Today C.J. Carver is telling me all about the villain. I find villains fascinating because not all villains are bad, and some villains are fantastic. So this insight into villains is brilliant. So have a read, and don’t forget to pick up your copy of C.J.’s new book Tell Me A Lie.
Enter the Villain. Every hero needs an adversary to pit his wits against. How bad to make the bad guy. Unstereotyping the stereotypes.
I find I have to know the villain before I can really start the book. I need to know my protagonist’s adversary and keep them in mind through every stage of the plotting process – what motivates them, how life has shaped them, and what they want badly and how far they will go for it.
I can then pit my hero against this adversary, and as the story builds, both characters react to and against one another, revealing their true nature. The greater the pressure, the deeper we get to know them and, more importantly, the traits which hold them back.
Villains aren’t cardboard cut-outs. They curse when they stub their toe on the bedside post. They have their weaknesses that a writer can exploit. Every villain has had a mother. Whether they were abandoned at birth or had a happy childhood will shape them. As a child, they could have had someone or something they loved, be it a sibling or a snake.
It’s useful to find the cardinal quality not just for the protagonist but for the villain. In Tell Me A Lie the villain is ambitious and obsessed with power. The opposing quality is fear. He appears all-powerful but deep down he’s terrified of losing power and, even more revealing, looking stupid.
In Breaking Bad, mild mannered high school chemistry teacher Walter White starts out being the good guy, desperate to secure his family’s future, but come the end of the series when he’s become a major player in manufacturing and selling methamphetamine, he’s definitely not so good any more. He’s actually a bad guy who participates in extortion and murder, but his character is now so well understood he’s beloved, and is certainly one of the key figures in one of the most widely enjoyed series in the past few years.
In thrillers, I believe bad guys still have to be pretty bad but personally, I want my character Dan Forrester to be challenged by more than just a brutal man with a gun. So I pit him against a powerful Russian who has a dark history that goes back sixty years, and who is trying to secure Russia’s future. Which makes him potentially altruistic – he’s incredibly patriotic – but there’s his dark side that will do anything to protect his objective, and trust me, it’s petty dark.
One final point – the villain doesn’t have to commit gruesome acts in order to be bad. I have a scene in Gone Without Trace which involves a meat processing plant, an industrial-sized mincing machine, a small child and an Albanian mafia boss. Readers tell me how horrifying, how gruesome this scene is but nothing happened. The child’s shoe fell off and got minced, that’s all, but all anyone can recall is how brutal that mafia boss was.