Showing posts with label villains. Show all posts
Showing posts with label villains. Show all posts

27 April 2020

How Low Will You Go?


Over the last two weeks, I've joined several other Connecticut crime writers on two podcasts from the Storyteller's Cottage in Simsbury. I've touted the venue before and love working with them. Now they're trying to keep their programs for writers functioning during the shutdown, and Lisa Natcharian invited several of us to discuss villains in our stories. I'll post the link to the podcast when it's edited and live, probably sometime in May.
Lisa came up with some provocative questions, and the topic for today is "How much evil can readers tolerate and how do you decide when to rein in a dark character?"

Her question made me look at my own writing again. I've sold nearly 30 short stories (a good week for Michael Bracken or John Floyd), and about half of them are from the bad guy's POV or have her/him getting away with it. Most of those stories involve revenge or poetic justice, and I seldom have a REALLY horrible person go scot-free. The comments on my website and Facebook Page indicate that readers like those stories, and some are among my special favorites.

Revisiting my novels, I was surprised to find how nasty some of my villains are, probably because I've worried lately that both my series characters are becoming more domestic in their private lives. Maybe I've done that unconsciously to contrast the "normal" and the dark side. But when I look at the bestseller lists, it's not just me.

If you look at those lists, you'll find Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Meg Gardiner, Lisa Gardner, Laura Lippman, S. J. Rozan, Robert Crais, Stephen King, Harlan Coban, Tana French, Dennis Lehane, Don Winslow, Alison Gaylin, and a slew of other excellent writers, all of whom go deep. When I think back to the 90s, maybe the first book and film to come to mind is Silence of the Lambs, which presents two twisted villains.

I don't remember the last time I saw a cozy mystery on the list.

One of my undergrad history professors from days of yore said the best way to understand the minds and values of a civilization was to look at their popular arts. Plays, music, stories. . .

Remember, in Shakespeare's time, his most popular play was Titus Andronicus, which I usually describe as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in blank verse. It was a time of political turmoil, and his plays reflected that.



One of the other writers on the podcast said her readers know she won't get violent and won't use much profanity. Obviously, if you write cozies, your body count is lower. She doesn't read my books because she thought one of my covers was objectionable.

Maybe my readers want darker stories to help them cope with the real world, the way we tell ghost stories around the campfire. Remember Shakespeare's observation in King Lear:  "The worst is not/ So long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'"

Think of the Brothers Grimm, too. The original version of Cinderella involves the wicked stepsisters cutting off toes to make their feet fit the glass slipper, and birds pecking out those same stepsisters' eyes on their way to and from Cindy's wedding. The Greek tragedies wallow in gore.

Ditto slasher flicks, like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
We want to go waist-deep in the big bloody. Aristotle talked about catharsis. Maybe he's right. Maybe we've always been enticed by the horrific and crave a release. Maybe my history professor was right, too.

My most recent novels involve a serial killer who leaves the bodies of street people in abandoned buildings in Detroit, a cold case involving five people murdered in a home invasion, and a serial rapist. I think that as I watch the current social and political situation deteriorate, my inherited pessimism has become even stronger and it's coming out in my writing. Or maybe I do it to show that my life is nowhere near as bad as that of my characters. All I know is when I sit down at the keyboard, this is what comes out.

The book I'm vaguely resurrecting has a main character who is an alcoholic with an abusive husband, and I re-discovered things that excited me when I re-read scenes I had forgotten long ago. My last few short stories are darker, too. As long as people buy them, I'll keep going because people seem to need them.

When do I rein these characters in? I don't.

What's in YOUR holster right now?

30 April 2018

Smile and Be a Villain


By sad coincidence, two of our cats died several years apart on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday. Last week, the Bard turned 454 (I didn't send a card) and his plays still merit constant performances the world over. Shakespeare thought he would be remembered for his poems (except for the sonnets, only slightly better than John Dillinger's) and retired at age 47 a relatively wealthy man, especially for a writer.
It's easy to talk about his brilliant images and use of symbols and all that high-school-worksheet stuff, but his plays would live on anyway because he wrote brilliant conflicted characters, especially his villains. He constantly reminds us that everyone needs a goal or motive, especially the bad guys. They aren't just "bad by nature"--although Don John claims that he is in Much Ado About Nothing.

In King Lear, Edmund tells us he's standing up for bastards,
but he's jealous because his little brother Edgar, born of married parents, will inherit Gloucester's estate even though he's younger than Edmund. Jealously and sibling rivalry are powerful forces. Look at the women in the same play: Goneril and Regan want their father Lear's estate, but the younger Cordelia is daddy's favorite...until she can't flatter him enough and he kicks her out with the tragically incorrect proclamation that nothing will come of nothing. Actually, it will lead to at least eight deaths.

The older sibs in both families are monsters, but we understand why they lie, stab servants, commit adultery, scheme against each other, plan to murder their spouses, and tear out Gloucester's eyes. The sins of the fathers live on in the children. Lear may be my favorite Shakespearean play and I'd love to direct it if I thought I could find fourteen strong actors in community theater. Unfortunately, age is a factor for at least three men, and the women are stuck as Goody Two-Shoes and the Bitches, a darker version of Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Macbeth is the only other Shakespeare play still on my directing bucket list (I've directed six)--if I could find an appropriate time period that hasn't been recycled into cliche and decide how to present the witches (I've considered young, nubile, scantily clad and dimly lit because they personify temptation, Macbeth's loss of innocence). Macbeth is a war hero who goes to hell in blank verse because those bearded sisters offer him a tempting look at the future and he makes the mistake of telling his wife. His fall gives us two of my favorite monologues, the "If 'twere done when 'tis done" speech as he contemplates murdering Duncan and the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" tour de force while the walls buckle around him. That speech also gives us "it is a tale full of sound and fury, told by idiot, signifying nothing."

Lady Macbeth is a difficult role to play (I've seen it done badly more often than not), but the actors or directors miss the point. Lady M is the forerunner of the modern groupie, and power is her aphrodisiac. Listen to the rhythms of her "come you spirits of the night" speech and you'll hear her bare her soul.

Iago feels Othello has unfairly passed him over for promotion, so he vows revenge, always a clear motive. He sizes up Othello as a man who loves his wife so much that he will believe the worst, and turns innuendo into high art when he "suggests" that Desdemona and Cassio are intimate. His attention to a handkerchief makes Professor Moriarty and Snidely Whiplash look like Boy Scouts.

I've played Claudius, the adulterous uncle/step-father in Hamlet. He loves Gertrude so much he kills his own brother to be with her, but his futile prayers ("My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./Words without thought never to heaven go.") show he knows he's still going straight to hell.
Hamlet stabs him with the envenomed epee and pours the poisoned chalice down his throat (talk about overkill) to hasten him on his way. His "Oh, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven" speech is  as powerful as his stepson's monologues, but seldom quoted.

Technically, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice isn't a villain so much as a victim, but he makes his case to Antonio and Bassanio when they "cut" the deal for Antonio's pound of flesh. "You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog, / And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine..."
Rehearsal shot (note unpainted floor) from my 2006 Merchant

They don't write them like that anymore.

'Tis true, 'tis pity, and, pity 'tis, 'tis true.


As a footnote, tonight is Walpurgisnacht, the night the demons walk. It's the night the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream wander in the woods before getting everything sorted out for their weddings along with Theseus on May Day.

And, as BSP, my story "The Girl in the Red Bandanna" appears in the latest issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, along with a story by our late blog partner, B. K. Stevens.

23 April 2018

Living on the Wild Side:
Or, How to Create a Believable Villain


I met Charles Salzberg last October when we were on a panel at Bouchercon in Toronto.

Charles is the author of the Shamus nominated Swann's Last Song, as well as Swann Dives In, Swann's Lake of Despair and Swann's Way Out. His Devil in the Hole, was named one of the best crime novels of 2013 by Suspense magazine. His novella, "Twist of Fate," is included in Triple Shot, a collection of three crime novellas, and his novel, Second Story Man, was published in March by Down and Out Books. He teaches writing for the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a Founding Member and he is on the board of MWA-NY. He also has my undying envy because he co-wrote Soupy Sez: My Zany Life and Times, the memoir of the late great Soupy Sales.

Usually when I invite a guest to write for us I give the following example: "Don't write 'Buy my wonderful book.' Write 'How do you make a convincing villain? In my new book…'" When I read the terrific piece below I was afraid Charles had taken my example as a command, but he assured me it was what he wanted to write about anyway.

— Robert Lopresti

by Charles Salzberg

I’ve spent most of my life trying to stay out of trouble. As a kid, I left that to my brother, who spent a good part of his life in the principal’s office. Periodically, my mother would be called into school and presented with a list of my brother’s wrongdoings. Nothing serious, you understand. Just enough to get under the teacher’s skin.

Me, I coasted through under the radar. I was the good one. The one who never got into trouble. The one who spent his time trying to please adults. Obeying the all the rules. Speaking only when spoken to. Keeping my nose clean. Yeah, that was me.

On the social scene, I was a dud. It was the “bad boys” who got the attention, especially from the girls. The only thing that prevented me from disappearing completely into the woodwork was that I was good at sports.

I always wondered what it would be like to be one of the bad boys. You know the type. James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who when asked, “What are you rebelling against,” answered, “What’ve you got?” Paul Newman in Hud. Sean Penn in just about anything.

Trouble was, I didn’t think I’d ever find out, because that obey the rules thing seemed to be branded into my DNA. I couldn’t be bad, even if I wanted to.

But, as it turns out, I was wrong. I can be bad. All I need is someone else’s name and a blank sheet of paper.

That’s probably why I take so much glee in writing villains. But anyone who’s tried, knows it isn’t easy. What I mean is, anyone can write a villain, but to write a good one, one that isn’t the stereotypical bad actor, like Hannibal Lector, for instance, one that jumps off the page and haunts your dreams, takes skill.

You’d think it would be difficult for someone who was the “good boy,” all his life. But it’s not. In fact, it comes surprisingly easy and, I should be ashamed to say this but I’m not, it’s fun.

Writing villains isn’t easy. A true villain isn’t just someone who does bad stuff. A true villain, one that stays with the reader, is a complex character and the evil he or she does emanates directly from that character. I’m not talking about the “I’m gonna blow up the world” guy who hates everyone. Or the guy who cheats and steals for personal gain. Or the woman who betrays every man she comes in contact with.

Look, no one gets up in the morning, stretches his or her arms, rubs his or her chin, and says, “You know what? I think I’m going to be a badass today. I’m going to step all over anyone who gets in my way.”

That’s not a villain, that’s a stereotype.

A true villain, or at least a believable villain, thinks he or she is justified in whatever he or she does. It’s more about self-interest, I think. Greed. Selfishness. A blatant disregard for the feelings (and rights) of others because, you’re more important than everyone else.

I like to think I write complex and flawed characters. Probably the baddest character I ever wrote is Francis Hoyt, the master thief of Second Story Man. He’s brilliant, manipulative, athletic, arrogant, and mean. He uses people, then tosses them aside. But he’s got a history and it’s that history that helps explain who he is and why he does what he does. Don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t justify what he does. It explains it. You can tell from the first line of the novel when he utters, “Where’s my fucking money?” Right away, you peg him as a bad guy. He doesn’t say, “You know, you may have forgotten about that money you owe me, and I could sure use it now.” Nope. He says, “Where’s my fucking money?” There’s a threat implied in those four words and from those four words you know he’s not kidding around.

The other two characters in the book, Charlie Floyd and Manny Perez, are far from perfect, but they’re certainly not villains. They, too, are complex human beings capable of doing wrong. But Francis Hoyt, well, he’s in a whole other league. I’m proud of Francis Hoyt and I loved writing him and hearing him speak. But I certainly wouldn’t want to meet him.

And so, finally, after all these years, I’ve managed to be the “bad boy,” even if it is only on the page.

21 April 2018

Mean Girls


A few weeks ago I posted a column about female protagonists ("Let's Hear It for Heroines"), and in putting together my list of those I was a little surprised at how few female heroes have been featured in novels and movies. The same thing goes for female villains, but even more so--Hollywood doesn't seem fond of casting a woman as the bad guy. But I'm fond of those in the following list. I've ranked these evil folks backward, by the way, from least creepy (#25) to most creepy (#1). My opinion only.

NOTE: Evil, in this case, doesn't necessarily mean criminal. It means those who scared me the most. How many of these do you remember?


25. Eleanor Shaw (Angela Lansbury) -- The Manchurian Candidate

24. Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) -- Body Heat

23. Bellatrix Lastrange (Helena Bonham Carter) -- Harry Potter

22. Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) -- Snow White and the Huntsman

21. Winifred Sanderson (Bette Midler) -- Hocus Pocus

20. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) -- Maleficent

19. Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) -- Friday the 13th

18. The White Witch (Tilda Swinton) -- The Chronicles of Narnia

17. Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) -- Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

16. Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) -- From Dusk to Dawn

15. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) -- Sunset Boulevard

14. The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) -- The Wizard of Oz

13. Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) -- Gone Girl

12. Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter) -- Play Misty for Me

11. Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) -- Monster

10. Ellie Driver (Darryl Hannah) -- Kill Bill

9.   Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis) -- Natural Born Killers

8.   Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) -- Rebecca

7.   Catherine Trammel (Sharon Stone) -- Basic Instinct

6.   Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) -- Mommie Dearest

5.   May Day (Grace Jones) -- A View to a Kill

4.   Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) -- From Russia With Love

3.   Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) -- Fatal Attraction

2.   Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) -- Misery

1.   Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) -- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


Following up on that, here are ten female antagonists who weren't all that scary to me--but I just didn't like 'em. At all. I've ranked these from the least unlikable (#10) to the most unlikable (#1):


10. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) -- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

9.  The Warden (Sigourney Weaver) -- Holes

8.  Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett) -- Annie

7.  Mama Fratelli (Anne Ramsey) -- The Goonies

6.  Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) -- The Help

5.  Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) -- The Graduate

4.  Regina George (Rachel McAdams) -- Mean Girls

3.  Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) -- Working Girl

2.  Cinderella's stepmother (Cate Blanchett)--Cinderella

1.  Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) -- The Devil Wears Prada



These lists don't include, of course, bad girls who are likeable--Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis), Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon), etc. But audiences are expected to like them: they're protagonists, not antagonists.

I also left out good/bad shapeshifters like Regan McNeil (The Exorcist) and Carrie White (Carrie), villains from TV series--Cercei Lannister (Game of Thrones), Sister Mary Eunice (American Horror Story), and a bunch of meanies from Buffy the Vampire Slayer--and animated female villains like Cruella de Vil (101 Dalmatians) and Ursula the Sea Witch (The Little Mermaid). And so on and so on.

As usual, I've included only characters from movies I've actually seen, which leaves out a lot of candidates. Who are some of your favorite female movie villains? Also (he asked, holding up a gender-equality sign), have you featured women as villains in your own writing?

I have. And it's fun.

25 February 2018

Bad Good Guys ~ Good Bad Guys


Noting that bad guys can be more interesting than good guys is neither new nor profound. Why else would Dantean classics courses consistently teach Inferno rather than Paradiso?
Colonel Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya)
From Russia with Love
Even as we aspire to the light of goodness and grace, often darkness muddies our thoughts and actions. Our limbs stretch toward the heavens but our roots point toward hell.

So it is with story-telling. Bad guys make or break a tale. Take the James Bond series. The best films feature the evilest of the nefarious. Huge and hulking may frighten, but sheer terror runs deeper.

Take a little five-foot-nothing Russian named Rosa, played by Lotte Lenya. Bring to mind Colonel Klebb with her spiked sensible shoes, and you touch the stuff that gave 007 nightmares. (Lotte Lenya’s husbands died– all of them– just sayin’.)

Bad guys must possess the potential to overpower the good folks. Take the battle of David and Goliath.
“It’s ESPN Sports Night here at the arena where the Philistines face off against the Israelites.”

“That’s right, Bob. The crowds cheer wildly here in Elah. The reigning champion, Golly G, is warming up and eating a… is that an ox leg?”

“It sure is, Dan. Looks like a mere buffalo wing in those massive paws. His masseuses, all ten of them, are working him over, broad shoulders to feet the size of sleds.”

“Bob, in fairness, we should turn our attention a moment from the big guy to his opponent, little Davy ben Jesse. He hails from Bethlehem, known for steel in its sinews. Young Dave’s oh-for-twenty-seven, but due for a break.”

“And a break he’ll find, Dan, if Goliath gets his hands on him. Gol’s real problem, same as Jordan has, little guys ducking beneath the legs and wreaking havoc.”

“The Israelites claim they’ve a real secret weapon in their Dave. Manager Saul says they’re prepared to kick Philly ass, and that’s a quote.”

“Dan, they’re pulling off the robes and I got to admit, not an ounce of fat on little David.”

“Nor muscle either, Bob. The big guy’s rolling his shoulders and… there’s the bell!”

“Two strides out of his corner… and Golly winds up his infamous ring-dat-bell strongman move and… Splat? That’s it?”

“What just happened? The highly-touted Davy is nothing but a little greasy spot on the canvas?”

“Two-point-two seconds, Dan. That’s got to be some kind of record.”

“Cut! That’s not sporting.”

“This has been ESPN’s coverage of the match here in Elah, sure to be a disappointment in the record books not to mention holders of those ninety-schekel tickets. Wrap it, boys. Can we still catch the bus to Jericho?”
We love it when an underdog wins. If Goliath had wiped out David, no one would have recorded the event.

Take the Fantastic Four movies. It’s hardly fair to pit four against one, no matter how fearsome that one bad guy is. It’s just not cricket. Michael Chiklis, yeah, he was pretty good in the original version, but it’s not enough to maintain attention. You’d have thought Marvel would have learnt its lesson in 2005, but ten years later, they made the same mistakes… only worse.

Day of Wrath / Game of Swords
Hungarian Historical

I came across an obscure adventure mystery movie making the rounds of internet television video distributors, presently on FilmRise and CoolFlix. Titled Day of Wrath, it appeared difficult to track down until I discovered it also went by the name Game of Swords.

IMDB awarded Game of Swords an unimpressive 5.6/10, whilst Rotten Tomatoes stamped Day of Wrath a hostile audience rating of 24%. Fortunately I knew nothing of this before watching.

“Fortunately” I say because overall I liked the plot, setting, and cast except for one key character, which I’ll return to.

Set in 1542 Spain during the Inquisition, the story follows a sheriff as he investigates the murders of nobles. The deeper he digs, the more he puts his and his family’s lives at risk, until he suspects some connection between his family and the conspiracy he’s chipping away at.

Lukács Bicskey
Lukács Bicskey Lukács Bicskey

The story line proves devious but neither contrived nor overdone. The thought-provoking plot wraps up with a couple of satisfying twists. The writers deserve high marks. As for cast…

The town is rife with bad guys, some you hate, some you loathe, and others… not so much. I introduce Lukács Bicskey who plays the part of hired gun, Miguel de Alvarado. His character translates as complex and nuanced, his glacier ice-blue eyes continuously appraising, evaluating. Meeting Bicskey is like coming across a wolf in the forest, one who knows its own prowess, utterly fearless, consummately lethal, and yet…

John Floyd Bad Guys Award
He’s dimensional, more than meets the eye. The Hungarian actor projects the same chill don’t-ƒ-with-the-psychopath as Lee Van Cleef and is maybe just as underrated. He won’t be making any more movies– he died in 2015– but in this one performance, I’d nominated him for the John Floyd Best Bad Guys Ever Award.

If the plot is great and most of the cast is superlative, why the low ratings? My conclusion traces the problem to the film’s star, a hero about as vibrant as Valium, looking like Fabio on a lank-hair day.

Who? American actor Christopher Lambert. He’s appeared in a string of US and European movies since 1980. He often assumes action röles such as Tarzan, Beowulf, and Connor MacLeod in Highlander. In this film, he plods through the part as if we interrupted his nap time. The man’s performance subsumes sole responsibility for extinguishing one or two stars from critics’ ratings.

Setting Lambert aside, I liked this underrated film a lot. Despite verbiage about American World Pictures, the movie is a Hungarian-British enterprise. The Hungarian actors performed well, certainly better than our hero.

For a well-plotted story with one of the most interesting bad guys in filmdom, see it. As mentioned earlier, it’s free right now on FilmRise channels like CoolFlix. Definitely worth the price.

07 September 2016

Enter the Villain


by Robert Lopresti

I'm not going to tell you the author or title of the book I am discussing today, but I will say that it was not written by any past or present SleuthSayer.

The book is a first novel, much anticipated, and written in a particular style.  It is a style I like and I was much looking forward to it.  And everything was going well for the first third of the book.  Then a new character walked in wearing a black top hat covered with neon letters spelling out I'M THE KILLER.

Okay, I am exaggerating.  No hat.  No neon letters.  But as soon as this guy walked in I said: that's the killer.

I am not a reader who feels a need to guess the murderer or feels disappointed if it's too easy or it's too hard.  Most crime novels I read are not even whodunits. But this rankled.

It got worse.  A hundred pages later the heroes received the benefit of what I call an unearned clue.  They visited a place for reasons unconnected to crime, and chatted with a stranger.  When the stranger found out they were cops it was "Oh, by the way..." and out came a big hint that pointed straight to top-hat-man.  They didn't recognize it.

By J.J. at the English language Wikipedia
At this point I kept reading for only one reason: Either this is the best red herring in the history of crime fiction or it is a disaster.


Well, it was a disaster.

The editor - a well-known one in the mystery field - should be embaressed. He or she (I'm not telling) should have spotted the first-time author's mistakes and  insisted that they be fixed, which would not have been that hard.  Instead we have what looks like contempt for the reader, which is never good for future sales.

I checked the blurbs on the cover of the paperback edition.  Only one was from a review.  The rest, and they were plentiful, were from well-known mystery writers.  Perhaps they liked the book, but I suspect they liked the author more.

Enough whining.  Perhaps I can provide a useful writing tip.  Why did I suspect the killer was the killer as soon as he walked in?

Because he had no other plot-related reason for being there at all.  He strolled into his boss' office while the cops were interviewing him, got a detailed description from the author, and was introduced.  No immediate explanation for why he belonged in the story.  And so, my alarm went off.

My penance for that author?  Read five Agatha Christie's.  She had her limits, but nobody could hide a killer or a clue in plain sight with her skill.

So what disappoints you in a mystery?

18 June 2015

Having Fun Being Bad


Frank Underwood - House of Cards.jpgI have, like so many people, been watching House of Cards via Netflix DVDs.  The first season was hypnotic.  The second season not so much.  I may not watch the third season.  Why? It's real simple: Nobody seems to be having any fun. Not the President, not his wife, not the staff, not the Secret Service guys, and especially not Francis and Clare Underwood.  I mean, what's the point of pursuing power by any means, if you're not going to have a good time screwing everyone over?  Even the sex romps are grim. More on that later.

Think about prime-time TV these days.  Who's enjoying the game on Game of Thrones?  Did Walter White ever kick back and watch trash TV on Breaking Bad?  I experienced the world of Mad Men, and the people I remember had a lot more fun drinking and screwing than Draper and pals ever did. Do The Americans ever just go fishing? Wayward Pines is so dark you can't see the road, much less the actors.  Every plot is convoluted, everybody is up to their necks in conspiracies, everyone is always plotting their next move, and everyone is soooo serious...

But that isn't the way the real world works.  People go fishing.  They relax.  They get hooked on Candy Crush or Triple Town.  They binge-watch anything they can.  Joseph Stalin liked cowboy movies, Charlie Chaplin, Georgian wine, and billiards.  The man knew how to relax.  So did others: Mao Zedong was a master calligrapher and a fairly decent poet. He also really enjoyed women. Hitler loved listening to Putzi Hanfstaengl play piano, and apparently had a fondness for dogs.  Osama bin Laden wrote love letters in between calls for jihad. Napoleon loved Josephine and cheating at cards. In other words, in the real world, even totalitarian monsters take a break once in a while and have a good time.

Meanwhile, Francis Underwood even gave up ribs.  (And considering how solemn everyone was before and after, that three-way didn't do much to loosen anyone up.)

Nathaniel Parker as Harold Skimpole
in the 2005 BBC production of
"Bleak House"
I miss the villains of yesteryear.  Count Fosco, hugely fat, delighting in pastry, the endless cigarettes his wife hand rolls for him, great glasses of sugar water, and playing with his tiny little mice while he works [successfully] to have Lady Glyde declared dead after he imprisons her in a madhouse.  And all despite his deep admiration, love, passion, for her sister, Marian Halcombe. Now there's a villain who is not only ruthless - read The Woman in White and see - but knows how to have fun while doing it.  Or there's Harold Skimpole, the middle-aged "child" who cannot understand why people are so cruel and harsh as to not supply him with his daily needs, gratis, so that he can live like the charming butterfly he is, while betraying everyone in Bleak House in the worst possible way.  (He is the reason that the child street-sweeper Jo dies.)  You want to kill him, but he's certainly having a great time.  Of course, Dickens really knew how to write hand-rubbing, chuckling, glint-in-the-eye villains:  Ebenezer Scrooge, the Marquis St. Evremonde, Fagin, and that ultimate hypocrite, Josiah Bounderby.

Or, on screen:
  • Henry Fonda's Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West,
  • Basil Rathbone's Andre Trochard in We're No Angels
  • Lionel Barrymore's Harry F. Potter in It's A Wonderful Life
  • Peter Ustinov's Nero in Quo Vadis, and, of course, 
  • Charlton Heston's Richelieu in The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers.
  • The late, great Christopher Lee in The Man With the Golden Gun.

Now granted, there was a lot of over-acting in these - Henry Fonda and Charlton Heston were obviously having the time of their lives as they FINALLY got to play the villain!  But I think there's a lot of over-underacting today.  It's the latest style:  very self-controlled, laser-serious, apparently clinically depressed villains who don't take pleasure in anything, even power once they get it (if they ever do). But if you go back a few decades, and you find villains who smirked, sneered, sauntered, and basically acted like Bette Davis in The Little Foxes.

Francis Urquhart.jpg
Or you can always go back to the original:  Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart in the original, UK House of Cards, who was ruthless, deadly, witty, with a smile like a silver-haired Puck.  "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment."  Watching Richardson's Francis, I always felt that, while he'd definitely sold his soul to the devil, he got full price for it. (And it was a hell of a lot more than one shared cigarette a night...)  And he enjoyed everything he got.

Still available on Netflix, here's a preview of Francis Urquhart's best monologues to whet your appetite:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRNNhcQutTQ




01 November 2014

Name That Crook




by John M. Floyd



I like books about writing. I buy a lot of them, and I always seem to learn more from them than I expect to. These "how-to-create-good-fiction" authors sometimes differ on their views of what's good and what isn't, and what works and what doesn't--but now and then, like a family driving away from the Honda dealership, they are all in one Accord. (Sorry--I couldn't resist.)

One piece of writing advice that they all seem to agree on is that we talespinners should spend at least as much time on our villains as we do on our heroes. The point, there, is that the character who actually propels the action forward in a story or novel is the antagonist, not the protagonist. A wimpy bad guy just won't do. As I heard someplace, Jack the Giant Killer needs a giant to kill.

Another good move is to come up with suitable names for our villains. I once said, in a previous column, that I couldn't imagine 007 introducing himself as "Dinkins. Wilbur Dinkins." Well, the same goes for Bond's adversaries. Arnold Goldpinkie probably wouldn't have presented much of a threat to the world, or Doctor Yessiree.

Along these lines, here are a few fictional baddies whose names I especially like. (I can almost picture the sudden smiles on the writers' faces when these popped into their heads.)

Seriously evil dudes:

Hans Gruber, Die Hard
Noah Cross, Chinatown
Percy Wetmore, The Green Mile
Vince Stone, The Big Heat (Lee Marvin played baddies and goodies equally well)
Amon Goeth, Schindler's List
Morgan Sloate, The Talisman
Roy Batty, Blade Runner
Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men 
Voldemort, Harry Potter series
Stuntman Mike, Death Proof
Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now
Randall Flagg, The Stand
Little Bill Daggett, Unforgiven
Sauron, Lord of the Rings
Max Cady, Cape Fear
Oddjob, Goldfinger
Freddy Kreuger, A Nightmare on Elm Street
Dr. Szell, Marathon Man
Bill Cutting, Gangs of New York
Dean Wormer, Animal House
Emilio Largo, Thunderball
Cicero Grimes, Hombre (Richard Boone was always a convincing villain)
Tommy Udo, Kiss of Death 
Commodus, Gladiator (what could be worse? Toiletus?)
Miles Quaritch, Avatar
Leatherface, Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Francis Dolarhyde, Red Dragon
Lex Luthor, Superman

Seriously evil dudettes:

Irma Bunt, On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Cersei Baratheon, Game of Thrones
Miranda Priestly, The Devil Wears Prada
The Wicked Witch of the West, The Wizard of Oz
Phyllis Dietrichson, Double Indemnity
Cruella de Vil (cruel devil?), 101 Dalmations
Mallory Knox, Natural Born Killers
Santanico Pandemonium, From Dusk Till Dawn
Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty
Elle Driver, Kill Bill (Daryl Hannah, of all people)
Miss Havisham, Great Expectations
Mama Fratelli, The Goonies
Alex Forrest, Fatal Attraction (Play Misty for Me, Part 2?)
Aileen Wuornos, Monster
Nurse Ratched (wretched?), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Bellatrix Lestrange, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Catherine Tramell, Basic Instinct
The White Witch, The Chronicles of Narnia (who better than Tilda Swinton, for this?)
Rosa Klebb, From Russia With Love

Asides and exceptions

I should pause here to admit that some of the best literary and cinematic villains had normal, plain, believable names: Michael Myers (Halloween), Annie Wilkes (Misery), Frank Booth (Blue Velvet), Norman Bates (Psycho), Mrs. Danvers (Rebecca), Ben Wade (3:10 to Yuma), Tom (The Talented Mr.) Ripley, George Harvey (The Lovely Bones), Reverend Harry Powell (The Night of the Hunter), Jack Wilson (Shane), and so on. But who's to say that they wouldn't have been even more ominous if their names had been ominous as well?

By the way, all baddies are not truly evil. Some--Mrs. Robinson (The Graduate), Lt. Gerard (The Fugitive), Major Henry Terrill (The Big Country), Ed Rooney (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), Headmaster Nolan (Dead Poet's Society), etc.--are just unpleasant people who get in the way of the protagonists' needs and goals. I'll always like the name of Milo Minderbinder, the sneaky opportunist and profiteer from Catch-22--and even though his actions unknowingly caused death and disaster, he was more of an antagonist than a villain.

And some villains are so terrifying they have no names at all. In The Village, the creatures in the surrounding woods were whisperingly called Those We Don't Speak Of.

In closing, here are my Top 10 favorite names for bad guys:

Gordon Gekko, Wall Street
Ernst Stavro Blofeld, You Only Live Twice
Lars Thorwald, Rear Window
Liberty Vallance, as in The Man Who Shot
Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter series
Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs
Apollo Creed, Rocky
Darth Vader, Star Wars
Hugo Drax, Moonraker
Uriah Heep, David Copperfield


Sigh. I wish I were the one who came up with those . . .




30 January 2012

Character Flaws


Jan GrapeHow in the world can I make my characters believable? you ask. Well, maybe you didn't ask but I give you my thoughts anyway. Good believable characters have flaws. Okay, you already know that.  You've given your hero a chipped tooth and a crooked nose. That are some distinguishing characteristics that make him seem more human. But how about having him be emotionally flawed. (And I'm using the male pronoun here just so I want have to write he/she every time. This is only a matter of convenience...not to be gender specific.) He drinks or his wife died or he's about the lose his job. Something that many of us can relate to and feel as if we know that character.

You don't have to enumerate his good and bad points. Show that in your writing. If he drinks have him have too many drinks and fall down and mess up on what he needs to do.  Or show him trying to quit and going to AA meetings. If he's lost his wife surely he'll recall some good times with her or talk to her or visit her grave. Now losing his wife doesn't mean that's a character flaw but how he deals with that loss can show the flaws in him. Maybe he starts drinking because his wife died and he's about to lose his job because he drinks every night and comes to work hung over and messes up everything he tried to do.

Your imagination can be boundless here. How do you make that character come to life? Maybe you've had someone in your own family who drank and ruined their life. Maybe you used to drink yourself. Draw on whatever life experiences you can manage and if all else fails...go on a little research trip to your neighborhood bar and observe people. Surely you see or overhear someone who has had too much to drink.  Record in your mind how they act and then when you write about your character drinking you'll be able to lend an air of believability to those words.

Okay that was your hero.  How about your villain?  Well for one thing you don't want him to be a horrible, mean, hateful person.  Sure he's all set to be the killer in your book or story but everyone has good points as well as bad. He may seem on the outside to be a charming person liked by all. (I cringe when watching most TV crime/mystery shows because everyone close the victim who was murdered always says..."Everyone loved Mary. I know of no one who would want to kill her.) But your charming and probably good-looking villain is seething with greed or jealousy. Those are traits that you can show when he reacts with family or co-workers. Just a slight moment that gives you a clue to what could be inside his evil mind.

Even if your hero/heroine is flawed, you should somewhere along the line make them likable or endearing or your reader will decide it's not worth their time to read your book.  I have read books where the main character was harsh or spiteful and unlikable in the beginning, but I soon learned a reason why or something happened to make me understand them a little better and about half-way through the book, I realized I liked the character.

Personally, I sorta like to start out liking the main character. Whatever their plight or flaw I began to understand or relate to them quickly and that makes me want to keep reading about them. I think most readers feel like that too.

Be careful about trying to make your character too much like a real person. They might recognize themselves and get mad at you for showing their flaws. Characters must only be a product of your imagination.  They definitely may be a composite of several people you know.  It's just not smart to make your mother-in-law the wicked witch even if she is. Of course some people never see themselves as others see them and may not even recognize themselves, but you probably don't want to take a chance.

I may have told you this before so forgive me if I have, but instead of writing out a biography of your main characters. Write out the contents of their purse or billfold. This is just an exercise for you. Or write out a list of magazines they might have on the coffee table in their living room.  You'll be surprised how many little details you'll discover and hopefully you'll discover their secret flaws.  Once you know their secrets you'll be on your way to making your characters seem like "real" people. And that kids, is my lesson for the day.