Last week’s attempt at a slightly inflammatory title and opening line seemed to go over well enough, so I’m back again this week, desperately clinging to the same formula. Even though this is all about bad guys and violence, I’m certainly not advocating socking somebody in your writers’ group because their writing doesn’t live up to the subjective literary code outlined below.
Quick digression using professional wrestling as a reference point.
In the parlance of the professional wrestling industry the phrase “to get heat” means that a bad guy gets booed. There are two kinds of heat relevant to this discussion. The first is the kind you want—you want the audience to “hate” the bad guy, salivating to see him get his comeuppance. The second kind is when the marketing department has shoved some wrestler down the audience’s collective throat, the wrestler’s personality doesn’t click with the audience, and when the crowd boos, it can be translated to something like, “Get the hell off my tv. You’re annoying and I’m going to turn the channel because you suck.”
We’re going to be talking about how to avoid the “Get the Hell off my TV” kind of heat.
As you’d probably guess, I read a lot of query letters, sample pages, and every now and again, full novels. I also have the good fortune of meeting writers at conferences all across the country. And, because I deal primarily in crime fiction, I see a lot of bad guys. If I were in a different field, the antagonist might be nature or something more abstract, but mine is the domain of black hatted, curly mustachioed, slightly accented villains. Here are some things I see too often that make me hate your villain.
(1) Evil Because He's Crazy Because He's Evil – Sometimes I’ll be sitting at a conference rapping with Author X and the conversation will turn to the novel he’s working on tentatively called Extreme Absolute Justice or something like that. Here’s a sample of how the conversation goes:
Author X: My protagonist, Everchance Purity, is an FBI agent trailing notorious serial killer, The Waxahachie Ax Hacker, when…
Me: The who?
Author X: The Waxahachie Ax Hacker.
Me: Why is he a serial killer?
Author X: Because he’s craaaazy!
Me: Why is he crazy?
Author X: Because he’s a serial killer…
This circular logic and the subsequent chase around the tree is much less thrilling to the audience than Author X thinks. I’m going to need a little bit more from the “what’s my motivation?” department. Also, I’ve met a bunch of straight up criminals in my life, but I’ve never met one yet that didn’t have some upside somewhere. Funny. Good storytellers. Artists. Can pluck a guitar some. Obviously these traits don’t excuse crimes, but they also indicate a little more depth. I want to see that in all bad guys.
(2) All That for This? – Occasionally I’ll really be enjoying the cat/mouse between good guy and bad guy, trusting the author to layout character motivation, I’ll totally understand the protagonist and his struggle for survival. Who will win this battle of wills? But then it turns out the bad guy is going through all of this chase—at great cost to personal treasure and time—because of some totally ridiculous trigger. “You stole my girlfriend in high school, now I’ve spent $300,000 and risked a lifetime of prison to follow you around the world to blow up your ski chalet in Zurich!” Oh, Emo Villain, your broken heart could have done so much more.
(3) Central Casting Called, They Want Their Cardboard Back – Four day stubble? Yup. Smoking a cigarette in a knit cap while leering from behind the wheel of a dented cargo van? Check. Say things like, “You’re all gonna pay, you meddling kids!” Sure thing, Scooby Doo. I understand that sometimes we use archetypal descriptions to help the reader along, but sometimes we get a smidge lazy. And if you’re going to be lazy with the writing, maybe I’m going to be lazy with the reading. Thankfully, the garbage man has a job to do, and the chain of laziness can be broken. Hooray!
(4) Actually, I Won't Be Sad if He Stabs Your Protagonist in the Throat – This goes back to last week’s post about why I may or may not like the hero of a book. In this particular case, if Author X’s goal is to establish a dynamic of good v. evil and I find myself rooting for evil (and not just because I want to be a contrarian jerk) because he’s more sympathetic than your protagonist, we’ve got a problem, Houston. Plenty of books, especially the ones I like to read, have a whole lot of grey area when it comes to good and bad. In those cases I might find myself hoping the antagonist triumphs. But the author has more than likely gone into the project with a “nobody is perfect, we’re all varying degrees of flawed. This guy is the protagonist only because I’m writing from his POV” approach. Is your supposed to be bad guy becoming the anti-hero we cheer because he’s legit cooler than your protagonist? Was that your intention?
(5) Pass Me the Mic, I Need the Last Word – There is a time for talk and a time for action. When your, presumably, greatest foe is at the end of a gun, the yakkety yak business is over. As there is likely little satisfaction in delivering a monologue to an audience that cannot provide a review (because, you know, they’re dead), really what the hell is the point of going on at great length about all of the clever and devious things you’ve done in your quest to vanquish him? Oh, there isn’t one? Right. So leave that scene out even if it turns out that your almost dead hero has risen, zombie Bruce Lee style, to kick out some justice before the soliloquy is finished. This is hubris.
Confession: I’m something of a deviant.
I’ve long been fascinated with historically infamous people. Musicians. Killers. Athletes. In fact, the very publishing company I run is named after one of Major League Baseball’s great boogeymen—Tyrus “Ty” Cobb. By most folks’ accounts, Cobb was a ball of rage prone to violence both on and off the field, including one fateful day when he ran into the crowd to beat the hell out of a heckler, stomping on the armless fellow with his cleats.
If that were the sum total of Cobb’s story, I’d be glad I wasn’t in the stands when he played and I don’t suppose I’d care too much one way or the other about him. But there are other layers to the Cobb story.
Perhaps most notably, Cobb’s mother killed his father, the only man whose respect and acceptance Cobb craved. The killing occurred weeks before Cobb would be called up to the Major Leagues to play professional baseball for the Detroit Tigers, and, as Cobb would later confess, he played his whole career with the ghost of his father on his heels, propelling him. There was never, for Cobb, a chance to gain the acceptance and approval he sought. All of the records set and the legendary feats ultimately didn’t mean enough. There is something hugely fascinating about a story like that to a degenerate like me.
Your bad guy can and should have depth.
Enough for me to love him. Enough for me to hate him. Enough for me to want him to stay on my tv.
For more ramblings about publishing and life visit my website Adventure 'til Death.