Sunday, September 23, 2012

She's Bad, She's Bad, She's Really Really Bad

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 
                          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?  


  1. I think characters, “good” or “bad,” are the most honest, the most genuine when they are complex, layered, and multi-dimensional. Having someone that “everyone loves to hate” . . . someone who is drawn with those complexities . . . simply adds to the realism the writer has created. While there certainly is a place for the truly evil ones, characters with intricate qualities become more truly human and give the story a depth, a connectedness with the reader that speaks to the realities of life itself.

  2. A Sunday trifecta as Reds just adore Sandra, her Rachel Goddard/ Tom Bridger series AND Poisoned Pen Press! Great to see you today!

    Red Julia's BLEEDING THROUGH cover quote includes:

    "marvelous storytelling skills on full display...Colorful new characters and a twisting, turning plot...set in the picturesque Appalachian Mountains...Fans of Margaret Maron & Louise Penny rejoice!"

    Yes, we are reasonably certain Julia enjoyed this read... ;)

  3. Hi Sandy! Sounds to me like you'd make a good therapist:)--trying to understand what really shaped the bad guys and made them tick!

    I love a bad guy that is well-rounded enough to allow the reader some empathy, even as they get what they deserve!

    Welcome and congrats on another great book!

  4. I love a "good" villain. One that you say "oh no he/she didn't do that," and you watch what he/she does next because in the end you'll be there for his/her finale of getting what they deserve.

  5. Hi, everybody! Thanks for inviting me to your fabulous blog.

    Hank, you're making quite an assumption when you say I don't have an evil bone in my sweet, animal-loving person, You have never seen me when confronted with a spider. Outside, okay, they're safe. But in my HOUSE? Where they could bite my CATS? Oh, yes, I have my own Dark Passenger, and she specializes in offing spiders.

  6. Sandy, Hi!

    I'm woefully behind on your Rachel series, I'm afraid. Not because I don't love it, but because I'm behind on my reading, period. Sounds like you're getting great reviews of the latest - Yay, You! Congratulations!!

    I too am drawn to complex, multi-layerd characters - good and/or bad. And I love learning a little more about them and their stories in each novel. The slow unfolding thrills me and has me coming back for more.

    One of my favorite is Mallory. Just when we think we know everyting about her, we learn just a little more.

  7. Sandy, you know I love your books! Just as much as Julia! :-) Can't wait to read the new one, and what a gorgeous cover.

    I agree with you about the villains. I can almost always find some point of empathy with them, although I have occasionally written someone that was bad through and through, and that's interesting, too.

    I also find writing bad characters--people who do or say things that I never would--weirdly liberating. Hmmm.

  8. Hi, Sandy! So great to see you on Jungle Reds! You know I love your books, have been known to buy extra copies and press them fervently on friends, saying "You must read this!"

    Villains with pasts that have led them to being the broken people they are tend to be my favorites. You can understand how they become what they've become, even though you don't like it. (Though I've found editors sometimes prefer to excise those passages.)

    Like most of your fans, I just wish you wrote faster. LOL

  9. Hi, Sandy - Congratulations on the new book! I completely agree with you about villains - I don't want readers to hate-hate them because I want them to be human. Just like I don't want the protagonist to be perfect.

    Yes,KAYE! Mallory is a great example of the prickly protagonist. Villains we sort of like: Hannibal Lechter. Cunning, evil, crazy, and yet...

  10. Sandy, I feel the same way about earwigs. Die, you creepy things!

  11. I like characters with layers and baggage and complex pasts. That's probably because a character's motivation is a big deal for me.

    I'm looking forward to Bleeding Through which I'm reading as soon as I finish The Other Women.

  12. Ewww, spiders and earwigs! Two of my most "unfavorite" things. A can of Raid comes in handy.

    Hi, Sandra. I just got THE HEAT OF THE MOON because it sounded interesting and, now, here you are! I'm looking forward to starting this new-to-me series. I just finished Louise Penny's latest and I'm in the middle of THE OTHER WOMAN (which I don't want to end) so you're up next.

    I, too, like well-rounded characters both good and evil. I like smart people and find that smart villains can be deliciously bad.

    Thanks for sharing with us.

  13. Marianne, I'm always delighted to hear that a new reader is starting my series. In a way, I get to be a first novelist all over again. I hope you enjoy The Heat of the Moon enough to continue reading.

    Thanks, JRW, for having me as a guest!

  14. I recently read "The Sociopath Next Door" by Martha Stout, thinking some understanding of sociopaths would help me create better villains. But for all the reason you give, Sandy, they fail to make interesting characters. Pure evil can be boring.