“Easy!” I hear you cry and perhaps you’re right. Place your hero in front of them, restrained on a chair with his hands pinned to a battered wooden desk and then hand a machete to the villain of the piece, or a rusty hammer. The hero’s fingers wiggle in horrible anticipation. “Oooh!” I hear you cry. “Argh! Nasty, nasty nasty!” Yep…easy. All I have to do is make you identify with the lantern-jawed, clean shaven hero with a twinkle in his eye and a penchant for rescuing [preferred fluffy animal] from [place of peril], then whomsoever wishes to inflict gruesome suffering on him is pure badness.
But…what if we want to make our baddie a bit more 3-dimensional? Let’s call him Gerald. What if we want the reader to see inside his head and understand why he’s about to perform a digitectomy on our dashing hero? We still want the reader to squirm in horror at what happens and be appalled at Gerald’s moral dereliction but we also want them to see his side of the story. Gerald didn’t start out bad. When he was a little lad, he used to play with Lego and cuddle a stuffed raccoon when he went to bed.
This is the conundrum I am wrestling with in ‘Dark Water’. One of the characters is capable of torture and murder but I want the reader to understand that my ‘Gerald’ has arrived somewhere where this is the only (if not entirely rational) course of action. Put simply, he has to have motive. If Gerald’s story unfolds in such a way that you can see that HE believes he’s doing the right thing, then the reader will be carried along too. [Top tip: It’s REALLY lame if Gerald explains it all in the final scene.]
For the best example – bar none – of a properly motivated villain, look to ‘Inquisitor Glokta’ in Joe Abercrombie’s ‘Books of the First Law’. Glokta is the man you’ll love to hate. So, I have my work cut out. The good news though is that this is the toughest character to get right. Sentimental readers will swallow any soapy old nonsense that the good guys spout.