Do villains need likeable traits?

Maybe it’s the optimist or the humanist in me, or just naïveté, but I have trouble reading or writing about a character who is unquestionably and irredeemably wicked to the core.

I recognise that such characters are can be useful to a simple story.

baddy imageFrom pantomime onwards, everyone enjoys booing the villain and seeing her/his downfall, and the same is true of some modern psychological thrillers so that the fear can be cranked up as the ‘goodie’ (or ‘less baddie’) is faced with an implacable foe. Sometimes it’s their very badness that makes the character entertaining: the Devil in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is probably the most interesting being in the work. But I still prefer to introduce some nuances. Weakness in the villain may produce a lower level of fright, but it can add to the tension in more subtle ways.


My villain in my current ‘work in progress’ is a formidable person, brave, resourceful, risk-taking, committed to his vision of a family, even if that’s delusional. He is also violent, self-centred and unable or unwilling to consider the long-term outcomes of his behaviour.

boy in prison

Apparently this last is the fundamental flaw in many young men who find themselves incarcerated: a colleague of mine who worked with young offenders was struck by the high proportion who seemed not to understand the steps along the road that had led them to conviction and imprisonment.’How did this happen?’ was their cry, and the answer was found not in their own behaviour but in ‘bad luck’, conspiracies and the actions of others, not themselves. I think in ‘eduspeak’ it’s called ‘external attribution’ and is a factor in many negative outcomes for students.

If a villain is likeable at all, I can find the emotional and moral ambivalence which I’m after in both my reading and writing. My interest in seeing both sides of people and situations is not universal: it doesn’t, for example, encompass the current President of the United States for whom I cannot find anything but contempt. But almost everyone else has some traits that might be deemed likeable, or at least understandable.

I suspect that some of my readers like things to be more straight-forward, and are shocked to discover some of the frailties of characters they want to like. such as Jessie Whelan in my first novel ‘A Good Liar’. The title of that book was chosen deliberately as a play on ‘good’ in relation to lying: Jessie has to be an effective liar, but is still a good person. I expect those readers may be similarly anxious about feeling just a tiny bit sorry for a person who does bad things. Never mind. That’s just the way it’s going to be.


Why do we find bad people so interesting?

I’ve been trying to write but my shoulder’s getting in the way. The only way to type without pain is to support my wrist and use only the fingers on my right hand, doing more with my left to reach most of the keys. It’s messy and needs so much correction that it hardly seems worth the effort, but at least I can do a few hundred words before I get fed up and rest. Yes, I know I could use voice to text software but the sceptic in me reckons that by the time I’d learned to do that effectively my shoulder will have healed. Or maybe I just want a break to enjoy someone else’s

To pass the time when I would have been writing, and to give my head something to work on, I’ve picked up on the US version of ‘House of Cards. I watched the first series years ago in Canada and loved the ‘noirness’ of it, the claustrophobic interiors, the credits, Spacey and his cronies, and most of all its relentless amorality. Human weakness in all its guises filled every scene. I relished the storylines, some of which seemed preposterous until the current US President took office, and how they interconnect in a seething rats nest of corruption and self-serving ambition. The Archers meet Macbeth, like that.

How better for a story teller to pass her time than plunging back into that dark world where the ghastly Underwood is now President, saying and doing things that Trump might emulate if he had a brain and no access to Twitter. The complete absence of scruple and conscience – so far at least – makes for a riveting story, far more interesting than it would be if the central character were more principled.

Why do we find bad people so interesting? Is it because they do things that we might sometimes be tempted to do and struggle to put behind us? An complete absence of self-doubt makes a person dangerous, but they must save a lot of energy by not agonising over things like the rest of us do. Part of me is waiting, yearning even, for  bad deeds to catch up with the evil protagonists in ‘House of Cards’, just to see how they will react ‘in extremis’. The magic of Spacey’s performance is that we are tempted to collude with him and the occasional flashes of honesty delivered direct to camera. Very few of his more worthy opponents are as mesmerising.

‘House of Cards’ is so extreme in its depiction of unrelenting ruthlessness that it could easily tip into caricature and pantomime. It’s a mark of its quality that this doesn’t happen. In my story I’m trying to avoid depicting a ‘baddy’ who is all bad. He – or she, no plot spoiling – needs to be sufficiently authentic and complex that the reader can  empathise with the dilemma he/she faces and the choices he/she makes. Characters have to be capable of surprising us. When I get the chance, I’ll be back to making those surprises happen. In the meantime I’ll keep watching, just to see if Underwood ends up in jail where he belongs.


Clues, red herrings and ‘reveals’

The current novel is my first attempt at crime fiction, after reading tons of it over the past decades. Reading other authors’ crime fiction is easy: you can be self-righteously critical of too much information, too little information, too many clues, none at all, plot twists you can see coming a mile off and others so arbitrary you feel cheated. Oh yes, I can take other people’s work to pieces, but writing your own is a different story, literally.

To some extent, crime fiction can feel a bit formulaic. You go on the course and buy the book – the Arvon book on crime writing, for example – and see what protocols characterise the genre. But a perverse refusal to obey rules that I have always struggled with is getting in my way. If someone says, you need a 3 act structure I say ‘Really? Why?’. I’m working hard to overcome this unhelpful trait. So for now, as an novice in the field, I am following the structural conventions, but am still struggling with whether and how to hide clues, and pop in just enough false leads and red herrings (where on earth did that phrase come from?) to keep the reader on her/his toes.

Only got the outline so far, although it’s pretty detailed in parts and up to 18,000 words. The clues etc are in the outline, but because they’re in this truncated form they’re obviously standing out more than they should and hopefully more than they will when the full ms in in place. Those trusted few who are reading and providing feedback on the outline are counselling a lighter touch, and they’re probably right. I’m pleased with one false trail that serves to undermine the protagonist’s self-confidence, which always adds to the tension.

The new book is set in the recent past, and so has necessitated some research about details of the period, but I think I may be learning how to handle it as the obsession for authenticity isn’t looming as large in my mind as it did previously. Some details are essential of course, but I’m also trying to detach the action a little from its setting to avoid local readers feeling that their home turf is being traduced by bad people doing bad things. No-one minds recognising the local setting when the characters and their actions are benign, but I don’t think that will hold true when some of the people are pretty nasty.

The overall problem is how to balance the inferences with the need for twists and a ‘reveal’ towards the end. Classic examples of the genre require the main characters to be summoned finally by the hero detective who then rehearses the clues etc before finally revealing the baddy. I definitely can’t be bothered with that, but some final shocks are necessary. Too many clues may herald and reduce the impact of the shock, but if there are none, is the writer cheating? Maybe I read too fast and without sufficient thought, but sometimes I’m not prepared for the final reveal at all and don’t like that. Thinking about it, what really matters, even in crime fiction, is that we have to care about the characters, even if we don’t like them. What happens to them should matter to us: it’s not just a plot device. And we’re back to character driving the story as much as plot.

What I seem to be doing as the outline expands slowly into a first draft is putting in clues etc and then paring them back to the merest sliver of a passing detail that could be missed or noticed and remembered, so that the assiduous reader feels rewarded later for their concentration. Will it work? Hard to tell. The acid test is giving it to someone to read who’s never read any previous version or had any conversation about the plot. They have to come to it raw, as it were, and then tell me how satisfied or otherwise they feel. It’s going to be a while before I get to that stage.

Do our characters need to be ‘likeable’?

Every now and then I check to see if anyone has posted a review of my books on Amazon. Not that they  make any difference to sales – or do they? – but just out of curiosity. The reviews are usually good, I’m pleased to say, but one for ‘Forgiven’ was a 3 star and I checked it. Can’t recall the precise wording but the general gist was that the reader was unimpressed as he/she didn’t find any of the characters ‘sympathetic’. That’s OK: but I asked myself whether I had really tried to make my characters likeable, and what that would mean.

‘Likeability’, like beauty, is very much in the eye – or feelings – of the reader. Who and what we like depends on who are, our own life experiences and our view of the world. It is therefore unlikely that any one character would be liked by everybody who encountered them. In a novel there will be a wide range of characters to choose from, but even then it may be that none of them appeal to a particular reader, as in the case of my 3 star reviewer.

The only book I’ve read recently that presented me with such a panoply of unattractive people was Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’, which has been a runaway best-seller, despite my feeling that it relied for its tension on the reader’s detached curiosity about ‘whodunnit’ without actually caring at all, as none of the people involved were worth caring about. I couldn’t even finish it, but I assume I was in a minority. Then I began to wonder whether it matters. Do we need to like the characters for them to carry us through a novel? Can we care about them while still finding them unsympathetic?

The answer of course must be ‘Yes.’ Lear is a monster, Henchard stubborn and self-defeating, Emma vain and self-obsessed. In her own small way my heroine Jessie Whelan is a very difficult woman who creates most of her own crises. As one of my correspondents put it, ‘That Jessie – sometimes I could slap her.’ But without those flaws she could be flat and uninteresting, and her story less rich and worthy of the telling. John, her son, is portrayed as a young man damaged by the restrictions of his early life, awkward, distrustful, self-centred, although he is redeemed later by his love for Maggie and his children. On the other hand, two minor characters who appear in all three books and many of my readers enjoy are Hannah and Fred, who live at Mill Cottage in Boot. They both struggle with disability – the one-eyed woman and the one-legged man – and both rise above it with humour and unselfconscious enjoyment of their lives and each other. I loved writing about them, and mourned for Fred’s sad decline. In planning the current book I’m working hard to create rounded characters with weakness and challenges, not to make them likeable but to make them human. Even the villains can’t be all bad: they too need some redeeming features that drive their behaviour and provide a necessary ambivalence for the reader. Sympathy with the characters is not required, but a flicker of empathy helps to engage the reader, don’t you think?

Character, Complexity and Point of View

Weeks ago I thought the outline for Book 4 was almost finished: just the odd twist here. or an extra chapter there and it was done, waiting to be fleshed out in all its detail in the first draft. Then I had to step away for a while to focus on another project and when I returned to it, I lost confidence. Everything looked trite, predictable, and some of the characters felt wooden and two-dimensional.

So I controlled my impatience to get started, ready or not, and went back to basics, taking each of the characters and writing character studies: what does this person look and sound like, how do they dress, walk, eat? Where were they born and raised, what motivates them, what do they aspire to or fear? What will they do in certain situations, and ow will they relate to the other characters they encounter?

That’s a really useful exercise, but these deeper rounder characters are now so engaging that they demand many more pages to do them justice, and each wants their own voice, or ‘Point of View’.

I love the idea of multiple points of view, with even minor characters able to provide their individual perspective and version of events, but I’m wary of going down this road given the strict advice that accompanied the one – and only – professional critique of my writing, way back when the first novel was in its first iteration and I was floundering. ‘Keep it simple’ was the advice. Only two or three of your characters can be given a ‘Point of View’, so decide who they are and stick to it. To do otherwise runs the risk of confusing your readers and slowing down the plot.

Book 4 is my first attempt at a crime novel. I’ve taken the conventional stance – so far at least – of having two main characters on the side of ‘order and honesty’ but as time goes by I’m getting more interested in the ‘baddies’, without whom there is no tension, wrong-doing and resolution. If the ‘baddies ‘ are two-dimensional, the plot fails. Patricia Highsmith understood this: now I wonder whether I could take the risk of appearing amoral, as she can be described, by making the character of a central ‘baddy’ the driving force of the plot and its most engaging voice. I’d love to do that, but it could be a step too far for a first foray into a new genre. My readership so far trusts me not to shock or outrage them: they’re curious about my characters and want to like them. Would they feel betrayed by a detailed depiction of the despicable?

I think I’ll probably opt for safety this time, with two honest characters at the heart of the story, but I’ll also give depth and voice to at least one of the dishonest characters too, letting us see the complexities and ambivalence, and the flaws in our national life at the time when the story is set, which of course are still with us today. I want this book to be the start of a series, and that adds some pressures that I’ll explore in a future post. I’m still thinking about it.


Looking for a villain

All the characters I’ve developed so far in my writing have been flawed in one way or another – Jessie is impulsive, John so unassertive, Maggie ambitious, Violet blinkered by her religion –  but all of them are essentially good people. If, as I’m considering, I turn to crime fiction for Book 4 I need at least one character who is truly malevolent, and now I’m struggling. The big piece of paper where I’m sketching out the interrelationships in the new book is looking interesting but too benign. It lacks an attractive ‘baddie’, like Milton’s Satan, just charismatic enough to reel us in and make the inevitable betrayal all the more shocking.

Current events lead me to consider a possible backdrop of paedophilia, or people smuggling, or abuse of immigrant workers as the dark side of the plot. It may be squeamish on my part, but I want to avoid explicit violence against women, although setting the action in the 1970s would provide plenty of scope for misogyny and casual gender discrimination. My own working life began early in the 1970s, and I clearly recall how as a young married woman at my first job interview being asked what my contraceptive arrangements were. I said I would share mine if the Deputy Headteacher interviewing me would explain his. He didn’t pursue the matter. Women in general, and young women in particular, were routinely insulted and undermined, and it would be so easy to turn the story into a feminist rant, but that’s not what I want to write. I’m looking for a villain, a rounded, credible, intelligent, articulate character uninhibited by compassion or conscience whose behaviour wreaks havoc and threatens the people we love. Rather than trawl unsuccessfully through my acquaintance looking for such a person,  I may look for inspiration among fictional villains, past and present. Scarpia? Iago? Shakespeare’s caricature of Richard III?

Or should I aim for an ill-intentioned collective, the paedophile ring, the terrorist group, the cabal of bent coppers on the take? Looking across the current literature, it feels like every conceivable angle of conspiracy has been done to death, literally and figuratively. The heroic isolated protagonist against the odds, again? Maybe the nature of successful crime fiction is that it repeats the well-worn genre protocols with just enough of a twist to pique the aficianado’s interest. Is that what I want to do? For the time being it’s back to the drawing board, and the large piece of paper.