It wasn’t until I was doing a touring a show along the east coast and Canada that I had that magical moment of falling under the spell of a villain. That villain was Shakespeare’s Richard III as portrayed by the brilliant Colm Feore. When Mr. Feore limped onto the stage and recited “Now is the winter of our discontent…” he had the audience eating out of the palm of his twisted hand. We laughed, we ooh’d, and we ahh’d at his incredible acrobatic use of the language and his voice. But more importantly, we fell in love with a character so utterly evil that when he walked on stage carrying a severed head we thought it just…for a moment.
That was when I realized how delicious a well played villain could be. Mr. Feore took a despicable character and made an audience want to cheer for him. The same thing happened with Anthony Hopkins portraying Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs that makes us, as an audience, so badly want to know the why a man or woman has become who they are. Why does Lecter eat humans? Why does Lecter get away with making us love him? Dexter? Same thing.
This begs another question –- why do we writers need to create killers or protagonists that speak to the readers minds, hearts, and emotions? Aren’t they simply evil? On the surface, yes. But creating a character built completely of malice, with nothing for the reader to connect to, will cause a story one big problem –- no one will care. Oh sure, they will care that your good guys get away…but any connection a reader might possibly make with the bad guy is gone.
Let’s take a look at an historical character often thought of as the single most evil human to ever grace the earth –- Hitler. There is not doubt that the acts Hitler committed were despicable. But when you learn he was beaten as a child, ruled by an iron-fisted father, was an artist, and lived most of his life a vegetarian you (or the reader) all of a sudden might want to know more. Without those “humanizing” bits of information the man is nothing more than a monster and no one would be willing to invest in getting to know the why. Not that those elements, in any way, give a man that committed such atrocities any sympathy. But it does add an element of curiosity to the mixture.
What drove him to do what he did?
That human element is key. No matter how evil, violent, or malicious a killer is, they must have a hook (not literally…unless said killer is Candyman) that allows that killer to wend its way into the readers conscience. These “hooks” are not always easy to incorporate believably, but they are a must. For me, the best way to achieve some level of humanity in a serial killer is to consider the very moment of the killer’s past that allowed them to kill. Once I have that key moment I work my way backwards. Let me give you an example. In my book A Blade Away I discovered, during the creation of Lakme, the moment that caused him to want to kill was when he (as a young boy) witnessed the death of his mother at the hands of his physically and sexually abusive father. At that point, the young man had to stop his father from doing any further damage to the world, which allowed the young boy to release years of pain upon his drunken father.
It was at that moment I realized, as a child, Lakme had been so abused by his father, the reader would at least be able to extend the reach of sympathy for the child that became the killer. The audience could “see” how the man became the killer and, on some level, think I would do the same thing.
Killers are tricky to write. If you create a one dimensional protagonist, no one will care. If you create too many dimensions the character’s motives and actions become confusing. The single most important element for a killer (or protagonist), from the writer’s perspective, is humanity. If a killer does not seem human the audience will have nothing to connect to. If the audience is unable to connect they will not read. If the audience doesn’t read…you get the idea.
No man or woman is born evil. The beaten housewife that murders her husband. The tortured prisoner that wipes out his captors. The shipwrecked church group forced to cannibalize one another to survive. These atrocious acts seem justified to the reader, because the reader can relate, thanks to the given circumstances. But Imagine a Hannibal Lecter that wasn’t captured by Nazi’s and forced to watch as they murdered and cannibalize his sister. Imagine a Dexter who only cared about the kill and not cleaning the streets of the criminals the system over looks. Those characters all of a sudden are nothing more than horribly malicious men with no humanity for us to connect to. Evil, hatred, or malice without cause is a recipe for disaster very few writers can overcome.
Creating a believable killer is no easy feat. Even the most despicable men and women were, at one point, human beings that loved and were loved. Those connections must be made in order for big bad nasties to be believable.
I do enjoy creating a good killer. Although those around me tend to offer up that look when I describe my latest madman, I know, so long as I craft them carefully, those killers will give life to my books the good guys can’t touch.