Sunday, July 25, 2010

Creating charismatic villains

This wraps up Stephen's week as GrandMaster. Thanks for stopping by and answering our questions. Best of luck with Boulevard's paperback release this week and with Beat at the end of September! I think we all want to see the next stops on Hayden's journey...

From Gabi: You’ve been compared to James Ellroy, one of my favorites. How do you make your villains so charismatic? Do you cast the characters in your head so the body language and sly wit off-set the horrible things they do?

Stephen: I can only hope my villains have a flavoring of sly wit. Personally, I’d like to spend more time developing my villains. We really don’t get to know them that well in my books. This is because my books are written in third person close, so you never know more than my protagonist. I’d have to change my style a bit if I want to get inside my villain’s head. It’s actually very frustrating, because I feel my bad guys run the risk of seeming two-dimensional. Or, we end up discovering all their motivation in the climactic scene where the hero meets them face-to-face. That kind of stuff can get overdramatic, real quick. It requires a steady hand. I really walk the line on that in Boulevard. I think I’m more successful with it in Beat, where Hayden gets the opportunity to meet and talk with the villains at different points in the story.

While I love a complicated villain, I do believe that the villain only exists in order to challenge the hero. We learn what kind of man (or woman) our hero is by the choices he makes when confronted by the obstacles the villain throws in his path. There is a great Clint Eastwood film called “Tight Rope,” which I reference in Boulevard, where we know nothing about the killer. We never see him, we never get any inkling of why he does what he does. And yet there’s a relationship between him and the hero, we can feel it in every scene. We feel it because of the way the hero reacts. It’s all about the protagonist.

I would love to write a villain in first person, like in Fowles’ “The Collector” or Thompson’s “The Killer Inside Me.” Those are brilliant characterizations because the villain is also the protagonist. We have to be able to understand his motivation, or else we don’t participate in his journey. Remember, every character is the hero of his own story. In Hannibal Lector’s mind, he’s the hero. He might revel in the fact that he’s a bad guy, he might enjoy calling himself an “anti-hero,” but he’s the protagonist of his tale.

Another good villain is Alan Rickman in “Die Hard.” Classy, educated, smart, volatile. Gives Bruce Willis a run for his money. Probably my favorite literary villain is Wolf Larson from Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf.” Fucking brilliant. Dark, angry, frightening, and possessed with a great will to become an educated man. I would love to create a character like that someday. But there’s a lot of that in Hayden, too. I almost don’t need a villain because Hayden is his own worst enemy. His life would be much simpler if he just learned how to get out of his own way. As Abbey says to him in Beat, “Are you ever going to stop beating yourself up?”


Stephen Jay Schwartz said...

Thanks again for letting me hang out with the Criminal Minds this week!

And, Rebecca - thank you so much for posting the blogs and for adding all the photos.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Stephen, it was a joy to have you!

I loved your comment about Hayden being his own villain. I think complex characters often do get in their own way more than any external villain can, and Hayden definitely fits into that category.

Good luck with BEAT! I can't wait to see you at your pre-Bouchercon launch!

Shane Gericke said...

I write third/close, but often from the bad guy's POV, not just the hero's. I agree completely with your contention that the bad guy exists for the hero to react to, but found that including the bad guy's POV lets readers "feel" the evil even more viscerally. That heightens the payoff when the hero thumps him or her. With your writing skills, I'd love to see what you do inside an antagonist's skin!

You were a terrific houseguest and even hung up your towels after the shower. Come back and stay any time. Be sure to bring Scotch cause we're running low :-)

Stephen Jay Schwartz said...

Shane - I answered your other question on yesterday's blog.

You guys were awesome hosts!

Kelli Stanley said...

Stephen, thanks so much for being the awesome Grand Master guest that you are! :)

I adore Alan Rickman ... his ability to perform complexity so well--not telegraphing an innate "villainy" or "heroism"--is one reason he's a perfect Snape!