I have a hard time writing villains.
Last week, I told you about some of the characters with whom I especially identified when I was growing up (and for some time after). You might have noticed that none of that bunch, which included a bear, a rabbit, a Russian spy and a comedy writer, was badly behaved. At least in the classical sense.
Actors always talk about how they love to play the bad guy because they're so much more nuanced and fun than the straight arrows. Women drool over the "bad boys" and leave the theater with their husbands, who are usually accountants named Harry. Writers who aren't me will tell you how much fun it is to indulge their darker impulses by writing characters who have no moral compass.
I can't do that. Or at least, I feel like it's not the best part of my game.
The spectacular Shannon Jamieson Vazquez, who has edited my last seven novels, has told me more than once that I'm the only crime novelist she knows who doesn't want to kill anyone, even fictional people. I'm always lobbying to reveal that the victim really isn't all that dead at the end of the book. Shannon talks me out of it every time with, you know, facts and being right.
(I'm more than halfway through the next book, Shannon, and when you get back to your office in a couple of months, I'm going to have a real doozy for you. I'm not sure I know if I mean that in a good way or not.)
I have some difficulty--and always have--understanding the motivations of those who feel compelled to ignore laws and some (certainly not all) social mores. Even as a kid, I'd see the villain of some little kid's show and wonder aloud, "Why would they want to do that?
Captain Hook got his hand bitten off. Granted, that's pretty serious and would put a major crimp in anyone's month; I get it. I wouldn't want m hand bitten off, either. But to decide then that the little boy who orchestrated it (Peter didn't, after all, bite off the hand himself) had to die and Hook had to devote his life to killing him? Can someone get this guy a Xanax?
Wicked Witch of the West? Well, when "Wicked" is your first name, what kind of chance did you have? Did this girl's parents think they were being daring and unconventional?
Killing someone? If the person in question isn't coming after one of my children with a knife, I can't begin to imagine it. Even then, I'd probably aim for the knees.
So when it comes to writing believable, motivated, interesting murderers (which, let's face it, is something a good murder mystery should have), I have, um, something of a difficulty. As in: to my ear, they always sound like they should be twirling a handlebar moustache and kicking a cute puppy. While tieing a damsel (When's the last time you met a damsel?) to railroad tracks.
Because, come on. If you found out your spouse was, how shall we say, stepping out on you, you'd get mad. And you'd think about divorce maybe. Perhaps you'd be the sensitive type and suggest couples therapy. Maybe you'd really go nuts and throw their stuff out on the lawn.
Murder? Doesn't leap to mind as a first option.
Let's say someone screwed you over in a business deal. The civil court system is full of these cases. You could try, perhaps, stepping out with that person's spouse just to get even. (I don't recommend it, but I'm just guessing.) You could start a new great business, buy that person's business, and fire them. Or you might go for the more-immediate but less-grandiose, bag of flaming dog poop on the porch.
Revenge, sex, money, real estate deals--I've used 'em all. I've concocted plots that will make you plotz in an effort to justify some lunatic I've made up killing another person I"ve made up. I've had wives swapped, toupees transplanted, plots covered up, marriages exploded and estates disputed. And so far, I have killed at least 12 fictional people, with plans to do in at least a couple more, publishing industry willing.
But the fact of the matter is, I haven't honestly bought it when any one of them explained his/her motivation. I've always thought, "Really? You couldn't come up with a less permanent option? There wasn't some agreement you could reach? This was the only idea you had?"
Luckily, the trick in writing is not so much believing it yourself (I write about ghosts) so much as it's about making other people believe it. So I've gotten good at making these homicidal maniacs I write about seem like they have a good motivation--or at least one they think is good--to do what they do. It's something of a challenge every time I hatch one of these plots, and I've done it enough times now that I'm actually finding ways to make it work more naturally.
It has a lot to do with misdirection and the shift of focus onto the main character, who usually narrates the book and hopefully is one who really has a reasonable point of view. And of course not making the killer so completely unrealistic that they appear to have parachuted in from another book.
It's possible, just possible, that I don't have the right attitude in these matters. Or maybe it's my felonious characters who aren't getting it right, and I'm the sane one here.
I doubt it, but it's possible.