My kind of villain

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Readers of crime novels need great heroes. Writers of crime novels need great villains.

The villain’s crime brings the story into being. Villains provide the tension and suspense and surprise. They challenge society’s rules. They bring the fear. But I am not interested in writing about “alien” villains, some personification of Death. I want to write about villains that will feel familiar to us: Those who have let the forces of death in this world begin to rot their souls.

Take the villain of my crime thriller, Felonious Jazz, Leonard Noblac. Short, white guy. Mid- to late-40s. Scruffy beard. Snap-brim cap. Could be another kid’s dad at soccer practice. Would look at his feet and answer quietly, politely, blandly if you said hi to him in line at the supermarket.

What he’d never tell you is that he’s been working since he was a teenager to master the jazz bass fiddle. Wanted to be famous playing it. Lived in New York for more than 15 years, but could never make it past cocktail-hour gigs in hotel lounges. A technically proficient player who can hear a complicated bass line one time and play it for you perfectly. But too tight, too fearful to open himself to the most magical aspect of jazz: improvisation.

Leonard’s wife finally gets him to leave New York, move to the Raleigh, N.C., suburbs. He detests the place. Leonard’s so grumpy and difficult after their infant son is born that she divorces him. And that’s when Leonard, after spending a few weeks too many inside his own head, composes a jazz album of felonies: Musical compositions with companion crimes that will show his wife and everyone all that’s wrong with the soulless burbs. Crimes so brutal they’ll finally get everyone’s attention, maybe make them focus on Leonard’s music.

Leonard’s my kind of villain. Not a psychopathic serial killer, some genetic freak missing the sense of morality you and I share (thought lots of my friends have written great books with them as villains). No, I like villains who are the person you or I could become if we made some bad choices, gave into our base, animal impulses, made a few moral compromises in a row. Because those villains are complicated to deal with. We can see how wrong their actions are, but we can understand uncomfortably well how they got to the point of taking them, how they built a ladder of rationalizations leading them to their crimes.

It’s the universal, fundamental human fear: What if I can’t handle it? What if I just snap one day?

I was struck while narrating the new audiobook recording of Felonious Jazz by how systematically Lenoard misinterprets the thoughts, motives, and actions of others. He’s certain others are happy and satisfied when they’re miserable. He’s sure someone’s slighting, judging, or criticizing him when they’ve barely thought about him. He’s spent so much time ruminating on his problems — selfishly fixating on himself — that his logic is bent.

Let’s have a discussion in the comments: Who are the most haunting villains you’ve run across in  books, movies, or TV? Or are there real criminals? What got you so emotionally tangled up with them?

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This article has 6 comments

  1. Elizabeth 05/02/2011, 3:04 pm:

    The most haunting villain I ever encountered in literature was the demon in the Exorcist. I never saw the movie. Instead, when I was a teenager, I picked up the book at the library. Knowing my parents would never in a million years let me watch the movie, I thought I could circumvent their authority by reading the book.

    I wish I hadn’t.

    The funny thing about books, movies, and TV is that once it’s in your head, it’s in there forever. No Undo. No Erase. No Cut.

    I started reading the book after I’d finished my homework, about 9pm at night. And I read. And read. And read. And read. Until finally that demon was done in at 5 a.m. the next morning.

    The villainy of the demon manifested itself in so many horrendous and (previously) unthinkable ways. It introduced me to ideas, and concepts that had never knocked on my imagination before. Now I know. The power of the demon to control not only the child, but the mother through the fear he stimulated from the pounding noises in the walls (which coincided with a helicopter flying over my house and scared the dickens out of me) to the grotesque things he did with sacred objects and to sacred people kept me riveted to my bed–tied– too afraid to cross the room to turn off the light and face the darkness.

    I finished the book in a marathon night of heart-racing reading but I couldn’t sleep for many nights afterwards. And although the years have deadened the feelings of horror, anxiety, and fear of the dark, I will never forget the imagery of what that demon did to that child– it is forever imprinted in my mind from reading a book.

    • Bryan 05/02/2011, 3:46 pm:

      Wow — sounds almost traumatic. Are you glad you read it, Elizabeth?

      I think chilling books can often do just what you say, which is to tap into and exploit our existing anxieties. In the church I grew up with, the forces of Satan were something I was primed to be concerned about, so I think The Exorcist would have hit me the same way if I’d read it then.

      • Elizabeth 05/02/2011, 4:00 pm:

        If I could undo what I read I would. Although I have heard that no matter how bad it is, knowledge is bitter bread, I think there are some breads that are so bitter and so low in their “nutritional value” that they are essentially more harmful that useful. I guess it’s interesting to think there are books/shows we shouldn’t experience, but I would think for every individual, there might be things they wish they didn’t know about and are no better for knowing it. That’s how I feel about the Exorcist. But I can only feel that way because I have read it. Ironic.

    • Darnesha 07/25/2011, 4:33 am:

      You know what, I’m very much inclined to agree.

  2. Cindy 05/31/2011, 8:45 pm:

    To me, villains aren’t particularly interesting unless there’s a little light in their darkness, some tantalizing hint that a human is inside the monster. I’m a sci fi/fantasy geek, so indulge me a bit. . . To me, the great villain in Tolkien’s work is Saruman, not Sauron. Saruman is oh-so-human, and strangely tragic in the end. And look at Star Wars – Vader is an infinitely better villain than the Emperor because the Emperor lacks Vader’s complexity, the Emperor was never good (per the movies – Star Wars geeks out there don’t burn me please), and the Emperor has no hope of redemption. Moving on from there, one of my favorite villains, and the best reason to read JK Rowling, is Snape. Maybe I like the complex villains because I like to think there’s a possible redemption at the end, some hope, some reason to continue to read because the next time he or she is standing on the cusp, about to commit some heinous act, there’s the sense that it’s not a foregone conclusion — there’s a decision to be made, and maybe the bad guy will finally make the right decision instead. Without that suspense, villains can become boring. Not that there aren’t some good purely evil villains in literature and movies, but they’re just not as interesting to me.

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