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Friday, 21 December 2012

Get the bad guy right

Clive West

Enter the cafe: VBT
Have I missed a comma out in my title? I think not.

Ask yourself what the following have in common:

  • A fairy tale
  • A romance
  • A horror story
  • A police procedural
  • A Victorian melodrama
  • A children's play
  • A spaghetti western
... and so on.

The answer is that such stories, disparate as they may be in content, style and demographics, will almost certainly possess a truly despicable villain. The only question is whether that villain lives in a house in the forest and gobbles up lost children or whether they've seduced our beautiful and headstrong heroine at the time of her greatest vulnerability.

But what really makes a good villain?

Naturally the specifics relate to the book itself but there are many lessons to be learned from popular culture - not just of our generation but also of our recent ancestors. Look at the logic behind what was possible not so many years ago because, as a species, we haven't significantly changed in the meantime. In bygone days, theatre audiences weren’t able to see much of the stage, by-and-large wouldn't be particularly well educated, and would universally want something that they could let off steam over. To coin a phrase, they wanted someone to boo and the louder the better.

From a modern writer’s perspective, the first decision to be taken is whether to have multiple villains or a single one. If the answer's 'a number' then the next question is from the book's perspective - are you going to see things from the point-of-view of the heroes or the villains? If it's the former then the villains should possess minimal individual characteristics as giving them too much personality will reduce their effectiveness; the reader will begin to identify with them.

If you’re going to write from the point of view of the bad guys then, yes, you do need to develop their characters and this is where you can have some fun. As with the principle of theatre, it's perfectly permissible to go a little bit over the top. The reader isn't likely to want someone who's a 'bit on the bad side' doing things which 'aren't very nice'. They want someone really evil doing mind-bogglingly horrible stuff. NB this doesn't mean a splatter-fest - there needn't be an ounce of gore in the storyline for this criterion to be fully satisfied. Your truly bad guy can be the evil seducer or the wicked witch just as easily as they can be the mad psychopath or the bandito with the bad teeth and an even worse attitude.

With a group of bad guys try hard to think of something which links them. Don't forget that altruism won't figure highly on their agenda so come up with a good reason why they stick together - e.g. through fear, greed, power etc. The higher the level of 'bad-ness', the stronger the glue you're going to need to hold them together so work on this before you start putting 'pen to paper'.

A book without a solitary bad guy is likely to be insipid yet a book without a good guy isn’t of necessity a bad read. This is because we still like to be able to boo our villains – good and loud.

Now, there's a message there somewhere.

The Road
Every crime has its victim.

Amazon UK

 Amazon US

  • The Giddings family - enjoying their rural idyll until events start to spiral out of their control turning paradise into hell.
  • Henry - trapped in a loveless marriage who sees a chance to climb on board the gravy train for a one-way ticket out of misery but doesn't want to know about the consequences of his actions.
  • Sandra - frustrated by a system where the rich get richer and the poor pay to get a ringside seat.
  • John - a shrewd developer who knows all the tricks and is the guy flicking the switch when the smelly stuff hits the fan.
  • The parasites and hangers on, too numerous to mention, who abuse their positions of trust to feather their own nests but who are outraged when those lower down the pecking order try to do the same.
Clive West was born in the West Country of England in the early 60s. He was educated at a traditional English public school before going on to university to study civil engineering. Over the years, he has worked as a civil engineer, tutor of maths and science, schools quiz-master, employment agency boss, and writer.

His work also includes a collection of short stories with twists called Hobson's Choice (also available in print), and a book about lymphedema: a disfiguring, life-threatening and incurable disease, which he suffers from. He enjoys playing the keyboard, listening to music and reading.

Clive lives in a rebuilt farmhouse in the Umbrian region of Italy along with Damaris, his writer wife of 22 years and their three rescue dogs. Apart from his fictional work, Clive also writes commercial non-fiction on a variety of topics but especially relating to business and employment. He and Damaris run an indie publishers called Any Subject Books Ltd

© Clive West

Excerpt from The Road

Caroline and Stuart Giddings knocked on the door, and hearing a vague ‘Come in’ sound from beyond, opened it and entered. Sitting behind a large ancient desk was their member of parliament, Charles Milton, a tall, wiry-haired man of indeterminate age although probably in his mid to late forties. Stuart immediately thought that he looked the sort of person whom you could drop head first into a pile of manure and who would come out absolutely devoid of any trace of the substance while you and anyone around you would be completely plastered in the stuff. Still, he wasn’t there to befriend them, he was there to listen to their grievances and act on them.
Stuart had suggested that before Caroline get too involved with RIM, the two of them pay a visit to their MP and see if he had any power or urge to champion their cause. Deep down, Stuart was sceptical but he was pleased that Caroline had definitely brightened up when he had made the suggestion a few days prior. The children were at school and Stuart had arranged for a colleague to cover two of his lessons. This was important.
At their MP’s gesture, they seated themselves in two upholstered office chairs. Caroline crossed her legs which made her side-slit pencil skirt ride up. She didn’t seem the slightest bit self-conscious of the amount of leg she was showing but Stuart’s bum squirmed uneasily on its cushion.
“Thank you for seeing us at short notice. My name is Caroline Giddings and this is my husband, Stuart,” Caroline offered by way of introduction.
“My pleasure, my pleasure. Nice to meet you both. What can I do for you good people?” Stuart noticed that Milton’s eyes had addressed the question to his wife’s legs rather than to their faces. The man had a predatory look about him.
“We’d like to talk about this new road and the effect it will have on us,” Caroline continued. Stuart had decided he would let her do the majority of the talking – it might help her get some of it off her chest and at least if nothing came of it, she couldn’t say he hadn’t asked the right questions. Women could do that – sit beside you while you chatted away, not saying anything themselves. Then, when it was too late, they were perfectly capable of criticising you for not having said something important.
“Fire away,” Milton’s eyes had travelled up Caroline’s torso and he was now staring at her bust. Stuart already despised the man. Still, beggars couldn’t be choosers. He bit his tongue.
Caroline seemed oblivious – she was very clearly caught up with the matter at hand or perhaps she just enjoyed her figure being admired. “Well, we’ve just discovered that not only are we about to lose all of our trees, they are going to build houses right up close to our home.”
“Mmm, yes. I’m afraid there are always casualties when a new development of this size goes through.” Milton paused and reflected while they waited patiently for whatever pearls of wisdom he could lay at their feet. “I don’t mean to be negative but have you considered putting your house up for sale?” he eventually asked.
“Yes, and the estate agent told us that because of the high number of new houses that will be flooding the market and also because our house will be losing its view, we will struggle to sell it. He also said we will have loads of – what is it called Stuart?” Caroline turned to him.
“Negative equity,” Stuart chipped in.
“Mmm, yes. I see the dilemma. Perhaps you should try other estate agents – see if they view the picture differently.” Stuart noticed that his body language had changed. When they had first arrived it had been expansive and, supposedly, welcoming. Now Milton’s arms had folded across his chest and he was making outward movements with his hands. ‘Go away – it’s not my problem,’ in other words.
© Clive West

Hobson’s Choice and 15 other twist-in-the-tail short stories

Amazon US
Amazon UK
This is a collection of stories whose endings you can try to predict, but you will almost always get it wrong. From the lottery-winner who inspires enmity in his neighbour, to the fraudulent fortune-teller discovering that she has a psychic gift after all, to the down-trodden schoolboy whose 'daydreams' reveal a crime which he then uses all his ingenuity to expose, a huge range of characters walk through these pages.

Some of them are innocent; others, like the greedy property-developer, border on evil; but most of them are human with all the foibles and self-interest inherent in that condition. To read these stories is to share in the author's jaundiced view of the world - a world nonetheless illuminated by flashes of humour, pathos and warmth. You will be hugging yourself with glee at the 'comeuppance' doled out to some characters, and wishing you could dive into the story to give a timely warning to others. You will certainly be turning the pages rapidly to see what happens …

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