How to Write About Negative Leads

by James Scott Bell

In my writing workshops I talk about three kinds of lead characters: the positive, the negative, and the anti-hero.

The positive lead is the traditional hero. This is someone who operates according to the shared morality of the community. It might be an ordinary man or woman who gets caught up in extraordinary circumstances (e.g., Tell No One). Or, it could be a hero with skills, like Jonathan Grave or Liam Neeson in Taken.

We root for positive leads because they represent us in the fight against evil and bad guys.

The anti-hero is someone who has been divorced from the community for some reason. They usually live according to their own code. The plot involves them being dragged into some trouble happening within the community. The story question then is: will they be reconciled to the group, or once again assume the role of outcast?

Rick in Casablanca begins the film sticking his “neck out for nobody.” Gradually he is pulled into a Nazi resistance scheme. At the end, he rejoins the community and the war effort. Ethan Edwards in The Searchers comes in from the wilderness and gets involved in finding his niece, who has been taken captive by Comanches. At the end, in one of the most memorable shots in movie history, he once again is consigned to the wilderness again.

Then there is the negative lead. This is someone who is engaged in an enterprise that offends our collective morality. The quintessential example is Ebenezer Scrooge, but also many of the leads in crime and noir fiction, such as Jack in The Vengeful Virgin, a book I wrote about last week. Indeed, some of the most popular fiction out there is about negative leads. Gone Girl anyone?

So what’s the secret to this kind of story? I’ve identified eight motifs in this regard:

  1. The Slow-Motion Car Wreck

You know how people are (including you). You’re on the freeway and there’s a big wreck ahead, even on the other side of the median. Flashing lights and crunched metal. You slow down a bit for a look. It’s human nature.

A book about a negative lead can be like the wreck itself, in slo-mo. I think of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, where the lead, his brother and a friend discover a crashed plane with a big stash of drug money. Should they report it? Or try to keep it? And when they decide to keep it, will they be able to sustain the secret without bringing disaster upon themselves and their loved ones?

I remember reading the book and actually saying out loud, a couple of times, “Don’t do that … please don’t do that!” And then they do it. I had to turn the pages, watching this wreck, hoping against hope that these guys wouldn’t descend further into the darkness.

  1. The Redemption Hope

Another reason to read about a negative lead is hope for their redemption. This is the way it is with Scrooge as he starts to get his angel visitations. It’s also what happens with Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

The key to this kind of story is to show us, early on, that the character has the capacity for moral change. With Scrooge, it begins to happen when he is taken to his boyhood past, his loneliness at school. It brings out deep emotion in Scrooge. There’s a heart in there after all! We read on to see if that heart can be warmed again.

With Scarlett, it’s her moxie, her guts, her strength. Like when she defies polite society by dancing with Rhett while she’s supposed to be in mourning. She uses her spunk selfishly most of the time. If only she can turn it in the right direction before it’s too late! If she does, frankly, we would give a damn. So we read on.

  1. Inner Turmoil

Sometimes, seeing what the wrong choices do to the inside of a character makes us want to find out what happens. Witnessing the emotional turmoil of a character automatically triggers our interest, because we experience it ourselves all the time.

In The Vengeful Virgin, Jack Ruxton is a knot of conflicting emotions once he falls for the alluring Shirley Angela and the two hatch a plot to murder the old man she cares for. Brewer gives us the insides of Jack throughout, as in:

Doom. You recognize Doom easily. It’s a feeling and a taste, and it’s black, and it’s very heavy. It comes down over your head, and wraps tentacles around you, and sinks long dirty fingernails into your heart. It has a stink like burning garbage. Doom. I sat up all night with the lights on. Waiting.

Passages like that kept me going, even though what Jack was doing was immoral. There’s a sort of catharsis in seeing massive inner conflict in someone else. We can put our own on hold while we’re reading!

  1. Comeuppance

This idea applies when we read about a real crumb. We want him to get his just desserts. He deserves to go down.

Once again, I turn to The Vengeful Virgin, because there’s a point in the middle of the book where any sympathy we might have for Jack is wiped out. His jilted lover, Grace, keeps hounding him, and getting in the way of his plans with Shirley. Grace is not a bad person, just stupidly in love with the guy.

She surprises him one night outside Shirley’s house. He’s so outraged he hits her. Hard. Staggers her. Then hits her again. Then twists her arm behind her back and shoves her into her car.

This disturbing turn makes us want to see Jack get what he deserves. (**Spoiler alert** … if you plan to read The Vengeful Virgin, skip down to #5.)

In an ending that rivals, perhaps even surpasses, Jim Thompson, Jack Ruxton, guilty of two murders, is shot by a drunken and envious Shirley, who then turns the gun on herself. She dies, but he survives, only to be arrested, tried, and sentenced to the electric chair. The last lines:

Yes, that’s how it was. Grace, she was always burning. Then Shirley and I began burning. And then the money burned. And now there was time to burn.

Then, after there was no more time, they would burn me.


  1. Love Conquers All

With a hat tip to Huey Lewis, there’s just something about the power of love. Especially in noir. In films like Gun Crazy and They Live By Night, doomed lovers grab our hearts even though we know it won’t end well. It can’t. In the moral universe of noir, you pay for your sins.

James M. Cain’s classic The Postman Always Rings Twice bonds us to the murderous couple. Drawn first by lust, by the time the book gets to the end, the two are truly part of each other. There’s poignancy on the last page as Frank Chambers awaits his appointment with the electric chair (Old Sparky is a familiar last stop in these books!):

Here they come. Father McConnell says prayers help. If you’ve got this far, send up one for me, and Cora, and make it that we’re together, wherever it is.


  1. At least he’s better than the other crumbs

One of the hardest of the hardboiled writers was Richard Stark, pen name of prolific author Donald Westlake. He created Parker—thief, killer, heist man. Not a shred of sentimentality in this guy. So why do we root for him? In the first book, The Hunter, Parker has been double-crossed and left for dead after a heist. He goes after the money he’s owed, taking on “the outfit” (the crime syndicate) to get it back. Not the whole stash, you understand. Just his half of it.

In other words, compared to the other criminals involved, Parker’s cause is “just.” It’s a remarkable feat, which is why no less than seven movies have been made about this character (the two best are Point Blank and Payback}.

  1. Such a charmer

Tom Ripley, the protagonist of several novels by Patricia Highsmith, has been described as “charming, literate, and a monster” (Roger Ebert). Also “a likable psychopath.” Talk about a challenge! Yet Highsmith pulls it off.

  1. Will They Get Away With It?

Finally, we sometimes read or watch a criminal caper story and actually find ourselves hoping, just a little (or maybe even a lot), that the negative leads get away with it.

My favorite film example is The Asphalt Jungle. Directed by John Huston, the film is about a group of thieves coming together to pull off a big heist. There’s a sympathy factor in operation for each of these desperate men, and you find yourself pulling for them even as the cops pull the net tighter and tighter. It’s really one of the great crime films of all time, with a memorable early appearance by Marilyn Monroe.

Okay! Let’s open this up. What’s your favorite book or movie about a negative lead? What made it work for you?



BTW, if you want to get in on the ground floor of a series with a hero, try ROMEO’S RULES

Blurring the Lines
Between Heroes and Villains


“Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.” — Roger Ebert

By P.J. Parrish

You think it’s hard to find a good man? Try finding a really bad one.

I’ve been looking for bad men for more than fourteen years now. I’d say my sister Kelly and I are somewhat of experts on the subject of men with, ah…issues. Over the course of our thirteen-novel career, we’ve encountered every kind of twisted, tortured, miserable example of the male species you can imagine.

But they’re our villains and we…well, I won’t say we love them but we do lavish a lot of attention on them. And we need to confess something right now –- it is getting harder and harder to make bad guys good.  Or bad women, for that matter.

Great antagonists loom large in literature. Imagine Othello without his Iago, A Clockwork Orange without the deranged Alex Delarge or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness without Kurtz. Where would Harry Potter be without Voldemort, or Dr. Jekyll without Mr. Hyde? And Milton didn’t lose Paradise without a big push from Satan.

Within the thriller genre, the villain is almost as important as the hero. And creating a truly original villain is one of our prime challenges, mainly because readers are savvy. They’ve read all the good books, seen all the forensic shows, and can smell a Hannibal Lector rip-off a mile away. We’ve always worked hard to make our villains full-bodied characters, especially when we delve into the serial killer sub-genre, which can be cliché quicksand. In reality, most criminals are as dumb as stumps. But the fiction writer’s task is to create a villain who is a worthy adversary for the hero, and in the best of our genre the villain is as complex and textured as the protagonist.

As Roger Ebert recognized, heroes and villains tend to repeat from film to film. It’s the same with mysteries and thrillers. Our fields have been tilled by so many great (and not-so-great) writers, that it’s gotten harder to create truly unique protagonists and antagonists. Just this week I started a new book by a well-known thriller writer but somewhere south of page 100, I was beset with déjà vu. No, I hadn’t read this specific book before (Yeah, I have been stupid enough to do that!) But I had read it a hundred times before by other writers.  It was the same old cop chasing the same old bad guy for the same old reasons. It gave me sympathy for agents and editors and how they must feel when they read the hundreds of queries and manuscripts they get every day. Been there, read that, bought the t-shirt. (But not the book).

img-thingI got to thinking about good villains the other night during a bout of sleeplessness, and while channel surfing happened caught The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s a nifty screen adaption (directed by Anthony Minghella) of Patricia Highsmith’s great book. I like both versions for different reasons but mostly for the portrait of the title character. In a way, Ripley is both protagonist and antagonist, in that the story centers around his arc but he also lies and murders in cold blood to get what he wants.

Ripley is smart and a quick study, but he is hollow of heart and soul. In the book, Highsmith sketches out his painful childhood as an orphan, berated by a mean aunt. But the author is more concerned with Ripley the sociopathic chameleon who will assume any shape to get what he wants. There is some of this in the movie, but Matt Damon’s character is more pathetic than lethal, desperate to fit into the world of the rich. You almost get the feeling the Matt Damon Ripley could change — if only he could find someone to love him despite his black heart. (Which he does…but even that doesn’t work out too well.) Highsmith’s Ripley is a serial killer who over the course of four more books continues his amoral ways and keeps one step ahead of the law.  (I’ve just downloaded the second Ripley novel, Ripley Under Ground where in Tom has resurfaced in France. I’m headed there soon I like to read books set where I am on vacation.)

Partly, I am going back to Ripley because I have an idea for a new book that will depend very heavily on the villain. I want to read Highsmith to see how she did it — sustain a compelling story centered not around a sympathetic traditional protagonist but his polar opposite.

The Killing SongI think we were moving toward this kind of book with our stand alone thriller THE KILLING SONG. We gave equal weight to our protagonist and our antagonist. They each had their own character arc and themes, as well. Theme and character go hand and hand for me. Whenever we start a new book, Kelly and I immediately begin searching for our themes because we believe they are the underground railroads upon which a plot runs — and they illuminate character. In THE KILLING SONG, the theme for our hero Matt Owens is: What happens when you only look away for a moment? His beloved sister disappears from a Miami nightclub when he looks away but the theme has a deeper meaning as Matt pursues her killer.

But we also had a theme for our villain, which emerged from the juxtaposition of beauty and degeneration. We decided our villain would be a classical musician, a man of grace and refined taste living in Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We wanted to contrast the beauty of his “upper” world with the horrors of his “lower” world of serial murder. Laurent Demarais was a violinist in our first draft but became a cellist when we realized the cello’s deeper tone just seemed to fit his personality.

Like Tom Ripley, some of his demons were born in childhood. Laurent’s father was an acclaimed conductor who pushed his son so mercilessly to become a prodigy that the beauty of music became twisted, and then a second childhood trauma planted the seed for his evil that took two decades to mature.  Part of the plot for Matt is uncovering the clues from Laurent’s childhood so he can better understand the monster he is now hunting.

But beyond childhood, we had to ask the hard question we ask of every character we create: What does Laurent want? I think this is the most important thing a writer asks herself as she goes along. If you don’t know what your characters want you can’t really articulate on the page what their motivations are. I think of this “want” as coming in layers that move from the most superficial: the hero wants to find the bad guy; to the most complex: He wants to find his own true identity. I wrote about this in length a while back. You can find the post HERE. 

On the superficial level, Laurent wants to kill. But trying to figure out what he wanted in the deepest parts of his soul — yes, even villains have them, though black and withered they may be — helped us plumb his psychological depths and make him less a cardboard monster. Laurent Demarais wears a mask of sanity. I wish I could say that is my phrase but it is the title of a great book about psychopaths written in 1941 by a doctor named Hervey Cleckley. He concluded that killers can seem sincere, intelligent, even charming. But beneath that lies a heart incapable of human emotion.

Even today, seventy years later, that mask of sanity is a great description for the classic villain whether in reality (Ted Bundy) or art. (Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction or even Hal the computer in 2001 Space Odyssey. I’m sure you can think of many other examples.)

FINAL COVERIn our new book SHE’S NOT THERE, (comes out Sept. 6 but is now available for pre-orders), we don’t have a traditional villain. There is no obvious struggle between good and evil, no ticking clock, no creep stalking a family at their cabin, no Dr. Evil trying to rule the world. It’s psychological suspense, which meant for us that all “action” had to emerge completely from character motivation. James N. Frey (author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel) calls psychological thrillers a style, rather than a subgenre. He says that good thrillers focus on the psychology of their antagonists and build suspense slowly through ambiguity. If you’re a regular here, you know how much I like ambiguity. (Link HERE).

She’s Not There was very hard to write. Not only does it have an unreliable narrator (Yeah, I loved Shutter Island, too.) It was hard to write because we couldn’t rely on the old tropes of serial killers, pebbled glass PI heroes, or power gone wild to build tension.  When the tension sagged, we couldn’t just fling another corpse onto the page. The story’s theme is: What happens to you when you drift downward into living an inauthentic life? Almost all my characters are struggling with this, pulled down by dark secrets and disappointments, and they are all fighting to break back to the surface and breathe again. Yes, people die. Yes, there are creepy moments, high tension, even a cross-country chase.

But my villain?  He’s not there. At least in the conventional sense. You won’t be able to spot him by his black hat. You won’t see him lurking in the shadows or toting an Uzi.  He’s hiding in plain sight, deep inside each of my characters, even the good ones. And for a long time, you don’t know if the good guy is really the bad guy. Or vice versa. Or both.


Exploiting Strengths and Weaknesses


(Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at

I never really paid much attention to birds until I met and married my wife Lisa. She is — and there is no other way to put it — obsessed with birds. We have hard drives figuratively bursting at the seams (and backed up, of course) with photographs of grackles, canaries, yellow whatever’s, and red these or those. While I have been observing her interest, and the subject of same, the area in which we live has experienced a marked increase in the presence of hawks. The reason doesn’t take an understanding of the nuts and bolts of nuclear propulsion to understand. We have what I will politely call more than our fair share of Canadian geese in our locale (which is not, I hasten to add, in Canada). The eggs of Canadian geese are considered by hawks to be a delicacy, in the same way that I regard the presence of a Tim Horton’s, Sonic, IHOP, or Cracker Barrel. The attitude of a hawk toward a goose egg could best be summed up by the statement, “If you lay it, I will come.” Or something like that.

Hawks will of course eat other things as well, and I’ve had opportunity to see them in the act of catch-and-not-release prey on a number of occasions. What they do is fairly highly evolved. If they catch a ground animal, they immediately take it into the air, where it is helpless and cannot run away. If they catch a bird, they bring it to ground, where it is at a disadvantage, and pin it so that it cannot fly away, while they kill it. One could say that a hawk is at a disadvantage on the ground, but I haven’t noticed squirrels, chipmunks, cats, or even other birds coming to the aid of one of their fellow and less fortunate creatures as the hawk goes about its business. No, things get really quiet for a while as the hawk exploits the weakness of its dinner.

Successful genre fiction utilizes the exploitation of strengths and weakness to succeed as well. This is particularly true when the author takes a personality trait that might, and indeed would, be considered a virtue and exploits it. We have a real world model for that, as well. Think of Ted Bundy. Those of us who are raised to be kind and polite and to assist others in need instinctively hold a door for the elderly or the infirm or pull down a top shelf grocery item for someone in a wheelchair. Bundy knew this and would wear a cast or walk on crutches while carrying a package to attract unsuspecting women. There’s a word for that: monster. But he was very, very good at it, and turned a virtue into a fatal weakness. Those who prey on children frequently do so with the premise of seeking assistance with locating a lost dog. What could be more heartwarming than reuniting a dog lover with his pet? Children are inclined to help, especially when it comes to dogs and such, and it’s a virtue that a parent would want to cultivate, but also to curb.

In the world of fiction, however, exploiting weaknesses of this type makes for a great story, and not just for mysteries or thrillers, either. Many science fiction novels and stories sprung from a seed of an advanced civilization bringing advancement to a primitive, or weaker, one with the best of intentions. Disaster inevitably ensued, for one side, or the other, or both. James Tiptree, Jr., was a master of this type of situation, as was the original Star Trek series. Romance novels? Think of a woman who is physically attractive to the extent that no one will approach her, out of fear of rejection. That idea has launched a thousand books and will undoubtedly launch a thousand more before this sentence is completed. As for mysteries and thrillers, the possibilities are endless and replicable: think of a strength, or a virtue, and find a weak spot to exploit. Create an antagonist to probe it and you’re on your way.

Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley comes to my mind most immediately as someone who was excellent at exploiting the best of others. Who comes to yours?

And…I would be remiss if I did not wish a Happy Mother’s Day tomorrow to those among our readers who celebrate the event . Bless you. You are the best.