutch act.
13. I got a croaker ribbed up to get the wire.
14. By the time we got to the drum the droppers had lammed off. Another trip for biscuits…

 Answers:
1. telephone
2. taking opium
3. coffin
4. sunglasses
5. cigarette
6. Police
7. Bad checks
8. Home
9. Horses
10. Safecracker
11. I had been watching the man with the gun for an hour and could tell he was an okay guy. Everything was cool so far.
12. I stared at the body. The woman hadn’t been murdered. She was definitely a prostitute who had committed suicide.
13. I have arranged for a doctor to get the information.

14. By the time we got to the speakeasy, the hired killers had left. Just another trip for nothing…
0

The End

By Boyd Morrison

It’s time. Sometimes you just know it. I’ve had a great twelve months being part of this Kill Zone crew of stellar writers, but I’ve decided to cede my spot to another blogger. I’ll still be following the fascinating blogs by my colleagues, so you won’t see the end of me around here.

Naturally, moving on like this has me thinking about endings in novels, particularly the ends of characters. Death is constant companion for us thriller writers. My wife is a doctor, so we often say that she saves people for a living, and I kill people for a living. In my stories I’ve slain many characters, and not just the bad guys.

In my book ROGUE WAVE, which is a disaster thriller, a key character dies at the end of the story. My editor strenuously argued for me to save the character, and we had an hour-long discussion about the ramifications of this death. In the end I convinced her that the character had to die, and I think the ending is more poignant for it. I’ve gotten many emails from readers who cried over the death. To me that was a compliment because it meant that the character had become real for them. Even if they hated that it happened, the readers almost unfailingly felt that the death fit within the story’s themes of love and selfless sacrifice.

I take great care in the decision of whether or not to kill off one of the good guys. I don’t think you can cavalierly flout the trust a reader has invested in you to deliver a satisfying story. On the other hand, to build suspense there has to be real jeopardy for the characters. If readers believe you’ll never kill off someone they’ve come to care for, where’s the tension in the story?

In my Tyler Locke series I do kill off someone who becomes a major character in one of the novels. It has a major impact on the other characters, even into subsequent installments of the series. Again, some readers didn’t like this death, but it also made them worry for all the other characters in future novels. If Boyd killed that person off, they might wonder, he’s just crazy enough to whack anyone. The tension level is automatically raised.

Obviously I didn’t kill Tyler Locke. He’s the star of the series. He can’t be killed off unless I’m doing away with the series altogether (Lee Child has proposed this very idea at several conferences when he has talked about someday ending the Jack Reacher series). For instance, no one even considers that James Bond is going to die at the end of the movie, so how can there possibly be any suspense?

If the writer might dispatch someone the main character loves or cares about, that concern is transferred to the reader. It conveys a personal stake in the outcome, which a reader will care about more than the end of the world as we know it. And if the reader knows you’ve done it before, an ending where all the good guys survive can be even sweeter, the relief more palpable.

A death of this kind can also make the story more believable. If every single good guy survives when bullets are spraying at him like they’re coming from a lawn sprinkler, while every single bad guy dies with a well-aimed headshot, the story becomes ridiculous. That kind of spectacular luck in a novel only emphasizes that you’re reading fiction. A key death, I think, confers some plausibility, even in an over-the-top action adventure. Movies have been doing this more commonly in the last few years. Think of The Dark Knight or Skyfall. Both of them were praised for a grittier, more realistic treatment of comic book and Bondian adventures, and both featured tragic deaths that had severe consequences for the plot and main characters.

Where I think authors get into trouble is when they make the deaths meaningless. As a reader, if I’ve spent hours getting to know a character, it’s deeply unsatisfying for him to die for no reason. It just seems like a mean or thoughtless gesture by the author, as if it were done for no other reason than to provoke shock. Some readers may appreciate that it makes the story seem more like real life, but unless it’s incredibly well-done, I find it off-putting.

Like my decision to move on from The Kill Zone, how you handle the characters has to come from your gut. I don’t take the decision to kill one of the good guys lightly, but when the end feels right, I know it.

Even though I won’t be a regular contributor, I’ll still be hanging out in the comments section from time to time. Thanks to all my fellow KillZoners for giving me this opportunity and to all of you who taken the time to read and comment on my blogs. Take care.

0

Going Deeper With a Series Character


Today’s post is brought to you by my new boxing story, “King Crush,” now available for 99¢ exclusively for Kindle. And, as a special inducement, for a limited time the first story, “Iron Hands,” is available FREE. 
Today I have a question: What do you like to see in a series character? The same “feel” over and over, or deepening and changing?
There are two schools of thought on this.
Lee Child once remarked that he loves Dom Perignon champagne and wants each bottle to be the same. He’s not looking for a different taste each time out. So it is with his Jack Reacher novels. And millions of fans are tracking right along with him.
There are other enduring series where the character remains roughly static. Phillip Marlowe didn’t change all that much until The Long Goodbye. James Bond? Not a whole lot of change going on inside 007.
At the other end of the spectrum are those characters who undergo significant transformation as the series moves along. The best contemporary example of this is, IMO, the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly. What he’s done with Bosch from book to book is nothing short of astonishing.
Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder was traipsing along as a pretty standard PI until Block made a conscious decision to kick it up a notch. He did that with Eight Million Ways to Die, a book that knocked me out. Here we have Scudder not just on a new case, but also battling his alcoholism and the existential angst of life in New York City in the early 1980s. By going deeper Block created one of the classics of the genre.
In my Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law series (written as K. Bennett) I have a lead character who is a zombie hungering (you’ll pardon the phrase) for change. She doesn’t want to be what she is. The just released Book 2,The Year of Eating Dangerously, begins with Mallory in the hills looking down at a motorcycle gang and thinking, Lunch.And then reflecting on her damaged soul.
Book 3, due out later this year, begins with Mallory at a ZA meeting—Zombies Anonymous. She is trying to stay off human flesh (substituting calves’ brains) but it’s not easy. And I say without hesitation that I was inspired by the above mentioned Eight Million Ways to Die.
So here’s my series about boxer Irish Jimmy Gallagher. These are short stories, and I’m going for “revealing” more of Jimmy in each one. “Iron Hands” was the intro, giving us Jimmy’s world and basic personality. Now comes “King Crush.”
The new story takes place in 1955 and revolves around an old carnival attraction they used to have in America, the carny fighter who would take on locals. If the locals stayed with him long enough, they might earn back their five bucks and some more besides. But these carny pugs knew all the dirty tricks, and it was usually the hayseeds who ended up on the canvas.
Jimmy just wants to have a good time at the carnival with his girl, Ruby, and his bulldog, Steve. He’s not looking for trouble. But sometimes trouble finds Jimmy Gallagher.
I started writing these stories because there’s something in me that wants to know Jimmy Gallagher, what makes him tick. And that’s my preference as a writer and a reader of series. I want to go a little deeper each time.
So who is your favorite series character? Is this character basically the same from book to book? Or is there significant change going on?

If you’re writing a series, do you have a plan for the development of your character over time? Or is it more a book-to-book thing?
0

Going Deeper With a Series Character


Today’s post is brought to you by my new boxing story, “King Crush,” now available for 99¢ exclusively for Kindle. And, as a special inducement, for a limited time the first story, “Iron Hands,” is available FREE. 
Today I have a question: What do you like to see in a series character? The same “feel” over and over, or deepening and changing?
There are two schools of thought on this.
Lee Child once remarked that he loves Dom Perignon champagne and wants each bottle to be the same. He’s not looking for a different taste each time out. So it is with his Jack Reacher novels. And millions of fans are tracking right along with him.
There are other enduring series where the character remains roughly static. Phillip Marlowe didn’t change all that much until The Long Goodbye. James Bond? Not a whole lot of change going on inside 007.
At the other end of the spectrum are those characters who undergo significant transformation as the series moves along. The best contemporary example of this is, IMO, the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly. What he’s done with Bosch from book to book is nothing short of astonishing.
Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder was traipsing along as a pretty standard PI until Block made a conscious decision to kick it up a notch. He did that with Eight Million Ways to Die, a book that knocked me out. Here we have Scudder not just on a new case, but also battling his alcoholism and the existential angst of life in New York City in the early 1980s. By going deeper Block created one of the classics of the genre.
In my Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law series (written as K. Bennett) I have a lead character who is a zombie hungering (you’ll pardon the phrase) for change. She doesn’t want to be what she is. The just released Book 2,The Year of Eating Dangerously, begins with Mallory in the hills looking down at a motorcycle gang and thinking, Lunch.And then reflecting on her damaged soul.
Book 3, due out later this year, begins with Mallory at a ZA meeting—Zombies Anonymous. She is trying to stay off human flesh (substituting calves’ brains) but it’s not easy. And I say without hesitation that I was inspired by the above mentioned Eight Million Ways to Die.
So here’s my series about boxer Irish Jimmy Gallagher. These are short stories, and I’m going for “revealing” more of Jimmy in each one. “Iron Hands” was the intro, giving us Jimmy’s world and basic personality. Now comes “King Crush.”
The new story takes place in 1955 and revolves around an old carnival attraction they used to have in America, the carny fighter who would take on locals. If the locals stayed with him long enough, they might earn back their five bucks and some more besides. But these carny pugs knew all the dirty tricks, and it was usually the hayseeds who ended up on the canvas.
Jimmy just wants to have a good time at the carnival with his girl, Ruby, and his bulldog, Steve. He’s not looking for trouble. But sometimes trouble finds Jimmy Gallagher.
I started writing these stories because there’s something in me that wants to know Jimmy Gallagher, what makes him tick. And that’s my preference as a writer and a reader of series. I want to go a little deeper each time.
So who is your favorite series character? Is this character basically the same from book to book? Or is there significant change going on?

If you’re writing a series, do you have a plan for the development of your character over time? Or is it more a book-to-book thing?
0

Characters as Movie Stars

A few weeks ago the news broke that Tom Cruise had signed on to play Jack Reacher in the movie version of Lee Child’s 9th Reacher novel, One Shot. The furor that followed demonstrated just how wedded readers had become to their own image of Jack Reacher (and their belief that Tom Cruise, who is a ‘tad’ shorter that Jack Reacher, couldn’t possibly play the character they knew and loved so well). Not since Katherine Heigl was announced to play Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum has there been such reader angst over casting of a beloved mystery character.

The business of movie making requires ‘star power’ and I think it’s safe to say that Tom Cruise will certainly bring that to any Jack Reacher movie. Though we could all spend many an hour speculating and debating over casting of our favourite book, none of us can help but feel a sense of ownership over the particular image we have formed in our own heads (which may, or may not, bear any resemblance to the image inside the writer’s head when he/she created the character).

As writers I wonder how many of us have pinned up photographs of people who inspire or look like our characters? I know I have copies of historical photos that I used when creating Ursula Marlow (even though many readers, having seen the paperback cover, have asked me if I posed as the model for Ursula!). I also love nothing better than indulging in the fantasy of casting movies of my own books (note to Richard Armitage, you can play any one of my leading men!).

Still it is inevitable that when a book character is developed into a movie, fans are up in arms over the choice. So, here are my questions to you: Do you think the physical attributes are really that important when casting? Have you been disappointed with the casting choice of one of your favourite book characters? Have you ever found the movie (or TV) version to be much better, because the actors chosen to play the parts bring new meaning and depth to the written characters? And finally – are fans ever really satisfied with movie casting for their beloved books?
0

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.

Person David Hewson
Right click for SmartMenu shortcuts
0