Very few bad guys are all bad
Writing villains is one of the guilty pleasures of the novelist. It can be fun to plan nefarious doings that you would never carry out in the real world, but it can also be a challenge for those of us who are happily law-abiding to craft believable villains. It’s tempting to draw from real life, looking to news accounts of the latest horrific crime, but take care. It is a writer’s job to craft a story of justice, and many of the best explorations of justice explore a villainous character who is contradictory. For a writer, a contradictory character is fabulous raw material, because you are never sure what that person will do.
Several years ago, a friend told me that her editor had asked her to write a serial killer book. She was three or four books into her series and her editor thought it was time to do something a little different. Serial killer books were hot and it would be easy to find a way for her series character, a private detective, to get crossways with a demented homicidal maniac.
My friend told me this with a sigh and I couldn't figure out why this was such terrible news. As we talked, I began to understand her pain. If the writer is operating on the presumption that the serial killer kills because he or she is evil and crazy, then what is there to write? There is no conflict. The book quickly devolves into fear, stalking, killing, and horror, over and over again, and it's all the same. There are obligatory flashbacks to terrible events in the killer's childhood that might explain the madness. The killings get more grisly, because there's no other way to ramp up the tension, but honestly. The reader has been here before, many times. How much better would the story be it was never clear whether the good or bad portion of the villain’s character would win? Uncertainty, after all, drives the reader to turn another page.
This question is not limited to mysteries. In any genre, it's much better to craft an antagonist who is not crazy, then watch that person squirm under the pressure of justifying the unjustifiable. Give the reader a motive for wrongdoing that's at least a little understandable. Let readers wonder whether they themselves could be swayed by money or love or guilt.
Mary Anna Evans is the author of the award-winning Faye Longchamp archaeological mysteries–Artifacts, Relics, Effigies, Findings, Floodgates, Strangers, and Plunder. She has degrees in physics and chemical engineering. Her background includes stints in environmental consulting and university administration, as well as a summer spent working offshore in the oil fields. Writing lets her spend weeks indulging her passion for history, archeology, and architecture, and months making up stories. Mary Anna is preparing to move to Oklahoma since accepting an Associate Professor position with the University of Oklahoma.