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Villains & Villainesses: Architects of Story

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Please welcome Cara Black [2] to Writer Unboxed today!

Cara is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Private Investigator Aimée Leduc series, which is set in Paris. Cara has received multiple nominations for the Anthony and Macavity Awards, a Washington Post Book World Book of the Year citation, the Médaille de la Ville de Paris—the Paris City Medal, which is awarded in recognition of contribution to international culture—and invitations to be the Guest of Honor at conferences such as the Paris Polar Crime Festival and Left Coast Crime. With more than 400,000 books in print, the Aimée Leduc series has been translated into German, Norwegian, Japanese, French, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew.

Cara’s latest novel, Murder in Saint-Germain [3] (An Aimée Leduc Investigation), releases next week.

“As always, with airfares so high, Black offers armchair travelers a whirlwind trip through the City of Light.”
USA Today

We’re thrilled to have Cara with us today to talk about writing villains. With more than a dozen novels published featuring Private investigator Aimée Leduc and a wide array of villains, we know she knows what she’s talking about.

Learn more about Cara and the Aimée Leduc series on her website [2], and by following her on Facebook [4] and Twitter [5].

Villains & Villainesses: Architects of Story

I write murder mysteries, but several books ago, I struggled with a blank page. Why couldn’t I get the story going? I told my friend, a writer, whom I trusted.

“Trouble?” he asked. “Ok, so what’s your villain doing?’

“Being bad,” came my brilliant reply.

“Like how..?” he asked.

“Bad…killed someone, a murderer…” I trailed off.

“What’s he or she doing now?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” came another brilliant reply.

“That’s your problem,” he said. “If your villain is smart maybe smarter than your character, then s/he needs to be active, plotting, putting obstacles in the way. Acting at maximum capacity – wouldn’t you?”

That gave me pause.

“For a compelling story you need to know what s/he’s doing, acting on at every step even if it’s not on the page, you need to know it.” He grinned. “Think about it, without the villain/esse there’s no story.”

A lightbulb went off.

Consider your villain’s timeline. It hit me that if I’d murdered someone, I’d do anything I could to cover it up – lie, cheat, steal and more. So I time-lined the villain’s actions and what s/he wanted, and it got me going. Even though this only went on my timeline and the reader never saw this on the page, it gave weight to my story. Gave me focus and direction, orienting me to what my villain’s desires were and the actions s/he would take.

Why hadn’t I been thinking of what the villain would be doing? The villain is the architect of the story. A story is about people who want something in opposition with each other.

Later, the villain’s timeline – only on my desk – helped me in rewrites to plant suspects and red herrings. I could brainstorm, try ideas and work on the ‘Art of Misdirection.’

If you’re ever in the same boat, I suggest you try a villain/esse timeline. Make it rough and rudimentary or detailed if that works for you. Not only will you find it helpful going back in rewrites but to see if events are plausible, if there’s causality (cause+effect), a way to check on pacing and seed clues in the story.

The writer needs to know what the villain is doing.

Create a worthy adversary for your hero with dimension, (flawed) logic, and redeeming qualities. Villains have many names: adversary, antagonist, bully, menace, evil genius, and so on. As a reader, I love books that have a character who plays the worthy adversary to the protagonist. If that adversary has redeeming qualities or reasons for doing bad that I can identify with, the enjoyment I get from the book increases.

Do you find that? For me, a gripping story means I can somehow relate with the villain. That doesn’t mean I agree with their evil deeds, but if I understand how they came to be, my investment in the story deepens.

So what happens when an author fails to give their antagonist their due?

The story suffers because that characterization doesn’t stand up to the protagonist and feels like a cardboard cutout to suit the needs of the author. Who wants to feel the villain/esse is just a plot device that adds tension to the story without any real substance?

Characters, both good and bad, are more believable if they are based in reality. People are not all good or all bad; they have varying degrees of good and bad in them. And maybe good and bad are the wrong terms to use here. People have strengths and weaknesses, and how they use them and interact with those around them largely determines how society will label them. The same holds true for the villain.

Think, and think again, about backstory. Think about a villain who hates brunettes who remind him of his mother but volunteers three times a week at the local boys club; he’s much more interesting than the villain who simply hates women. Readers will see the good in a character that does bad things and will wonder how they came to be the way they are.

If the author gives insight into this character’s past or shows his interactions with the members in the boys club in a way that gives the reader a glimpse into the villain’s mind, the story becomes richer and fuller because the villain has substance and has earned a little of the reader’s sympathy.

Think of your antagonist as a real character and not an all-powerful entity, such as a corrupt government. Get specific.

Envision her/him as the architect who engineers the story, who charted and performed the events long before we start reading. The villain’s timeline, in my case, was the story behind the story that started before page 1. Picture a pirate who’s steering and navigating a course, through a choppy sea escaping with treasure and dropping depth charges into the sea for the detective in the submarine or whatever analogy works for you. Kind of cool, right?

Think of your story opening. Now, look back at the event starting the story. Unravel it backward to see the story before the first page. The hero/protagonist is already playing catch-up when the story starts. I posit the story starts way before the page one. Think of it as peeling an onion, layer by tearful layer.

Raise the stakes, even if they’re hidden from the reader. The villain/esse has crossed the line. Committed murder. Now tension escalates as s/he lies, covers up/hides/intimidates. The villain has a lot to lose – the stakes go higher and higher for them. However in a mystery, this isn’t obvious to the reader or protagonist; for the reader, it’s about the uncovering, and what the villain/esse is driven, by any lengths, to hide.

Ask yourself: How is the villain/esse changing the balance, tilting and shifting to remain ahead, to get away? The stakes for the villain/esse are inherently high. That’s the great thing of having a worthy antagonist: Her/his agenda is clear.

Some possibilities:

Difficult moral dilemmas and choices make compelling reading, and characters we empathize with. Now think of your hero/protagonist who wades through these red herrings, dead ends, betrayals, lies, misdirections, foiled at every turn and meeting obstacles set by the villain–all the while struggling to make sense and uncover those buried clues to be discovered.

Things go wrong and then get worse because a clever, invested villain is behind the scenes orchestrating the moves. Think of Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Dr Moriarity – a plotter, a step ahead. If not for him, we won’t have a compelling story with obstacles to surmount and conflict to escalate the tension and rising action from cause and effect.

Consider: In what clever ways will the villain/esse pursue their goal of getting away with their crime? They’re desperate to see this through, maintain innocence and achieve what they want. They have a goal.

Final Thoughts

A story needs characters with opposing agendas who want something. They have an unmet desire. Sometimes they want the same thing.

As dark needs light, day turns to night, stories need contrast and similarity.

To have a hero, you need a villain.

Think of the classics–Macbeth, the fairytale of Cinderella. A villain/esse drives the story. So while I write mysteries and will come from that slant, adapt the principles/tools/techniques to your stories. We want memorable, jump-off-the-page villains who’ve entered literature and formed our psyche.

Try to timeline their backstory for yourself, homing in on the events leading up to when they crossed the line and became the architect of your story.

What works for you?