How many times have you watched a film or television show, or read a book and been just a little bit in love with one of the bad guys? Think Sean Bean in Patriot Games, Richard Armitage’s unbelievably sexy Guy of Gisborne in the BBC’s Robin Hood, or even Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, who wasn’t exactly the type of boy you’d taken home to meet your mother.
Now I realise I’m talking from a woman’s point of view here. For a guy – I don’t know? Are there that many femme-fatale characters? Or even just out-and-out bad-girls? Catwoman might be the obvious choice and I don’t know a bloke yet who hasn’t eyed-up Halle Berry, Michelle Pfeiffer or any other incarnation of the feline villainess.
But usually the bad-boy (or girl) is the antagonist in a story, the one who we’re rooting against – even if we do secretly fancy them. What about when this character is the protagonist? That gets a lot harder to write. How do you create and convey empathy for a truly evil person?
I was lurking online recently (I’m very good at procrastination and displacement activity) and I read a forum thread where somebody mentioned they were writing a novel from the point of view of a serial killer. And I’m instantly thinking how? Now I’ve read lots of crime and thriller books where there’s a scene from the point of view of the killer – but we’re not expected to love him, or empathise with him; the scene is usually there to heighten tension – to let us know exactly what’s in store for our poor hero or heroine. But to write a whole novel from the point of view of a killer is a whole different ballgame.
Anti-heroes are incredibly hard to do. To engage a reader, you need to make them care about a character and that’s nigh-on impossible if they’re busy plotting rape, murder and God-knows what else. You can’t even gloss over it because that’s what defines them in the context of the story.
Or is it? Nobody is born evil. To overturn a famous Shakespeare quote: Most people have evilness thrust upon them, or in other words, there is a reason for their behaviour. And if you can get inside their heads and explore that reason, you can create motivation for their actions and eventually empathy for the character.
In my second crime thriller Paying the Piper, I introduced a minor character, bad-boy Lenny. I never meant him to be anything more than a bit-player, but he grew in importance and became a driving force in the next book Calling the Tune. He deals drugs, was running a London estate in his teens and keeps a well-used Glock in his kitchen drawer. But towards the end of the book there was a short conversation between him and the really bad guys and suddenly everything fell into place and I knew where he came from and what made him tick. And by the end of the book I wanted to explore him further and tell his story.
So began Rat’s Tale. This was the first time I’d got inside the head of somebody who admits to having killed someone and tried to make the reader empathise with him. It wasn’t easy to do and there were some difficult scenes but I think I did him justice – especially towards the end of the book where even Lenny himself starts to question everything he’s believed in.
I learned a lot. There’ll be another one, I think, when I’ve had time to breathe!
by Debbie Bennett