This post, by Benjamin Leroy, originally appeared on the Hey, There’s A Dead Guy in the Living Room blog on 6/28/12.
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.