Thursday, February 20, 2014

How To Write A Novel, Part Five

Quickly, I’ll summarize our previous lessons: Read a bunch of novels, know why you want to write a novel, get your head on straight, write it because you enjoy writing, and write fully developed heroes as characters. Pretty easy so far, right? Now we get to the fun part.

Writing villains, bad guys or whatever you want to call the antagonist. Many writers will tell you these are the characters they really get into. In all my years of going to writing conferences, reading about craft and listening and teaching aspects of writing, I think I've heard more about creating bad guys than any other topic. The one phrase that always comes up is, "No one thinks they’re the bad guy of their own story." Even some of the cartoonish James Bond villians are doing things for reasons they think are right. Very few characters are bad just for the sake of being bad.

One of the clear exceptions to that was Thomas Harris’ fabulous creation of Hannibal Lecter. The evil genius from Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs seemed to be diabolical for the sake of being diabolical. He was crazy, but likable. Not crazy in the way of Charles Manson or Paul Levine, but a controlled, focused crazy. People seem to agree that this was a situation where that made the character even more interesting.  He was evil for the sake of being evil. But then later sequels fleshed out the character more and we started to understand why he did some of the things he did. Was Harris wrong to do this? Of course not, it was his novel to write. His series to continue. But this goes back to the earliest rule of writing which is, "There are no rules." 

From my experience, writing novels with criminal bad guys, who sometimes are a little mentally unstable, I like to show that there are other parts of their lives where they function reasonably well. It may be a stable family life or a willingness to be a good father. It may be that they're polite to elderly people or love animals. Just some glimmer of normality that the reader can identify with and not just chaulk up the character’s actions to being a bad guy. You don't necessarily have to put in a reason why they do bad things, but let the reader understand a little bit about them. Let the reader realize they have a certain motivation.

I thought because I can base my antagonists on actual criminals I had met in my previous life. I was never vindictive or nasty to defendants I arrested and often that resulted in long conversations where they would admit things, not necessarily related to whatever charges they were facing. I was always amazed at how people can rationalize the actions they take from theft to homicide. I never met an embezzler who didn't honestly believe they were owed that money. They felt their company had slighted them in some way or withheld compensation and all they were doing was balancing the scales. I never once interviewed a drug smuggler who didn't mention that narcotics should be legal everywhere in the world. And if I pointed out the fact that at the moment they were not legal in the US, the smuggler would not acknowledge that as a viable reason for facing jail time. Even pedophiles can come up with justifications for their actions. No one truly believes they are a bad person.

I like books where I'm not sure if someone is a good guy or bad guy. Sometimes it takes a while to figure it out. Sometimes it depends on your perspective. Maybe someone who is politically motivated and does despicable things meets with your approval because you agree with their positions. Or, perhaps, they’re even more despicable because they hurt the ideals you stand for. 

I like the atypical villain. An older example, which most of you are too young to remember, would be the little girl from The Bad Seed. Angelic looking blonde girl with the sweet voice who ruthlessly murders anyone who gets in her way. Brilliant.

The common theme tying all of these blog posts about writing a novel together is that you can do it your way. You're like a combat soldier, when you understand there is nothing left to lose, you can cut loose and do it anyway you want. Decide that you are not going to get published. You just want to write. In that case, write the book you want to write and do it the way you want to do it.

And have fun creating bad guys. 

Today's famous quote on the rules of writing:

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” 
—W. Somerset Maughan


  1. Wasn't it Raymond Chandler who said, "When things get slow, bring in a man with a gun?"

  2. Perhaps Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's words could add humanity to our villains.

    "Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad."

    --Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  3. James O. Born2/21/2014 7:13 AM

    Guys, guys! don't steal my thunder. You just blew my next two quotes. Who was this Longfellow anyway? Did he write about Jack Reacher?

  4. from Jacqueline: And I'll just thank you for quoting Somerset Maugham - one of my most re-read authors. Great post, Jim - and I'll ask again: When's the book on writing coming out? You're a shoo in for that.