You think it’s hard to find a good man? Ha! Try finding a really bad one.
We’ve been looking for bad men for more than twelve years now. I’d say my sister and I are somewhat of experts on the subject of men with, ah…issues. We write thrillers and over the course of our eleven-novel career, we’ve encountered every kind of twisted, tortured, miserable example of the male species you can imagine.
But they’re our villains and we…well, I won’t say we love them but we do lavish a lot of attention on them. And we need to confess something right now –- it is getting harder and harder to make bad guys good.
Great antagonists loom large in literature. Imagine Othello without his Iago, “A Clockwork Orange” without the deranged Alex Delarge or Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” without Kurtz. Where would Harry Potter be without Voldemort, or Dr. Jekyll without Mr. Hyde? And Milton didn’t lose Paradise without a big push from Satan.
But within the thriller genre, the villain is almost as important as the hero. And creating a truly original villain is one of our prime challenges, mainly because readers are savvy. They’ve read all the good books, seen all the forensic shows, and can smell a Hannibal Lector rip-off a mile away.
We’ve always worked hard to make our villains full-bodied characters, especially when we delve into the serial killer sub-genre, which can be cliché quicksand. In reality, most criminals are as dumb as stumps. But the fiction writer’s task is to create a villain who is a worthy adversary for the hero, and in the best of our genre – Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley comes to mind – the villain is as complex and textured as the protagonist.
When we start a new book, we always work with themes because we believe they are the underground railroads upon which a plot runs. In our latest thriller THE KILLING SONG the theme for our hero Matt Owens is: What happens when you only look away for a moment? His beloved sister disappears from a Miami nightclub when he looks away but the theme has a deeper meaning as Matt pursues her killer.
But themes are also important in creating villains. When we started writing THE KILLING SONG, we knew our villain had to emerge from a second theme: the juxtaposition of beauty and degeneration. We decided he would be a classical musician, a man of grace and refined taste living in Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We wanted to contrast the beauty of his “upper” world with the horrors of his “lower” world of serial murder. Laurent Demarais was a violinist in our first draft but became a cellist when we realized the cello’s deeper tone just seemed to fit his personality.
But then we had to ask the hard question we ask of every character we create: What does Laurent want? On the superficial level, he wants to kill. But trying to figure out what he wanted in the deepest parts of his soul — yes, even villains have them — helped us plumb his psychological depths and make him less a cardboard monster.
Laurent Demarais wears a mask of sanity. I wish I could say that is our phrase but it is the title of a great book about psychopaths written in 1941 by a doctor named Hervey Cleckley. He concluded that killers can seem sincere, intelligent, even charming. But beneath that lies a heart incapable of human emotion.
And even today, seventy years later, that mask of sanity is a great description for the classic villain – whether it is Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s “Misery,” Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction” or even Hal the computer in “2001 Space Odyssey.”
The reviews of our book THE KILLING SONG all talk about how memorably “creepy” Laurent Demarais is, so we must have done something right. It’s said that a good thriller is a book that keeps you up at night. But a good villain? He’s that seductive specter that haunts your dreams long after you’ve closed your eyes.
P.J. Parrish is the author of the Louis Kincaid and Joe Frye series, which have been nominated for 11 major awards, including the Edgar. Their New York Times and USAToday bestselling books have won the Shamus, Anthony and Thriller awards.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at email@example.com.)