Today’s guest is Lisa Alber, author of Kilmoon, A County Clare Mystery. Lisa describes herself as “ever distractible,” and you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging round out her distractions. Lisa received an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant based on Kilmoon, her first novel; she is currently working on the next novel in the series.
This first in Alber’s new County Clare Mystery series is utterly poetic … The author’s prose and lush descriptions of the Irish countryside nicely complement this dark, broody and very intricate mystery.” —RT Book Reviews (four stars)
Of her post today, Lisa says: “I write crime fiction, so I’m fascinated by villains in all their diversity. However, I notice that when we talk about ‘villains,’ we tend to think only in terms of genre fiction such as mystery, suspense, and thriller. I suppose I’m passionate about this topic because villains get a bad rap at times (in literary terms). The truth is that villainy pertains to all genres because all stories need conflict. A story is only as good as its villain.” You can connect with Lisa on Twitter and Facebook, and on her blog, too!
The Art of Creating Memorable Villains Whatever Your Genre I once had a wise-woman teacher who said, “Your story is only as good as your villain.” Being a new writer, the word “villain” confused me. It had me imagining serial killers and blood-sucking demons, which wasn’t my thing. I didn’t truly understand what she meant until I started thinking of villains as tricksters. In mythology, the trickster deities break the rules of civilized life. They’re often malicious, but not always. They exist to cause transformation. They upend. They are catalysts. This is why the better your villain (trickster), the better your story. Another way to think about it is that without a good villain, your conflict can go flat. This potential story flaw applies to everything from literary novels to high-octane thrillers to romances. No writer is exempt from creating conflict, and for conflict you need upheaval. And for upheaval, you need trickster energy. To get your trickster groove on, consider the following:
- Villains are people too. Great villains are the heroes of their own stories. They have reasons for acting like total cads toward their romantic leads or sleeping with their sisters’ husbands or blackmailing their neighbors or killing their parish priests. They make total sense to themselves.
- Get as personal with your villain as you do with your protagonist. Villains grow. Character development and progression apply to them too.
- The best villains are unique in ways that are opposite of what you would think. They have secret depths. For example, Hannibal Lecter, serial killer extraordinaire, is uber-cultured. This is why tropes such as the cad with the heart of gold and the femme fatale with the secret tragedy work—because of the opposition.
- Create a memorable villain in part by creating a bright and sparkling inner life for your protagonist. If your villain only incites you hero to think, Wow, that guy’s strange, then no matter how unique and trickster-y you’ve made your villain, you’ve got bunk. Give your hero a bunch of attitude about the villain. Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice is the classic example of this when it comes to Darcy.
- If your villain is nonhuman—nature, the hero’s inner demon, a circumstance, a dog, a contagion—same goes: It must have personality. In Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge, the hero’s amnesia is the villain. Shortridge’s writing is so powerful that the amnesia has what I like to call texture. It’s alive because of the way the various characters reflect on and react to it. You can render anything alive through sensory detail—a natural disaster, a haunted house, a beauty pageant.
- Villainy in any good novel is a multi-layered beast. Subtle it’s not, but the novel Silence of the Lambs provides a good example of layering. We have Lecter, of course. We also have the subplot killer, Buffalo Bill; hero Agent Starling’s inner demons centered around dead lambs; the creepy psychiatrist Dr. Chilton; and even Starling’s boss because of the way he’s using her. The novel is ripe with trickster energy at every level.
- Don’t forget “setting as character” for its trickster potential. In my novel Kilmoon, an ancient churchyard has a life of its own in the eyes of the characters. Indeed, in its own way the church is a villain—it keeps secrets. As one character observes, Our Lady of the Kilmoon nestled in her pasture with the Celtic standing stone her guardian. She extended her shadow over grave markers and minded her business in the genteel way of a bustled and high-bosomed matriarch of old, fanning herself with the breeze, dabbing herself with sea-scented rain.
Villains are the forces that oppose or seem to oppose your hero, whether human or nonhuman. These forces become memorable when they have lives on the pages that are unique, well-developed, rich in sensory detail, and multi-layered. Best yet, getting your trickster groove on while you write is one of the funnest aspects of storytelling! What are some of your most memorable villains? We’d love to hear how you get your trickster groove on!