Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Building Bad Guys in Thrillers

(Warning: This post contains one instance of the f-word.)

One of the most essential ingredients for a great thriller is a great villain. But how do you write one? What's the thriller formula for an awesome bad guy? The good news is -- there isn't one. Villains can, and should, be just as varying and complex as heroes...and sometimes, the "villain" can even be the protagonist.

But I won't go into anti-heroes right now. Today, I'm talking about villains -- the best kind, the ones you know are going to lose by the end of the book, but you really don't want them to.

It can't be said enough: Your thriller bad guy needs to have a real motive that is personally important to him or her, and makes plausible sense in the world of your story. It's often said that every character is the hero of their own story, and nowhere should this ring more true than with your villain. If you've got one that is evil for the sake of being evil -- with rare exception, you should probably reexamine the character and look for something stronger.

Here's my caveat to this often-repeated advice, though. Villains who are evil "just because" CAN work. What you need, in place of strong motive (however twisted it may be), is extraordinary characterization. The Totally Evil Villain who is also charming, sophisticated, has a lovely singing voice, or rescues puppies on the weekend, can be a compelling character -- but this villain must be larger than life, and able to command complete attention whenever he walks onto your pages.

Here are a few shining examples of literary baddies you may want to study (note: portions of this post have been excerpted from my guest post last week on Big Al's Books and Pals, "Awesome Bad Guys in Books").

Hannibal Lecter
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

Just about everyone’s familiar with this suave, fiercely intelligent psychologist-slash-cannibal. The unofficial hero of Thomas Harris’ series, Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter is at once a gentleman and a psycho.

His traumatic childhood is explored in Hannibal Rising—but I mentioned Red Dragon because it’s the first appearance of Lecter, and the book also contains two awesome villains for the price of one. Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer that Lecter “helps” former FBI agent Will Graham hunt down, is so sympathetic and well-realized that you may almost want to cry at his unavoidable defeat. But only almost.

Gretchen Lowell
Heartsick by Chelsea Cain

This female serial killer is one screwed-up woman. Gretchen Lowell tortured countless victims to death, before one of them got away—or maybe she let him go. The escapee, Archie Sheridan, is a cop, and the novel opens with Gretchen behind bars and Archie forced to ask her for help with a serial killer who’s murdering teenage girls. Gretchen is shades of Hannibal Lecter turned femme fatale, and Heartsick makes for fantastic reading.

Captain James Hook
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

(Okay, so Peter Pan isn't a thriller. But it's still got one of the best villains in literature!)

The original gentleman pirate, Captain Hook is a highly sympathetic villain in all of his incarnations, from the original text of Peter Pan to the Broadway shows and various movie versions of this beloved children’s classic. Think about it…the kid cut off his hand, and forced him into an eternal cat-and-mouse game with a giant alligator.

If you’ve never read the original Peter Pan, it’s definitely worth your time—especially any scene with the charmingly wicked Hook, who is in Barrie’s words, “never more sinister than when he was most polite.”

Of course, I happen to think that my villains are pretty cool too, though I might have a slight bias. But I’m thrilled to have heard from quite a few readers who think that Jenner, my recurring bad guy in the House Phoenix series, is terrifying.

The first book in the series, Broken Angel, is about Gabriel Morgan, a young man who’s held prisoner by a secret society of underground fighters and forced to fight in a ring with no rules to save his sister’s life. Here’s his first encounter with Jenner, who serves as an enforcer for the man who’s holding Gabriel:

“Don’t touch me.” The demand emerged a moan. Gabriel backed away and searched the room in desperation, seeking escape.

“Do not flatter yourself, boy,” Jenner said in a brittle tone capable of crushing diamonds. “I have no such intentions.”

“What are you going to do to me?”

“I have not yet decided.”

Jenner moved into the light, and what had seemed like a dress in shadow proved to be an Asian costume—Chinese or Japanese, he wasn’t sure which. Simple clasps held together a long jacket of pale gray silk. Black piping trimmed the sleeves, the straight collar, and the edges of the garment. Flowing pants matched the jacket. Yet Jenner’s aquiline nose and swarthy complexion marked him as East Indian, not Asian.

His hair was gray, the color of brushed steel—an old man, but the hair was the only indication of age. He was sinewy rather than gaunt. Not wizened or wrinkled, but grizzled and hard. And his eyes were pale circles of smoked glass. Glittering gray, like the rest of him. How could an Indian have gray eyes?

The cold glint in those eyes bound Gabriel more effectively than any rope. He couldn’t move.

“Your determination is admirable,” Jenner said. “Few would expend such effort to locate a mere sibling. Do you truly love your sister that much?”

“None of your business.” Anger broke the spell of Jenner’s gaze. In this snake’s mouth, a reference to Lillith sounded blasphemous.

“A shame.” Jenner placed the object he held on the floor. It was a black satchel, a doctor’s bag. “What did you intend to do when you found her, little guardian angel? Help her find a job, perhaps an apartment? It is far too late for that.”

“I...she needs me.”

“Did you ever consider that she might not want your help?”

Disgust twisted his stomach. “Lillith isn’t like you people. She wouldn’t have become a...prostitute on her own. She has a good heart.”

Jenner sneered. “While your sister’s clients do appreciate her many attributes, I am not certain her heart is high on their lists.”

“Fuck you!”

“I thought you were not interested in such activities, angel. You requested not to be touched.” Jenner’s hand slid inside his robe and reappeared gripping what looked like a collapsible radio antenna. He extended it with a flick of his wrist, and waved it at him in an almost dismissive gesture.

Pain flared across Gabriel’s face. He flinched back with a strangled oath.

“Your language is appalling.” Jenner collapsed the antenna. “Apologize.” 

Now it's your turn... tell us what makes your villain awesome!


Kim Smith said...

great examples! ah... love me some bad villains :P

Aaron Paul Lazar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Oh... shivers... I know and love this villain. I must say, Jenner is the most memorable of all the villains I have ever met, S.W. As frightening as Jenner is, and I must say he kept me awake many nights, through the process of learning to love to hate him, I also learned to love him, weird as that is. Especially as he "grew" through all of your books in the series. Thank you for this post, it is excellent!