Ten Penalties All Writers Must Avoid

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 10.56.26 AM

Forgive my second sports-related post in a row, but come on! It’s Super Bowl Sunday! Across America––and indeed the world––fans will gather around big screens in homes and bars to watch the most exciting spectacle of the viewing year: funny commercials!

Oh yes, and a football game.

This one has drama. On the one side we have the Denver Broncos and their quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning is without question one of the greatest QBs of all time, a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer. But injuries and Father Time have taken their toll. Thus, this will likely be Manning’s final game and his last chance to win one more Super Bowl ring.

On the other side is the new kid, the immensely talented Cam Newton. This guy is huge––6’5”, 260, with a cannon of an arm and legs that can go. He led his Carolina Panthers to an amazing 17-1 season. And now he makes his Super Bowl debut.

I will be with friends noshing sausages, pulled pork, chili, and items from the other essential food groups–the salted nut group, the nacho group, and of course the chocolate-covered anything group.

I hope the game is a good one. I’d love to see it go down to the final minutes. I’ll also be very happy if a kicker does not miss a last-second field goal and thus suffer from nightmares the rest of his life.

And let us hope the game is not marred by a lot of penalties! Hate to see those yellow flags all over the field.

It occurred to me there are some penalty flags that are thrown on writers. So in the interest of helping you write your best, here are some violations you must avoid lest you lose yardage (which, for writers, is measured in pages) and, much more important, readers.

  1. False start

Are you warming up your engines at the beginning of your novel? Do you spend too much time with exposition and backstory? Do you go several pages without a disturbance? Are you giving us “Happy People in Happy Land”? That’s a false start. Penalty: five pages.

  1. Illegal use of the adverbs

Are you using too many adverbs to prop up weak verbs? Worse, are you using adverbs to prop up dialogue? Are you writing things like:

“Get out of here, you louse!” Sheila yelled angrily.

Or

“I’m gonna cut your heart out and feed it to the family dog,” he said threateningly.

If you do, you’ll be penalized, and it’s a big one: fifteen pages.

  1. Passage interference

Also known as the illegal flashback. This is where you stop a narrative in its tracks to give us a long look backward at some scene from the past. Unless there is a dang good reason for this, you will get a yellow flag and docked ten pages.

  1. Encroachment

Also known as author intrusion, this is when you try to sneak in some exposition that does not sound natural to the voice of the character (this penalty is explained more fully in the book VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing).

The skilled referee usually finds this in dialogue. The author wants to slip information to the reader through the characters’ words, but they are words the character would never use. Such as:

“Listen, Martha, you’re my lovely wife of twenty-eight years, and I wouldn’t be the head of surgery at Johns Hopkins without you. Especially after suffering that head injury in college when I foolishly went out for the rugby team. But dammit, you can’t dwell on your past as a stripper in a Nevada roadhouse when you were known as Cling Peaches. Please try to relax, like your sister Mary, who is two years younger than you, so we can go enjoy dinner in our hometown of Denver, Colorado.”

Encroachment is an automatic five pages, and loss of down.

  1. Delay of plot

Have you pushed your protagonist through the Doorway of No Return by the 20% mark of your novel? No? Then here’s a hard truth: it’s starting to drag. It doesn’t matter how quirky your characters. They have overstayed their welcome if they are not, by this time, into the struggle of Act II. Penalty: ten pages.

  1. Ineligible character downfield

Do you introduce a major character after the midpoint? Near the end, do you have a minor character show up out of nowhere to solve a plot problem? If you do, you need to go back to the first half and plant these characters. Five pages.

  1. Roughing the villain

League rules are protecting the antagonist more than ever. What do I mean by that? Simply this: if you have an antagonist who is evil, you must give him his due. You can’t just make him pure evil or insane. Boring! Every villain feels justified, and you the author must “make his case” in the book. Far from excusing his evil, this deepens the emotional currents in the reader and, ironically, makes the evil all the more scary. Fifteen page penalty for this one, plus the league may order you go to some rehab, like right here.

  1. Intentional sounding

Have you fallen in love with your sentences? There’s a reason the axiom “kill your darlings” exists. I should explain that this doesn’t mean cut every sentence you like. You’re allowed to delight in your own good writing. But you have to make sure it works for your story, and is true to character and context. Ten pages if, in the judgment of the officials, your pretty prose is more showing off than storytelling.

  1. Illegal motion

Does your story feel unfocused during that long struggle through Act II? Are there scenes that meander? Have you lost narrative vitality? While this penalty is only five pages, enough of these violations will keep you backed up on your own goal line. One place to look for help is the “mirror moment.” This tells you what your novel is really all about so you can write scenes with organic unity and powerful forward drive.

  1. Unauthorlike conduct

Do you head out to social media without a plan and a brand? Do you fly off the handle when you tweet? Do you slip into unethical sockpuppetry in order to slam your perceived competition? This penalty is severe: you might get thrown out of the game. Worse, the league office may suspend you indefinitely.

A good football team knows how to move the ball. A great football team knows how to correct weaknesses. A championship football team does all that, and avoids the penalties that kill scoring drives.

May you write like a champion.

And enjoy the game! I know I will, even though I am completely impartial.

***(COUGH)GoPeyton(COUGH)***

Has your writing been penalty free lately?

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Evolution of a Bad Guy

Maggie Toussaint

When I began plotting my second paranormal mystery, Bubba Done It, I knew one thing for sure. All the suspects had the nickname of Bubba. Other than that, I didn’t have a clue.

Bubba Done It

Before I could cast men in the suspect roles, I considered my setting and the types of characters I needed. I’m familiar with the setting as I use a fictional locale that’s similar to where I live in coastal Georgia. We have townies and imports. We have people with plenty and people with nothing. We have blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, even Native Americans. We have a stalled economy and our share of foreclosures.

All of the top suspects needed a motive to kill the banker. Some motives I considered were previous criminal record, financial trouble, and love.

The sheriff immediately adds four Bubbas to his suspect list. Since seafood is the main industry around here, it would be good to have a fisherman Bubba. I also wanted someone who’d moved to the county as a retiree, someone who didn’t quite get locals or their customs. That worked. Two Bubbas down, two to go.

Drugs are a universal problem in today’s world. I decided upon a Bubba with a bad track record as a crackhead, but who had allegedly reformed into an evangelist.

Lastly, I wanted to ensure my sleuth Baxley Powell had a definite call to action. She’d taken the heat in Book 1 as the top suspect, so for Book 2, I found a patsy in her brother-in-law. Why would he want to kill the banker? Baxley knew her Bubba was a dreamer who often needed money for get-rich-quick ventures. Baxley and her husband had bailed Bubba Powell out of financial scrapes for years.

With her husband dead, the task of saving Bubba fell to Baxley. She’s certain he couldn’t have done it.

Or at least she feels that way at first. With each layer of story revealed, she discovers more reasons for the Bubbas to have killed the banker. Her challenge is to sort through the evidence, in this world and the next, to finger the killer.

To summarize:
Populate your suspect list with characters fitting to your setting and situation.
Give the suspects motives to kill your victim.
Layer the suspects’ relationship with the victim to create complex characters.
Make sure the sleuth has a clear call to action.

Buy links for Bubba Done It:
Kindle
Amazon hardcover
B&N hardcover

Connect with Maggie on the web:
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Blog | Goodreads | LinkedIn | Pinterest | Booklover’s Bench |
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MaggieToussaint_LargeSouthern author Maggie Toussaint is published in mystery, romantic suspense, and science fiction (writing as Rigel Carson). The third book in her Cleopatra Jones mystery series recently won the Silver Falchion Award, while her romances have won the National Readers’ Choice Award and the EPIC eBook Award for Romantic Suspense. Her latest mystery is a book two of her paranormal cozy series about a psychic sleuth, Bubba Done It.

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Sympathy for the Devil: Writing Unforgettable Villains

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell


Back when I was pounding the Off-Broadway boards I got a bit part in a production of Othello.  I got to wear tights and say Shakespeare things.

Our Othello was the marvelous stage actor Earle Hyman, better known to most of you as Bill Cosby’s father on The Cosby Show. In point of fact Earle is one of the great Othellos. He is also a very nice man.

Once we were chatting backstage and I told him that someday I would love to play Iago. He said I would be perfect for it because I had such an open, honest face (this was before I went to law school). That, after all, is what makes Iago powerful. Othello calls him “My friend … honest, honest Iago.” And if the part is played right there is even a touch of sympathy for Iago at the end as he’s dragged off to be tortured to death.
This, in fact, is what set Shakespeare apart from his contemporaries. He knew how to mangle the emotions of the audience, even to the point of rendering some sympathy for the devil.
Dean Koontz wrote, “The best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well as terror. Think of the pathetic aspect of the Frankenstein monster. Think of the poor werewolf, hating what he becomes in the light of the full moon, but incapable of resisting the lycanthropic tides in his own cells.”

All this to say that the best villains in fiction, theatre, and film are never one-dimensional. They are complex, often charming, and able to manipulate. The biggest mistake you can make with a villain is to make him pure evil or all crazy.
So what goes into crafting a memorable villain?
1. Give him an argument

There is only one character in all storytelling who wakes up each day asking himself what fresh evil he can commit. This guy:
But other than Dr. Evil, every villain feels justified in what he is doing. When you make that clear to the reader in a way that approaches actual empathy, you will create cross-currents of emotion that deepen the fictive dream like virtually nothing else.

One of the techniques I teach in my workshops is borrowed from my courtroom days. I ask people to imagine their villain has been put on trial and is representing himself. Now comes the time for the closing argument. He has one opportunity to make his case for the jury. He has to justify his whole life. He has to appeal to the jurors’ hearts and minds or he’s doomed.

Write that speech. Do it as a free-form document, in the villain’s voice, with all the emotion you can muster. Emphasize what’s called “exculpatory evidence.” That is evidence that, if believed, would tend to exonerate a defendant. As the saying goes, give the devil his due.

Note: This does not mean you are giving approval to what the villain has done. No way. What you are getting at is his motivation. This is how to know what’s going on inside your villain’s head throughout the entire novel.
Want to read a real-world example? See the cross-examination of Hermann Goering from the Nuremberg Trials. Here’s a clip:
I think you did not quite understand me correctly here, for I did not put it that way at all. I stated that it had struck me that Hitler had very definite views of the impotency of protest; secondly, that he was of the opinion that Germany must be freed from the dictate of Versailles. It was not only Adolf Hitler; every German, every patriotic German had the same feelings. And I, being an ardent patriot, bitterly felt the shame of the dictate of Versailles, and I allied myself with the man about whom I felt perceived most clearly the consequences of this dictate, and that probably he was the man who would find the ways and means to set it aside. All the other talk in the Party about Versailles was, pardon the expression, mere twaddle … From the beginning it was the aim of Adolf Hitler and his movement to free Germany from the oppressive fetters of Versailles, that is, not from the whole Treaty of Versailles, but from those terms which were strangling Germany’s future.
How chilling to hear a Nazi thug making a reasoned argument to justify the horrors foisted upon the world by Hitler. So much scarier than a cardboard bad guy.
So what’s your villain’s justification? Let’s hear it. Marshal the evidence. Know deeply and intimately what drives him.

2. Choices, not just backstory
It’s common and perhaps a little trite these days to give the villain a horrific backstory and leave it at that.
Or, contrarily, to leave out any backstory at all.
In truth, everyone alive or fictional has a backstory, and you need to know your villain’s. But don’t just make him a victim of abuse. Make him a victim of his own choices.
Back when virtue and character were actually taught to children in school, there was a lesson from the McGuffey Reader that went like this: “The boy who will peep into a drawer will be tempted to take something out of it; and he who will steal a penny in his youth will steal a pound in his manhood.”
The message, of course, is that we are responsible for our choices and actions, and they have consequences.
So what was the first choice your villain made that began forging his long chain of depravity? Write that scene. Give us the emotion of it. Even if you don’t use the scene in your book, knowing it will give your villain scope.
3. Attractiveness
The devil is not a cloven-hoofed, red-suited, pointy-eared demon with a pitchfork. Indeed, the Bible says Satan appears “as an angel of light.” He is the most beautiful of the heavenly host. His mode is to entice, not coerce.
The same with the best villains. They are sometimes attractive through raw, worldly power (Gordon Gekko). Intellect may be their weapon (Hannibal Lecter). Or a certain way with the opposite sex (innumerable homme and femme fatales). Hitchcock’s best villains were charming and therefore disarming. They often had wit and style. (My favorite is the widow-murdering uncle played by Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt.)
Give your villain at least one attractive feature and then see what the other characters do with it.
The strength of a thriller is directly proportional to the strength of the villain. The reader has to feel that this character has got what it takes to pull the wool over the eyes of the many. And if you create a touch of empathy as well, you’ll have your storytelling hooks deeply embedded in the readers’ hearts. They’ll thank you for that by buying your next book.
What’s your approach to villain writing?

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Villains Don’t Have to be Evil

Guest Post from: L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers
Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

As my guest today, I have mystery thriller author L. J. Sellers writing about one of my favorite topics: Villains. LJ shares her thoughts and asks you to share your favorite villains at the end of her post. And be sure to check out the great giveaway contests below. Take it away, LJ!

The villains in thrillers are often extraordinary human beings. Super smart, physically indestructible, and/or incredibly powerful because of their money and influence. As a reader/consumer, those characters are fun for me too, especially in a visual medium where we get to watch them be amazing. But as an author, I like to write about antagonists who are everyday people—either caught up in extraordinary circumstances or so wedded to their own belief system and needs that they become delusional in how they see the world.
 
In my Detective Jackson stories, I rarely write from the POV of the antagonists. That would spoil the mystery! But in my thrillers, I get inside those characters’ heads so my readers can get to know them and fully understand their motives. I’ve heard readers complain about being subjected to the “bad guy POV,” but that’s typically when the antagonist is a serial killer or pure evil in some other way.
 
I share their pain. I don’t enjoy the serial-killer POV reading experience either. But when the villain in the story is a fully realized human being, who has good qualities as well as bad, and who’s suffered some type of victimization, and/or has great intentions, then I like see and feel all of that. And I think most readers do too.

Sellers The Trigger_med
In The Trigger, the antagonists are brothers, Spencer and Randall Clayton, founders of an isolated community of survivalists, or preppers, as they’re called today. As with most real-life isolationists/cult leaders, they are intelligent, successful professionals—with a vision for a better society. But these everyday characters decide to mold the world to suit their own objectives and see themselves as saviors—becoming villains in the process.


From a writer’s perspective, they were challenging to craft—likeable and believable enough for readers to identify with, yet edgy enough to be threatening on a grand scale. On the other hand, my protagonist Jamie Dallas, an FBI agent who specializes in undercover work, was such a joy to write that I’m launching a new series based on her.

The first book, The Trigger, releases January 1 in print and ebook formats, with an audiobook coming soon after. To celebrate the new series, the ebook will be on sale for $.99 on launch day. Everyone who buys a copy (print or digital) and forwards their Amazon receipt to lj@ljsellers.com will be entered to win a trip to Left Coast Crime 2015. For more details, check my website.
 
If that weren’t enough, I’m also giving away ten $50 Amazon gift certificates. So there’s a good chance of winning something. But the contest is only valid for January 1 purchases.
 
Who are your favorite villains? Supermen types? Everyday delusionals? Or something else?
 
Sellers LJSellers medL.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery series—a two-time Readers Favorite Award winner—as well as provocative standalone thrillers. Her novels have been highly praised by reviewers, and her Jackson books are the highest-rated crime fiction on Amazon. L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon where most of her novels are set and is an award-winning journalist who earned the Grand Neal. When not plotting murders, she enjoys standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.
 
Other social media links for LJ: Website, Blog, Facebook

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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
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Bad Villains…and not in a good way

Michelle Gagnon

Kicking things off today, I’m thrilled (no pun intended—sorry) to announce a SUPER DUPER BRAND NEW CONTEST. We’re holding a giveaway this week:
Comment on our posts from now through next Wednesday,
and we here at The Kill Zone will toss your name in the hat for a $50 gas card. I know, that’ll buy you what, roughly 2 gallons? Hey, don’t blame us. We’re not the ones gouging, just a loveable group of writers trying to give your wallet a break…

And now, on to…BAD VILLAINS

We’ve all seen them. Those beady-eyed little guys wringing their hands as they chortle (ever notice that? Heroes never, ever chortle. The minute a character does that you just know he’s evil). They generally want to take over the world, but might be willing to settle for killing someone in a particularly terrible way. And they’d just love to tell you all about it first. One classic bad villain trait is that they live to hear themselves talk. In my humble opinion what made the Austin Powers films so funny was the “Dr Evil,” character, who epitomized every bad villain cliché. (Remember the group therapy scene with his son? “My childhood was typical. Summers in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring we’d make meat helmets. If I was insolent, I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds. Pretty standard, really.”) Hannibal Lecter was scary, sure, but the ultimate villain has to be Dr. Evil. Who else could come up with an “evil petting zoo?”

For me at least, villains are the most difficult characters to create. The heroes and heroines, laughable/loveable sidekicks, and victims are easy, I could practically write those in my sleep (well, not really. But you know what I mean).

But a villain that comes off as frightening and not comical is a far different beast. It’s all too easy to slip into mwa-ha-ha mode. Worse yet is to have them engage in “monologue-ing,” explaining monotonously why they’re doing what they’re doing, and how they’ll get away with it (when of course, that discourse inevitably leads to their downfall).

It’s harder still to avoid clichés. After all, since the beginning of recorded time nearly every story has featured a villain, from Medusa to Iago to Mr. Hyde. Joe’s post yesterday noted how many classic villains are fairly interchangeable. And that’s precisely the problem: how do you make your villain new and unique, not just another Hannibal-esque hybrid?

In my latest book, Boneyard, I had a particularly hard time. One of my villains came to life easily. I added some traits to him in successive drafts, but felt like I nailed him down without too much trouble.

And then there was the other guy. Man, he was a problem (serves me right for having two bad guys, I suppose). I had done voluminous research on serial killers in an attempt to make him as believable as possible, but kept encountering the same pitfalls. I felt at times like I was making villain soup, adding a pinch of Bundy and a dash of Dahmer, but he still seemed bland. Up until the final draft I cast him as a religious fanatic, quoting scripture to explain his motivation. But every time I read over his dialogue I found myself squirming. It felt very forced and contrived, never a good thing.

Someone once said, “the villain is the hero of his own story.” It’s an important thing to remember. We’ve all known people who have been able to justify terrible acts to themselves. They did it for the greater good, or they didn’t have a choice. To me, those are believable villains.

So I slashed away with my red pen, leaving far more of his motivations to the reader’s imagination. In the end, I was happy with him. But with every book the problem must be freshly confronted. I’m wrestling with a different guy now, a real slimeball who’s motivated both by greed and hatred. Yet at the moment he’s more whiny than scary, not a good thing. And he keeps pulling at his handlebar moustache and asking about the rent, which is just annoying. Ah well. Hopefully I’ll get him by the line edits…

So, dear reader, what say you? Who’s your favorite “bad villain,” and why? Remember: comment and your car might thank you for it later. Tune in next Thursday when I announce the winner and ponder why Second Life avatars only seem to come in one breast size.

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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?

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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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