HANK: Who's your favorite bad guy? Hannibal Lecter? Moriarty? The Agatha-winning Sandra Parshall (who doesnt have an evil bone in her body--she loves animals and flowers and is a very good pal to writers) has been thinking about bad guys. And why the bad ones are good--and why the good ones are bad.
I Love the Broken Ones
I Love the Broken Ones
by Sandra Parshall
Maybe I should be happy when readers tell me they despise Judith, my protagonist Rachel Goddard’s mother. I should smile when they say they’d like to heat up a vat of boiling oil for Lindsay, Rachel’s rival and Tom Bridger’s former girlfriend. If readers hate my “bad” characters, that means I’ve made them convincingly villainous, right?
But for me it’s not that easy.
I understand my villains, inside and out. I know all the life experiences that shaped them and drove them to behave the way they do. Understanding leads to compassion. No, I can’t defend Judith’s actions, but every time a reader gets started on what an evil witch she is, I find myself interrupting with, “Yes, but…” I doubt that I’ve persuaded anyone to view her more kindly. The one and only time a reader said, unprompted by me, “I felt sorry for Judith. She had such a sad life,” I wanted to cheer. At last, somebody got Judith.
Tom’s old girlfriend, Lindsay, who wreaks havoc in Broken Places, is a real piece of work, I’ll admit. A lot of readers think I should have come down harder on her. As in: dropped a concrete slab on her from a great height. Dropped her from a great height. No punishment would be bad enough to satisfy the readers who hate Lindsay. But I feel compelled to point out that other people/characters, including Tom, bear some responsibility for Lindsay turning out the way she did.
The damaged characters who provoke strong reactions from readers and conflicting emotions in their creator are the most fun to write about. I love Rachel and Tom, but they are good, honorable people who always try to do the right thing, and they won’t hold a reader’s interest unless they’re challenged by villains who are worthy opponents. Occasionally Rachel and Tom have to be tempted to do the wrong thing because that seems the only way to defeat the bad guys. I enjoy nothing more than dreaming up characters who are strong enough to push my goodhearted protagonists to the edge. The more complex my bad guys are, the farther away from pure evil I can take them, the more I like them.
There are exceptions. Some villains are evil through and through, and I can’t summon any pity for them. The ultimate villains in Under the Dog Star and my new book, Bleeding Through, are pond scum and deserve what they get. The people around them, though, who get drawn into helping them, merit a little more sympathy.
At least I think they do. But then, as the song says, I can’t help it, I love the broken ones.
How do you like to see villains portrayed? Do you want to be able to hate them without reservation? Or can you find it in your heart to understand why they behave the way they do?
HANK: An article about thriller writing I once read discussed the tension between the hero and the villain--it said they had to be "equals." That it had to be a "fair fight." And that each one had to have believable reasons for what they do. Who's your favorite? And why?