Villains are essential in crime novels.
Villains present a problem to crime writers, because we want to give them credibility. Readers need to relate to all the main characters in a novel, at least to some extent. We writers draw on our own character and personality, with a couple of tweaks to create some characters. For others we usually think about people we know or have known in real life. I have written about how I created the hero in my last novel.
Why are villains more challenging?,
Unless you are a criminal or psychopath, you cannot draw on your own character, and most of us don’t know many real murderers. Of course, some writers are former police officers, prison officers or psychiatrists and have met lots of real criminals. Some writers are reformed (they say) criminals. The rest of us are in danger of creating unrealistic characters, but even those writers with relevant experience have a problem in writing about it. What’s hard about writing about what you know? You! The reader. You have your ideas and expectations of what villains should be like. You might find it easier to relate to a fictitious villain who a writer produced from his or her imagination than a truly realistic one.
How do real villains differ from imaginary ones?
As the late author and jockey, Dick Francis, once pointed out, real villains are actually worse than the ones we imagine. They are more selfish, more ruthless, less scrupulous. They do not agonise over decisions or carry a lot of guilt around with them. If you stand in their way – get out fast, or they will ‘deal with’ you. Most men, and quite a few women, can be violent at times. You have probably seen a fight in the offing as two macho men face off, starting with words and body language and building up to a physical confrontation. A criminal skips over the preliminaries and is likely to hurt you before you got a blow in or a chance to defend yourself. Be warned!
Are villains totally unsympathetic characters?
It depends on your sympathies! If you dig into the background of any real murderer, rapist or child-abuser, you will probably find he (usually he, but more about that later) experienced ill-treatment as a youngster or went through some terrible life-changing trauma. Does that justify what they do to others? I don’t think so, but it does mean they are victims too. Of course there are always exceptions, at least on the surface. There are some who seem to have had quite ‘normal’ lives prior to their criminal career. Similarly, there are people who have suffered just as much as any murderer, yet have become decent citizens.
Can you spot real villains?
Sometimes. There are people with anger-management problems or who just have to get their own way. There are people who overreact to certain of life’s common inconveniences. However, there are plenty who seem totally ordinary, even dull, most of the time.
What about female villains?
Most criminals are men, especially most murderers. The last few decades have seen a change in that, possibly because women are becoming more assertive in many fields. I have watched a documentary presented by Trevor MacDonald about Myra Hindley and Rose West. It was chilling but fascinating. They were two very different women despite having certain obvious things in common. Myra was more calculating and manipulative, whilst Rose was more emotional. Rose’s father and others had often abused her as a child and into adulthood, but there is no evidence that Myra suffered in that way. This shows how dangerous it is to make generalisations, or at least to attempt to apply them too widely. One thing they had in common was their apparent lack of remorse. In fact, both women seemed to be in denial to some extent about their crimes.
From where do I get my villains?
Many people will be pleased to learn that I draw on people I know or have known, only for their general personality traits. The villainous side is fiction. I sometimes think how a good person might have turned out if circumstances had been different. I also think what I might have become had I not had the moral constraints from my upbringing and my religious and philosophical convictions. You don’t want to know!
Not all criminals are villains!
Lots of fiction includes the ‘loveable rogue’, exemplified by Del Trotter, a worthy successor to Arthur Daily and the many characters played by the late Sid James. So far, I have created a loveable rogue in my historical novels, which I write under a pseudonym, but I have not introduced one in my modern detective novels. Perhaps Brian, the young ruffian in Old Money and again in New Money in the Accounting for Murder series, has some of the characteristics, but he hasn’t got there yet. Sadly, I fear that loveable rogues are far more common in fiction than in reality, unlike real villains.