by Janis Patterson
I know when we write our villains we want them to be smart – smart enough, at least, to make our sleuth have to work to catch them, and look good when they do. If the villain isn’t a worthy opponent to our sleuth, the story is boring and not worthy of a book.
But is it like that in real life? Mostly, no. There are villains who lay complex plots with lots of red herrings and blind alleys or who skillfully cover their tracks, but they are – thankfully – rare. Let’s face it – most criminals are stupid, or they wouldn’t be criminals. There are even TV shows about how stupid some criminals are. Who hasn’t seen a film coverage of some burglar getting trapped in a chimney or a doggy door, or committing equal stupidities and having to be rescued by police?
Moving it up a level, murder/attempted murder/aggravated assault is a little different. Most burglars/thieves have to do some kind of pre-planning, however little and inadequate. Murder and its attendant variants can happen in the blink of an eye or be planned for a long time. The spur-of-the-moment murder is usually the easiest one to solve and in general is unworthy of our sleuths. If two guys are drinking and fighting and one of them ends up dead while the other is found still holding the gun… no book-worthy story there. On the other hand, the victim dead but seemingly asleep in a locked room… is it murder or is it natural death? If it’s murder, who among the victim’s many enemies did it? And how? That is a problem worthy of our sleuth!
So how do we do this in our writing? How do we make our villains into real people with hopes and dreams and desires? Remember everyone including villains is the hero of their own story – i.e., in their own mind. They have to have a reason for doing it, and never forget that whatever that reason is, it has to make sense to them. While killing someone because they wore purple on a Thursday seems absolutely mad to us, it must mean not only something but something very important to our villain. Remember those old super-hero cartoons of the 70s where the villain screams that he serves evil and does everything he does because it is evil? Doesn’t make much sense outside of a cartoon, unless the villain is a certified mental case, and I’m not sure even then the story is worthy of a book. Even the mad must have their logic, even if they are the only ones who can understand it.
Frankly I’m very glad that most criminals are stupid and therefore caught – in real life. In fiction, however, I love the crafty villain and the intrepid sleuth to be equally matched… at least, almost equally matched. I also like the sleuth and therefore justice to prevail. That makes a story worth reading.