Today I’m welcoming an author who has thrilled us and chilled us for years with her romantic suspense and thriller novels, and you all know her well.
Allison Brennan is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of sixteen romantic thrillers and many short stories. RT Book Reviews calls Allison “A master of suspense” and her books “haunting,” “mesmerizing,” “pulse-pounding” and “emotionally complex.” Lee Child called her latest book “A world-class nail-biter,” and Lisa Gardner says, “Brennan knows how to deliver.” The third book in the Lucy Kincaid series, IF I SHOULD DIE, will be available on 11.22.11. Allison lives near Sacramento, California with her husband, five children, and assorted animals.
Today Allison is also running a contest, so be sure to read and comment!
A Worthy Villain
The villain is the hero of his own journey.
At Thrillerfest in New York this summer I’ll be presenting at Craftfest a new workshop that I’m very excited about: Villains.
I’ve talked about villains a lot, I’ve blogged about them on occasion, but I’ve never had a class devoted solely to the antagonist.
A good villain needs to challenge the hero; a good villain must be as smart—or smarter—than the hero. The villain needs to be smart, capable, and cunning so that the hero is challenged. It’s the hero’s intelligence, perseverance, and humanity that brings the villain to justice—not merely following the breadcrumbs of a villain who would rank #11 in the Top Ten Stupidest Criminals.
In essence, not only does the villain need to be worthy of your hero, but your hero needs to be worthy of your villain. It’s the creation of this dynamic that gives the reader what she is looking for in crime thrillers.
Every book has a villain, but not all villains are cut from the same cloth. In non-thrillers, the villain is really the antagonist—someone who isn’t necessarily a bad person, but who prevents the hero from achieving his goals. For example, a mother who doesn’t like her daughter’s fiancé and tries to break them up; the colleague who sabotages her friend in order to get a promotion; the guy jealous of his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend.
In romantic suspense and thrillers, the villain is a “bad guy.” There may be redeeming qualities to the villain, but he (or she!) is definitely someone who needs to be in prison … or dead.
When you think about the villain as the hero of his own journey, you realize that there are logical reasons for every action the villain takes. Logical for the villain. This is why authors (or actors) need to spend some time in their villain’s head. Think of the villain as you would the hero, ask the same questions.
What does the villain want? (Goal)
Why does he want it? (Motivation)
Why can’t he have it? (Conflict)
This is only the start. To me, these questions are simplistic, and a good villain is anything but simplistic.
Villains are not pure evil, though they can be. Most villains, however, have some humanity. Mariah Stewart, in DEAD WRONG, had a very compelling villain. He committed evil acts, but he loved dogs. Dogs reminded him of the one bright spot in his childhood. So while some writers will use the statistically accurate “serial killers kill animals in their youth,” others find a believable twist that shows the humanity within even the most horrific bad guys.
The villain makes—or breaks—your story.
I spend a lot of time developing my villains. I really don’t know my villain until I get into their head. Sometimes, that’s hard to do. Sometimes, it’s so easy it’s scary.
For example, in LOVE ME TO DEATH, which launched my Lucy Kincaid series in January, one of my villains is certainly not pure evil: he kills bad guys. He’s a vigilante. Exploring the fine line between vengeance and justice was thought-provoking, because many of the things my killer said I agree with. We know that pedophiles have the highest recidivism rate. We know that child predators molest dozens—if not hundreds—of kids before they’re caught. I could see myself in the vigilante’s shoes because there are some crimes so horrible that most of us want the predator to pay with his blood. But ultimately, where do we draw the line? Would rampant vigilantism bring about anarchy? If we can’t depend on the justice system, however flawed, can we depend on mavericks taking the law into their own hands? Exploring this gray area was fascinating, and I’m tackling other gray areas in future Lucy Kincaid books.
The other villain in LOVE ME TO DEATH was much harder to understand. He was a misogynist. I came up with him after someone in passing told me that her husband “wouldn’t let her” do something. It wasn’t in jest, either. I took that to the extreme—someone who had to have complete and total control over his wife, to the point that she couldn’t read a book without his approval. What would happen if she successfully left him? His hatred would fester and grow, and he’d do to other women what he couldn’t do to her: punish.
He was a more difficult villain to write, and I ended up using first person for his scenes. They were far more compelling—and scary—but I didn’t really have a choice. When I wrote him in third person, he was removed from the reader, and his motivation seemed stereotypical. When I literally got into his head so he was talking to the reader, he became far more complex—and frightening.
My supernatural thriller series, the Seven Deadly Sins, was another challenge in developing the villain. Fiona, my heroine’s mother, is just plain bad. She successfully released the Seven Deadly Sins from Hell as incarnate demons with an evil agenda: when they touch a human, they “infect” them, stripping the person of their conscious so that they act on their greatest weakness … to deadly results.
But a “just plain bad” villain is boring. A caricature, like Disney villains. But taking a page from Disney, I considered what made those villains so good … and realized that they, too, had motivation. Perhaps simplistic, but still a reason for their crimes. Snow White’s step-mother was vain and jealous to such a degree that she would kill to be the most beautiful in the land. Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty was not invited to the Christening of the Princess and, feeling like she was dissed, cursed the infant in what is essentially a revenge plot. Scar in The Lion King is jealous that his brother has the brains, the looks, the skills, the pretty wife—so he kills him and takes the throne. (Sounds a lot like Shakespeare and half the stories in Greek and Roman mythology!)
The key point is that they all have a reason for their crime. Something that comes from deep inside, that goes above and beyond simple greed or vanity, but is almost primal.
So when I was developing Fiona, I had to figure out why she wanted to release the Seven Deadly Sins from Hell. It couldn’t just be to watch chaos, though she might enjoy that. There had to be a more powerful reason. It came down to her fear of death. On the surface, it was her need to have eternal youth—she believed that when the Seven Deadly Sins were under her control that they would lead her to the Tree of Life, which would give her eternal life and youth. But it wasn’t that she was simply vain and wanted youthful beauty (though both were true), but that every day she hadn’t found the Tree was a day closer to her death.
One of my favorite authors is Dr. Keith Ablow, a forensic psychiatrist, whose hero, Dr. Frank Clevenger, is also a forensic psychiatrist. Ablow gives him an authenticity that is rare and deep. These aren’t books for the faint of heart, and Clevenger is not a heroic hero—he is a semi-recovering drug addict who has screwed up many times, and screws up in the course of the six-book series. But he is so compelling and at his core he is a hero. PSYCHOPATH is a game of cat and mouse.
Johan Wrens is the Highway Killer. He slits the throats of random people all over the country. His body count is in the dozens. Wrens is also a brilliant psychiatrist who helps disturbed children. He has relationships with women, is attractive and cultured. He’s a bit reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris’s “arch-villain”—but in many ways, far more layered. I could quote extensively from the book (it’s really that good—the writing itself is sharp, and the story dark and compelling) but I want to share a passage from the killer’s POV since we’re talking about villains:
Nearly two months had passed, but Jonah could still see Scott Carmady’s jaw drop open, utter disbelief filling his eyes. For how can a weary traveler, feeling lucky to get help with a broken-down Chevy at the side of a desolate stretch of Kentucky highway, believe the raw pain of his cut throat or the warm blood soaking his shirt? How can he make sense of the fact that his life, with all the momentum of a twenty-something’s hopes and dreams, is screeching to a halt? How can he fathom the fact that the well–dressed man who has mortally wounded him is the same man who has spent the time not only to jump-start his car battery, but to wait fifteen minutes with him to be certain it will not die again?
And what minutes! Carmady had revealed things he had spoken of to no one—the helplessness sparked in him by his sadistic boss, the rage he felt clinging to his cheating wife. Opening up made him feel better than he had in a long, long time. Unburdened.
Jonah remembered how a plea had taken the place of the disbelief he had seen in the dying man’s eyes. It was not a plea for the answer to some grand, existential why?. Not some cliché last scene from a movie. No. The plea was purely for help. So that when Carmady reached for Jonah it was neither to attack him, nor to defend himself, but simply to keep from collapsing.
Jonah had not stepped away from his victim, but closer. He embraced him. And as Carmady’s life drained out of him, Jonah felt the rage drain out of his own body, a magnificent calm taking its place, a feeling of oneness with himself and the universe. And he whispered his own plea in the man’s ear: “Please forgive me.”
Jonah’s eyes filled with tears. The road undulated before him. If only Carmady had been willing to reveal more, to peel back the last layers of his emotional defenses, to give Jonah the reasons why he could be victimized by his boss and his wife, what trauma had weakened him, then he might still be alive. But Carmady had refused to talk about his childhood, refused utterly, like a man keeping a locker full of meats all to himself—keeping them from Jonah, who was starving.
Starving, like now.
His strategy was backfiring. He had truly believed that summoning memories of his last kill would keep the monster inside him at bay, but the opposite was true. The monster had tricked him. The memory of the calm he had felt holding death in his arms and another man’s life story in his heart made him crave that calm with every cell of his white-hot brain.
He glimpsed a sign for a rest area, half a mile away. He straightened up, telling himself he could go there, swallow another milligram or two of Haldol, and put himself to sleep. Like a vampire, he almost always fed by night: first light was just three hours away. He veered off Route 90, into the rest area. One other car was parked there—an older-model, metallic blue Saab, with its interior light on. . . .
. . . Bolts of pain exploded into Jonah’s eyes. He looked away, staring at the highway for most of a minute. Hoping another car would slow to enter the rest area. None did.
Why did it always seem so easy? Almost prearranged. Even preordained. He never stalked his victims; he came upon them. Was the universe organizing to feed him the life force of others? Did the people who crossed his path come in search of him? Did they consciously need to die as much as he needed to kill? Did God want them in heaven? Was he some kind of angel? An angel of death? His saliva started to run thicker in his mouth. The throbbing in his head surged beyond anything like a headache, beyond any migraine. He felt as though a dozen drill bits inside his skull were powering their way out, through his forehead, his temples, his ears, down through the roof of his mouth, his lips. . . .
. . . Deep down Jonah wanted to live. He still believed he could make amends in this life. Beneath all his self-loathing, at the core of his being, he still loved himself in the unconditional way he prayed the Lord did.
Powerful, wouldn’t you agree? The reader knows exactly why Jonah needs to kill, what he gets from it, his conflict. The only thing we don’t know (and won’t until near the end of the book) is the impetus: what events in Jonah’s life led him down the path of murder and self-loathing and unconditional love?
Who are some of the most compelling villains you’ve read lately? Seen on television? In the movies? Share with us and one random commenter will win the first two books in my Lucy Kincaid series, and another random commenter will win the first two books in my Seven Deadly Sins supernatural thriller series.