What mystery or suspense tale would be complete without a villain (or two or three) that we can root against just as much as we root for the hero and heroine? Suspense writers spend a lot of mental—and emotional—energy crafting their villains. We want readers to find them as real and believable as the other main characters.
Cardboard nasty doesn’t work. Each villain must be rich and full—in short, a person. Remember the words your mama used to say when you whined about some “bad guy” in your elementary school life? “Now, sweetie, there’s something good about everyone.” Finding that “something good” to build into our villains is an essential for creating that realism in the character.
A few of our Suspense Sisters dish about their favorite villains and what made them feel real to their readers. Their thoughts are in italics. My comments are in plain script.
In Pursuit of Justice, I had a villain who was the cook for the VP of the US - at his ranch in West Texas. Everything she cooked was with jalapeños. Everything. Her nickname was Pepper. Anyway, the Secret Service agents from DC were not accustomed to spicy foods and it made for interesting dialogue and indigestion. Of course she later poisoned a man by brewing sweet tea with oleander.
Too funny, DiAnn! Here I see you added an element to your character that exemplifies a useful skill (cooking), as well as providing opportunities for humor. Who would suspect the character who provides the light moments in the book?
In Lightning and Lace, a sweet, kind Christian lady who was not loved by her husband took her motherly instincts to extreme by killing the young women who were being forced into white slavery by her husband.
Shades of Arsenic and Old Lace! I would imagine that reference is implied in the title of the book. Nice job, DiAnn. So interesting that your villain is a believer who has lost her way and begun to mistake evil behavior for an act of kindness.
Aww, Margaret! Who can’t relate to the need to be loved for themselves? The sense of rejection is one of the most basic motivations for bitterness that can turn murderous.
I love Worm, the villian in Spring Rain. He's not too smart and grew up the victim of bullying from his older brother Stanley and under threat of a beating from his father if he complained about Stanley. He's so damaged he doesn't even see what he does as wrong. I feel so sorry for the poor chump.
He scrunched deeper in the sand and sighed, content. He didn’t have to worry about anyone sneaking up behind him here in his hiding place.
His brother used to like to sneak up behind him when he was a little kid.
“Hey, twerp!” he’d yell as he grabbed him around the neck. And squeezed.
The first time Stanley grabbed him like that, he’d wet his pants. He’d been so scared!
He told his father, but the old man just said, “That’s your problem. You take care of it.”
“But, Dad,” he sniffed.
The old man climbed out of his chair and leaned over him, both fists clenched. “Don’t snivel! Do you hear me? Don’t ever snivel! I can’t stand crybabies!” He raised his hand.
Holding his sore throat, he’d escaped and never complained to his father again.
Stanley had snuck up on him for years.
Really nice characterization, Gayle! Poor Worm. I feel sorry for the guy too. That doesn’t mean I approve of his actions, of course, but I sure understand the forces that twisted his thinking.
Jill Elizabeth Nelson
In my debut novel, Reluctant Burglar, one of my villains is a believer, but has gotten in over his head in a scheme that was supposed to provide for his family in a way that would gain their respect. Of course, his judgment is clouded by greed, and distorted by a poor self-image, but his desire to be seen as a worthy provider is basic to the male personality.
Now it’s your turn.
For a chance to win a signed copy of Reluctant Burglar, please share about one of your “favorite” villains in any book you’ve read. Tell us what it was about this character made him human and sympathetic.