Friday, June 14, 2013

Giving Villains More Depth

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
Image by Daniel Gies
Most people aren’t 100% good or 100% bad.  There are bits of goodness and badness in all of us…including villains. 
Flat villains with no dimension to them are just as uninteresting as Pollyanna protagonists. As a reader, my interest is always piqued when I get to see another side of a bad guy…if he does something unexpectedly kind, for example.  I usually wonder if there’s an ulterior motive—and wondering is good for readers. It helps keep them engaged in the story.  Even if there isn’t an ulterior motive, it’s interesting because it offers another side to the character.
In mysteries, this is especially important because we don’t know who the bad guy is until the end of the book….or we shouldn’t, if it’s a traditional mystery (thrillers operate under different rules.)  
In one of my books for Penguin, I’d turned in the manuscript for editing.  My editor emailed me back and told me that this time she’d been able to figure out who’d done it.  She pointed out that the murderer was also the most unpleasant character—that it was too obvious for readers...that they’d want that person to be the murderer, anyway, and the element of surprise would be gone.  My choices were to make the killer more likeable or to change the murderer altogether.
I decided to make the murderer more likeable (although I frequently do change the killer for my editor…in fact, I’d already changed the killer once for that very book.)  This was easier than it might sound.  I changed dialogue where the killer came off sounding snarky and made the statements sound more genuine.  I showed the killer being a good citizen. I showed the murderer helping the sleuth.  I made the killer reluctant to gossip about the other suspects. I nice-d the killer up.  Reader response later indicated that the murderer’s identity remained a secret until the end (well, some readers always guess the right suspect. Sigh.)
For non-mystery writers, showing your villain’s good side has other advantages—mainly to add complexity to the character and make them more believable.  And keeping the reader…and your protagonist…guessing is also a nice side effect.  Maybe it even gives your protagonist second thoughts about the bad guy.  It could also make the protagonist trust the antagonist again…which could make the protagonist’s life more complicated.  Confusing the protagonist could be another strategy to throw a bit of conflict in there.
Do you have any favorite multidimensional villains?  How do you like to display other sides of your antagonist?