Thursday, January 31, 2013

Creating Realistic Villains

Every mystery or thriller requires a villain.

Mention the word, and most of us automatically conjure up a character from a novel or film. Hannibal Lector leaps to mind for many—the prototype of the sociopath. Or Professor Moriarty—master criminal and arch enemy of Sherlock Holmes. The scalp-hunting Judge from Blood Meridian.

But not all villains are sociopaths, or career criminals, or however Judge Holden may truly be defined.

The term villain comes from an Old French term roughly translated as “rustic” or “boor.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable asserts our idea of wickedness associated with the word is “a result of aristocratic condescension and sense of superiority.”

Quite a different take on our interpretation of the word, isn’t it? Yet most of us do indeed look down on the villain. We may secretly admire his/her ability to transcend normal behavior in pursuit of a goal. But, would we seriously want to be him/her?

In a novel, the villain is the opposite of the hero. The main purpose of a villain is to provide conflict, which is the driving force of story. The villain must be as fully developed as the hero. The most important aspects of creating a villain are that they be realistic and properly motivated.

Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is clever and charming. But he’s not above murder. Pinkie Brown in Graham Greene’s excellent “Brighton Rock” is a selfish, teenaged thug, yet he worries about his immortal soul.

Human beings are complicated creatures. None are entirely good or evil. Not all villains are sociopaths or psychopaths. Some are simply driven into that situation by circumstance. And they come in both sexes. You didn’t really think the women were getting off unscathed, did you? There are plenty to go around: Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca;” Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” and who could forget Lady Macbeth?

Though we may not condone a villain’s actions, it is important that the reader understand and even sympathize to a degree with the motivation. For instance, we all have financial needs and can understand how a person might desire to improve his/her situation—even if we don’t condone the method. We’ve all experienced fear, jealousy, anger, sexual desire, wanting to even the score—the list goes on and on. These are all motivations a writer can utilize to create a memorable villain.

Think about it. I’ll wager you will remember more villains than heroes from the books you’ve read.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Not Just Another Day

Martin Luther King Day is just another day off work for many people who are too young to remember the reason for the observance.

For those of us who do remember King and pay tribute to his dream it’s disappointing the stench of bigotry still stalks the land, shaven-headed, red-necked and symbolically robed as well as coiffured and clean-shaven in expensive suits.

While it’s often forgotten, King’s work purchased equality and justice for all people and not a single race. Naturally there was a focus on his own race, but he was too great a man not to recognize the unity of all humans.

Prejudice is not always about race, nor has bigotry ever been restricted to one geographic area.

It shames us as a nation that we accept without reprimand those who piously quote the Bible and recite the Pledge of Allegiance while inciting atrocities or heaping disrespect on others they consider to be less equal than them.

As King himself put it, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Thursday, January 10, 2013

London's Secret to Success

Saturday (Jan. 12) is both the birthday of Jack London and Work Harder Day.

London is among my pantheon of heroes and a writer who exemplifies the virtues of working hard to achieve a personal goal. Read his novel "Martin Eden" (published in 1909) and you’ll realize making a name as a writer was as difficult in his time as it is now.

My introduction to London was in his early non-fiction works "Tales of the Fish Patrol" and "South Sea Tales" discovered early on in my father’s library. Later I devoured his most famous novels, though I agree with those critics who claim his true genius was in the short story.

Virtually self-educated, he pulled himself up from poverty working in canneries, mills and a number of maritime tasks which would later provide the inspiration for his stories. He saw his only hope of achieving his goal was to get an education. He managed to get in the University of California, Berkeley, but was able to attend less than a year.

His love of reading and learning was encouraged by a sympathetic librarian, Ina Coolbrith. Later he would attribute his literary success to eight factors, among them: “Vast good luck, good health, good brain, good mental and muscular correlation.”

In my reading of his career I discovered several unexpected connections to my own Pennsylvania roots. His mother, Flora, was the daughter of Pennsylvania canal builder Marshall Wellman. London was a participant in the Coxey’s Army protest march of unemployed workers in 1894, which passed near my home en route to Washington, D.C. (He was actually part of the Western contingent known as Kelly’s Army and related his experiences in the story “Two Thousand Stiffs.”).

In an article titled “Getting Into Print” published in 1903, London wrote: “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.”

Good advice for Work Harder or any other day.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Looking For An E-Book?

This is the time of year people with new electronic reading devices and/or gift book vouchers go looking for fresh options. If you're in that category, the Crime Fiction group on LinkedIn has a special promotion made just for people like you. Come and find a new-to-you author. Visit the promotion at

Crime Fiction group members include readers, authors and publishers who enjoy lively discussions of crime and mystery fiction. As of December 2012, the group had more than 1,600 members. If you're interested in joining, go to Oh, and in case you're wondering--yes, I'm a member and I have a book included in this promotion.