I was lucky enough to be able to attend the International Festival of Authors in Toronto this year, the short drive across the Peace Bridge into Canada being yet another perk of living in Western New York. While there, I attended a roundtable discussion of the psychology of the villain in contemporary fiction. The formal title of the roundtable was “Psycho-babble – Inside the Character’s Twisted Mind.” The panel included such heavyweights in crime and thriller fiction as John Connolly, Jeffery Deaver, Elena Forbes, and newcomer Ross Raisin. As a mystery writer myself, it was a thrill to sit and listen to these writers discuss their writing, their work schedules, their inspirations, and their unique insights into character development. And as they went on, I noticed a common theme to all of their writing, and it was said best by Deaver: “I love my bad guys.”
Here’s a sampling of the items touched on by the panel:
1. Create villains that are real to engage the reader. If the hero prevails against a cardboard bad guy, then it is the hero who is diminished. But think about what you do to the villain, and be careful not to make him more captivating than the hero.
2. It is also important that along with being bad, your villain must be human. You should have the reader asking why he does what he does. The bad guy may not always see himself as bad, or he may see what he does is good based on his sense of right or wrong.
3. Be a compulsive researcher as much as possible. Develop an interest in people beyond themselves, and even develop affection for them. That way you can find the humanity in your villain and all your characters.
4. Most people, villains and bad guys included, act out of selfishness and/or fear. For one example, they discussed the concept of Mad vs. Bad in relation to the villain. The villains that are interesting to these writers are the ones who lack a social or moral compass. In other words, they may be perfectly aware they are committing a crime, and are perfectly fine with it.
5. There is always a conflict between truth and credibility. Believe it or not, the authors found that there are so many real life crimes that are too incredible in their very nature to make effective stories. Despite being true, they would not make credible stories. The “ick” factor of many true stories is an incredibly fine line to walk for most writers. This discussion gave rise to one of the funniest exchanges of the afternoon. John Connelly was saying that he does not read as much true crime as he used to, due to the gratuitous use of shock and violence. He also criticized another crime fiction writer for doing just that, and drew fire himself for the critique. He asked the panel. “Do we have to be nice and not criticize each other?
Jeffery Deaver responded, “John, we all know 50 ways to kill people.”
I’ll be sharing more from this discussion, but I would appreciate any feed back readers or authors have to share with me as well.