Creating a really evil character

Christina James is the pseudonym of our guest blogger Linda Bennett, a director at Salt Publishing and a regular speaker at the Winchester Writers’ Festival. Fair of Face is her sixth novel in the DI Yates series. 




      High on a throne of a royal state, which far
      Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
      Of where the gorgeous East with richest hand
      Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,
      Satan exalted sat ….

                             From Paradise Lost, John Milton



When John Milton created the character of Satan, he presented himself with a dilemma: how could he make the character of God the Father as appealing as that of Lucifer, the fallen angel? It turned out that he couldn’t.  God the Father, depicted as the sole monolithic force for good in Paradise Lost, actually comes across as a bit of a stodgy prig, smugly confident that, as creator of the universe, his own view of it is the only correct one and that he’s unquestionably right to banish Lucifer, that glamorous upstart, from his presence.

It’s clear that Milton himself became fascinated with Lucifer, giving him good looks and a fine intelligence, able to debate and agonise over what it means to sin. But, if Lucifer had been portrayed as an unthinking vile being – a monolithic force for evil – Milton would merely have created two tediously single-minded leading characters and, in all probability, left his readers cold.

Countless other authors have since wrestled with the problem of how to capture and explore the tension between good and evil without letting the glamour of evil take over.  Achieving such tension lies at the heart of all successful crime fiction… and the crime genre above all others requires an effective villain.

Most crime writers draw some of their facts from ‘true crime’ by studying accounts of notorious murders and murderers. These are often written by journalists or ex-policemen, who recount the crimes in lurid detail and apply a pretty simplistic moral yardstick: eg, this man was a monster because he killed young girls.  No one can dispute the validity of such an analysis, but of itself it doesn’t translate into good fiction.  No reader is going to spend several hours reading a novel if s/he suspects that it’s just about the pursuit of a really bad man or woman who is ultimately going to be caught and punished, because this would include no attempt to penetrate the perpetrator’s psyche.  It is the desire to understand what makes the villain tick that motivates the reader to carry on reading: what is the warped rationale underpinning his or her dreadful crimes? And, having gradually gained fascinating insights into that, the reader is ineluctably caught up in the suspenseful anticipation of likely further atrocities, intelligently if horrifically contrived, before the heroic man or woman on the side of right can intervene. In this respect, fiction is usually quite different from fact, because – shockingly, but at the same time not helpful to the writer – some of the worst criminals are banal people with little imagination. Their psyches, to the rest of us, are impossible to fathom and they, therefore, are not very interesting.

The genre of crime writing has its own conventions. Predominant among these is that harmony and order must be restored to the internal world of the novel at its conclusion.  Often such resolution will consist of the apprehension and appropriate punishment of the perpetrator, though contemporary crime writers employ variations on this theme and may tease the reader by allowing the villain to escape.  (A useful by-product of such an approach is that, ipso facto, the seeds of a sequel have now been sown!)  Two of my own villains, Peter Prance (In the Family) and de Vries (Sausage Hall) evade justice.  Prance, reappearing in Rooted in Dishonour, finally gets his come-uppance; I have yet to decide whether de Vries, as several of my readers have requested, will make a come-back.

The well-crafted elusive villain has immense power to capture the reader’s imagination. Here is someone who secretly carries out his or her nefarious pursuits, sometimes covering large geographical distances with almost supernatural speed.   Unlike most real-life criminals, s/he’s often a person of financial substance, good-looking, well-educated, an appreciator of the arts: in other words, s/he is glamorous.  Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter is such a character, as are Conan Doyle’s Moriarty and John Le Carré’s Karla.  (It has been observed that, in a sense, Moriarty and Karla represent the evil alter egos of Sherlock Holmes and George Smiley respectively; and Clarice Starling increasingly falls under Hannibal Lecter’s spell, even though she doesn’t condone his crimes.)  In very different ways, each of these authors has succeeded brilliantly in grabbing and holding the reader’s attention by juxtaposing good and evil and quite often demonstrating that they are not, ironically, so very different from each other.

The challenge for the author who has created such an evil character is how to preserve enough of the villain’s mystique to keep on intriguing the reader, while allocating a considerable chunk of the narrative to the ‘good’ protagonist whose role is, compellingly against the odds, to figure out what the criminal is up to. A popular device used in contemporary crime fiction is to intersperse the main chapters of the novel with short pieces addressed by the villain directly to the reader.  It can work well and has the bonus of providing the reader with insights denied to the protagonist, but there are pitfalls: if such pieces occur too frequently, are too prolix, introduce too much repetition or simply depict a narrow and vicious anti-social cypher instead of a fully-rounded bad person, they lose their power.  Similarly, if the reader finds out so much about the villain that s/he ceases to be interesting, the spell woven by the author will have been broken.

There is more than one way of restoring harmony at the end of a crime novel: as I’ve indicated, resolution may be imperfect, allowing the escape of the villain while ensuring that the immediate threat that s/he poses has passed. It’s generally accepted that, while readers enjoy the vicarious thrill of engaging with a really wicked character, ultimately they want to be reassured that some kind of justice has prevailed.  A recent approach, developed mainly in America, is for the concluding chapter to describe a folksy event – say, a barbecue provided by a grateful potential victim who has been delivered from evil by the protagonist – at which, amid laughter and rejoicing, all those present discuss the villain’s crimes and how they’ve now been solved.  Whilst I understand that such an ending could appeal to a nervous reader, I find it jarringly artificial: worse, it seems to me to destroy that fundamental tension between good and evil that I’ve suggested is the goal of crime writing.

As Milton knew, resolution does not mean recapturing the more innocent world that existed before the perpetrator’s crimes took place. Everyone touched by the villain’s acts of malice is changed:

               Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon ….
               They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow
               Through Eden took their solitary way.