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Volume 14, Number 2 Fall 2009
Bring On the Bad Guys
by Dana Cameron
I love a good villain. As much as a protagonist defines a story or series, he or she is shaped by the obstacles in the story. Most of the time, those obstacles come from the antagonist. I think a certain deftness of writing is required for a memorable bad guy, and, maybe even more than other characters, a good dollop of respect—even affection. One of my villains was inspired by a complete stranger. The guy was probably perfectly decent, but something about his hair freaked me out. It spoke to me, powerfully, creepily, and the resulting fictional bad guy still gives me the grue. Sure, it was an outside inspiration, but I was the one who spun bad hair into a sadistic killer. Often readers (myself included) equate the hero with the writer, but it’s important to remember our villains
and Richard III. So, Femmes, my question to you: do you like antagonists to have motives that are all too familiar or do you like them off-the-charts scary: the psychotic whose behavior is so alien you get vertigo whenever she’s onstage? Maybe you prefer him tough and professional or a misunderstood genius whose heart is melted by the heroine? Who are your favorite villains, and where do they come from? ƒƒ The best advice Dana ever got on writing villains was “Remember the bad guy believes he’s the hero of his own story.” She’s been lucky to mostly avoid baddies in her life other than in fiction; there she prefers the brainy kind. “Someone who can outthink you is scary enough, but if you then do a conscience-ectomy on him…yikes!”
come from the same wellspring. What scares or angers us, sometimes it’s just tapping into that irrational response. Some of my favorite bad guys include The Jackal, Hannibal Lector, Moriarty, Amelia Peabody’s Master Criminal, drugs, say, or mental illness—I decided it came down to greed. Greed for control and power over money, or another person, or over events, or, most likely a combination. And that seemed to make sense. About halfway through the book, I thought I knew who the bad guy was. (Back then, no synopsis for this girl!) And I figured I’d work out the motivations later. Then one night, I sat bolt upright in bed. Breaking news. I had made a mistake. I had chosen the wrong bad guy. And I realized who really did it. I mentally raced backwards through the forty thousand words I’d already written, scouring for clues and examining motives. And sure enough, I had gotten my own story wrong. And when I scurried back to my desk early the next morning to check the real manuscript—I realized the bad guy had been there, all along, lurking and being guilty. I just hadn’t realized it. I barely had to change a word. Now that’s a scary person.
Hank Phillippi Ryan
Thank goodness for villains. Without them, Emmy-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan wouldn’t have a job. She goes after bad guys every day—wiring herself with hidden cameras, confronting corrupt politicians, and chasing down criminals. In Prime Time, her fictional villain was elusive. In the all–new Air Time (featuring a designer purse counterfeiting enterprise the feds admitted would actually work), Hank had the bad guys pegged from moment one. Sometimes I don’t even know who my villains are! Talk about a surprise ending. In Prime Time I even surprised myself. I knew there would be a scheme involving secret messages in computer spam. (No spoiler there, for anyone who’s still not read it.) But who was behind it and why? That, I didn’t know. It made me think a lot about motivation: how angry or disturbed or passionate or enraged someone would have to be to kill another person. What, I wondered, could cause that level of emotion? Aside from
When Charlaine was longing for quiet and peace, she didn’t know how quiet and peaceful it would get around her house when all her kids left. She’s trying to devote more time to her writing and generally set her house in order. The three dogs and the duck are trying to fill the gap, but somehow it’s just not the same. My villains definitely come from inside myself, as all my characters do. I’m no fluffy bunny, despite my mild demeanor! I think the best villain I’ve created was Debbie Pelt, in the Sookie Stackhouse books. Debbie tries to keep an agreeable veneer, and she’s a strong and sexual woman, but she’s also simply bad. Sure, she’s a minority member (a werefox), and sure, she was an adopted kid with some issues, but Debbie is unrepentantly vicious. The most indelible evil character was written by Neil Gaiman in Neverwhere, which is one of my all-time favorite novels. This “man” is half of an evil team which is trying to catch and kill Door,
Gaiman’s main female character. Here’s what makes this villain unique: he eats irreplaceable art. Isn’t that just perfect? Of course, he likes to kill living things, too...slowly and painfully. When I look at my Top Ten villains (a list that includes Hannibal Lector in the number one spot, and the original Terminator perhaps at eight), I discover that I like a wide range of baddies, ranging from psychological and subtle to strongarm machines that never quit. Here’s a thought: where would Hannibal be without Clarice? The Terminator without Sarah Connor? The right villain has to be matched with the right protagonist, too; it’s the matchup of one with the other that creates the sparks.
Cruella De Vil. Devils look stuning in red, or in anything by Prada. Of course, clothes don't necessarily make the villain. Sometimes it's personal style that stands out. Hannibal Lector's breathy voice and careful word choice trumps his prison jumpsuit, and both Moriarty's and Arnold Zeck's cold-as-a-cucumber delivery kept me from even caring what they were wearing. Sethos from the Amelia Peabody novels is a master of disguise, but keeps tension high by being so darned tricky, and Lex Luthor is arrogance personified. and aimed, and his finger slipped onto the trigger. Real hard. Remember the villains in Agatha Christie's books? Me neither. We remember the killers in Roger Ackroyd and Orient Express but not because they were three-dimensional. What about James Bond's villains? Everybody remembers them. Did we know anything about Odd Job except he could sling a mean derby? Did Jaws bake cookies and visit his Mama on Sundays? We don't care. All we know is they're evil. That one dimension is a powerful story element. Just as each story is unique, each villain has a unique mixture of normal guy and pure evil. My preference? Heavy on the scuzz, please! Now I don't insist on a colorful bad guy– plenty of excellent stories rely on more subtle methods, with antagonists made frightening by their very nomalcy. But it’s the larger–than–life villain I love to hate.
It has been a long hot summer in Tennessee where Mary's working hard on the next Thistle & Twigg book and consuming enough iced tea to choke a horse. And practicing for The Gig where she, Toni, and Charlaine will shake and holler at the hot Delta Blues anthology launch party. Mercy. Thank goodness for air-conditioning. I like my villains dirty. The scuzzier, the better. Every crime novel needs a hero, and a hero needs two things, a crisis that will only get worse unless he takes action and a villain of maximum scuzzicity. Writers often hear that villains must be three-dimensional, that even bad guys aren't 100% bad, and we should round out their personalities. I agree. To a point. We see these mostly in literary and traditional mysteries. In many cases, this is because the villain is unknown until the very end. Before that, he has the same development as other suspects. He's just another normal person with a normal life, except for that one time he accidentally picked up a gun
Donna reports that readers of Swan For the Money, her latest book, have already commented on how delightfully evil one of the bad guys—er, gals is. But it would be a spoiler to tell you whether she's victim, killer, or just a red herring. Swan For the Money also features competitive rose growing, belted Tennessee fainting goats, and a pair of truly evil black swans. When Dana suggested writing about villains, my first reaction: was “Whoa! I don’t want anyone to know who my villains are!” I don’t write books whose suspense comes from wondering how the protagonist will stop the villain. I want my killers to look just like you and me. Until suddenly they don’t.
Toni L.P. Kelner
Lately Toni has made a habit of creating heros from traditional villains like pirates, vampires, and werewolves. But there will always be soft spot in her heart for the unrepentant villain. My family recently went to Disney Hollywood Studios and saw an exhibit of movie costumes and props called “Villains: Movie Characters You Love to Hate.” That exhibit was fresh in my mind when Dana posed the topic of good villains, so to speak, and I realized that my favorite villains have something in common. They have style! The cape is so associated with Dracula that anytime anybody drapes a towel over his arm, we all know the Count has entered the building. Speaking of capes, would Darth Vader loom as well without his? Cloaks worked well for the Sheriff of Nottingham and Voldemort, too. If a villain doesn't look good in black, there's always the White Witch from Narnia, or the black-and-white of
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©2009 Femmes Fatales
Dana Cameron’s short story “The Night Things Changed” was nominated for the Anthony Award for Best Short Story, and won the Agatha Award and the Macavity Award. The awardFew mystery readers ever encounter serial killers, drug lords, or power–mad world conquerors. But we all meet people daily who seem...a little off. People who could be a hair away from committing ghastly crimes for incomprehensible reasons. (Remember the Texas Cheerleader Murder?) My villains don’t kill because they’re psychotic or power-mad. They kill because they’re greedy. Or scared. Because they have dangerous secrets. Because they want something so much they’d do anything. To cover up another crime. To protect someone or something they love. Because someone hurt them so badly murder seems the only solution. Maybe you’ve never been mad, scared, or greedy enough to kill. But can you say that about everyone you know? I thought not. That’s why cozy mysteries can be scarier than darker books. You expect psychos and drug lords to kill. But the guy at the next desk...the nice couple down the street...the friendly woman behind the counter. Do you really known them? Forget supervillains. Give me the villain next door. winning story was published in Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, edited by Femmes Charlaine and Toni. “Keeping Watch Over His Flock,” Toni L.P. Kelner’s contribution to Wolfsbane playmaker, after all, ahead of the protagonist for much of the book. I not only find it effective to focus first on the villain, it’s choreographing the dance between the antagonist and protagonist that most engages me. Many of my antagonists have been women. Not because I think females are all that murderous, but the exact opposite. Despite provocations, you have to admit we women murder less than some would say we should. Then again, some of my female characters have just been such wily red herrings, they hid their innocence until the final moments. Sometimes I’ve found it useful not to hide the identity of the villain but to disclose it. In my story, “Sentence Imposed,” the abusive father of the child athlete was clearly the bad guy. The mystery concerned the extent of his villainy, and whether my protagonist, triathlete Zoey Morgan, would find the courage to bring to justice a man who embodied her darkest demons, and how she’d accomplish it. The endless surprises in that dance are why I write. and Mistletoe was nominated for a Macavity, and her pirate mystery story “Skull and Cross-Examinations” from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine was nominated for an Anthony.
The Fashion Hound Murders, Elaine’s sixth Josie Marcus mystery shopper novel, will be published Nov. 3. Enjoy the adventures of single mom Josie, her daughter, their new cat, and the fight to save puppy mill dogs. The Fashion Hound Murders is a fast, upbeat read with new romance for Josie. Here is some insider information: Harry, Amelia’s cat, is based on Elaine’s striped writing partner. Moriarity. Darth Vader. Goldfinger. Notice the pattern? These villains are men. Where are the evil females plotting to take over the world? All we have are pathetic domestic divas, like Lady Macbeth. We need female masterminds. The forces of good gained ground when M became a woman in the James Bond movies. But M has no evil female counterpart. Do wicked women lack ambition? Where is their thirst for world domination? Or is the female of the species morally better? I don’t think so. We must close the villain gender gap. I tried in my Dead-End Job series, with Marcella, the Black Widow. Marcella has six—or is it seven?—husbands who died in suspicious circumstances. But behind her murderous marital encounters, Marcella is an old-fashioned romantic. Divorce is just so expensive, even for a woman worth half a billion dollars. In my Josie Marcus mystery series, the villains are men. The bad women are mostly nuisances. Mrs. Mueller is the neighborhood snoop and powerful church committeewoman. Amy the Slut is the suburban siren and troublemaker. Fiction has not kept pace with reality. The Italian Mafia now has several Godmothers in prison or on the police radar. The literary world cries out for wicked women to take their place along with male villains. Wake up, writers, and create the worst women in the world. It’s for our own good.
As a younger woman, Kris Neri’s one moment of kick-ass heroism came when she once confronted a man breaking into a co-worker’s car, though she did let the police arrest him, rather than taking him down herself. Now older and wiser, these days she limits her tangling with bad guys to the pages of her books and stories. As a reader, while I connect with the protagonists, it’s sometimes the villains who stay with me after the other characters fade from memory. Perry Mason author, Erle Stanley Gardner, advised writers to write from the perspective of the protagonist, but to plot from the villain’s viewpoint. I’ve always followed that advice. The villain is the
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News from the Femmes Fatales
Dana Cameron had a blast at Bouchercon and thanks her readers for the honor of her Macavity win and her Anthony nomination! She’s equally excited about her forthcoming short stories: “Femme Sole” in Boston Noir (Akashic Books, November) and “Swing Shift” in the MWA anthology Crimes by Moonlight, edited by our own Charlaine (April 2010). Connelly novel (Grave Secret) and a collection of previously published Sookie short stories (A Touch of Dead), in addition to a Britlingen novella in the anthology Must Love Hellhounds. The Season Two conclusion of True Blood marked Charlaine’s screen debut as a bar patron in Merlotte’s. Fiction meets its creator! Donna Andrews is still celebrating the appearance of Swan for the Money on the New York Times extended bestseller list. She's also delighted that Cockatiels at Seven and Six Geese A-Slaying will be available in paperback for the 2009 holiday season. Donna’s hard at work on her 2010 book, Stork Raving Mad, but took time for Bouchercon in Indianapolis. Kris Neri’s urban fantasy-mystery, High Crimes on the Magical Plane, featuring fake psychic Samantha Brennan and Celtic goddess/FBI agent Annabelle Haggerty, has just debuted to great reviews. Her latest anthology publications have been “For the Love of the Grape” in Murder Past, Murder Present, “New Year’s Eve Surprise” in How Not to Survive the Holidays, and “The Gift of Christmas Past” in The Gift of Murder. Kris was named Guest of Honor at the First Annual Sedona Book Festival. Elaine Viets will visit her hometown of St. Louis, Nov. 7 and 8, to sign The Fashion Hound Murders. She’ll be at Barnes & Noble Ladue and also the Humane Society of Missouri. Both signings are benefits. Check out these and other signings at www.elaineviets.com. Follow Elaine on Facebook and see the photos of her latest Dead-End Job.
Hank Phillippi Ryan’s alter-ego Charlotte McNally is back with her third adventure—and Air Time has already made several best seller lists, including the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Her first short story “On The House” is included in the new anthology Quarry from Level Best Books (Nov. 2009). Hank loved seeing you all at Bouchercon where she actually “moderated” a panel including the unmoderate-able Harlan Coben. She’s on the official slate of nominees to the national board of Mystery Writers of America. Coming up: Crime Bake, where she’s presenting a multi-media seminar on “Using TV Techniques to Write a Killer Novel.” Watch for Drive Time in February 2010.
It's new edition time for Toni L.P. Kelner. Curse of the Kissing Cousins came out in paperback and an Italian translation, Wolfsbane and Mistletoe (co-edited with Femme Charlaine) came out in German, and Mad as the Dickens was released in large print. But next year will start out with the release of the all-new Who Killed the Pinup Queen? Mary Saums attended the SIBA tradeshow in Greeneville, South Carolina September 25 - 27. In October, she was in Indianapolis at the Glendale Library on the 13th, and at Bouchercon the 14th through 18th. She hopes to see you at the Delta Blues launch party, moved to March 27, 2010, at Ground Zero, the famous blues club in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
This fall sees the publication of Charlaine Harris’s fourth Harper
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