Creating the characters we love to hate ‹ CrimeReads

I used to think I was different from other kids, an outcast in my opinions, alone on an island where the flora was black and twisted, and the theme music always sinister. As I got older and more perceptive, I realized there was nothing unique or rebellious about me – that my weakness is, in fact, shared by fiction and film lovers everywhere. If you’re reading this, I’d bet dollars on donuts that you feel the same way.

I love a good villain.

that i was watching Doctor Who Where star wars, it was the antagonist, not the hero, that caught my eye. Same goes for comics and novels. I was jumping up and down in my seat as the Caped Crusader kicked unholy (the more onomatopoeia the better), but it was always the endless array of sleek supervillains that were the most engaging aspects of Batman universe (except for Polka-Dot Man – that guy sucked!). I remember reading Dracula and secret rooting for the immortal bloodsucker. Watching The Terminator like a teenager. . . Of course, I was invested in the fate of Sarah Connor, but let’s be honest, this movie belongs to Arnie.

And don’t get me started Jaws.

“The more successful the villain, the more successful the image.” So says the great Alfred Hitchcock. He’s referring to screen villains here, but opinion translates to all forms of fiction. Mr. Hitchcock is absolutely right, of course. But what makes a villain successful? And how can we apply that to the antagonist in our own writing?

There are dozens of articles online on how to create a wonderfully villainous character, and they largely say the same thing: give them a strong motive, build a compelling backstory, engender empathy in the reader by coloring your villain with distinctly human traits, and so on. right now. These articles are worth your time. They invariably offer excellent suggestions. . . but I won’t get anywhere by retreading this floor here. I want to approach this from a different angle and offer a suggestion that has always worked for me, and should help establish a strong three-way connection between you, your antagonist, and the reader.

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Right from the start: you must to forgive your antagonist, the same way you would forgive a loved one who has let you down in some way. Understand that this disreputable character is going to live in your head for the number of months (or years) it will take you to write your novel. They will say and do very bad things. Only with forgiveness can you come closer to them, and you need approach if you have any hope of understanding them.

About getting closer. . . There’s a weird little thing I do with my characters that, at first glance, might seem strange: I converse with them. Sometimes it’s a few passing comments while waiting for the toast to appear. Other times it’s a more in-depth discussion – an interview, of sorts (I have a reputation for going all-out Last show, with a house orchestra and an opening monologue). It’s ringing. . . questionable, I know, but filming the breeze with my characters in candid, individual situations helps establish the intimacy I need to make them believable. And when they do murderous, despicable, unthinkable things on the page. . . hey, i don’t always like it, but at least i have to understand this.

You can keep this dialogue in your head or, in the words of Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, you can shout it out loud. And if none of these options appeals. . . Well, you can stick to what you’re used to and write it down.

Johan… what the hell were you thinking, man?

Do not judge me. I did what had to be done.

You had to to kill the guy? Really? Killing him was your only option?

A little extreme, perhaps, but it sent the right message.

Dude, you had an ax pressed against his throat. Don’t you think that’s enough of a message?

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Write it, shout it. Whatever you’re comfortable with, try it. Talk about their actions, of course. Talk about other characters. Talk about the weather, books, baseball, your favorite Netflix shows. Become their confidant – their friend. This will add a multidimensionality to your character that you’ll apply to the page without even realizing it.

My new novel is called No second chance. It’s a fast-paced crime thriller set against the backdrop of the Hollywood drug trade, with my two leads – Luke Kingsley and Kitty Rae – working together to escape a dangerous and damaging situation. Luke is a disgraced actor who allegedly killed his wife. Kitty is a bright young woman seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood. I’m proud of these characters, how they interact with each other, and how they connect to the reader. They are sweet, imperfect, determined and very human. But it’s my antagonist, Johan Fly, who gives the novel tension and menace, and delivers its most exhilarating moments. Johan is a charismatic young YouTube star, an aspiring Viking with an ax replica and sociopathic inclinations. He comes from a place of wealth and privilege and believes himself to be both irresistible and untouchable. Johan and I shared many conversations outside of the story, and for good reason. A first examination on best thriller books said Johan Fly is “one of the most malevolent, deranged, deranged great villains of all time to grace the pages of a novel”. Stephen King – who knows a thing or two about creating villains – called Johan “The best villain since Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.”

Guess hanging out with Johan Fly was time well spent.

So yeah, give your antagonist backstory and motive, build empathy, do all those good things…but also have some serious one-on-one time. Sit beside them, study their ways, search their dark and mysterious souls.

If nothing else, it’s damn good company.


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