Suspense & Mystery
Shane P. Carr, Associate Editor, Suspense & Mystery
Unleashing the Dark Side
The Motives of Villains and Heroes in Suspense Fiction
By Shane P. Carr
©2001, Shane P. Carr
Did you ever wonder what the author’s mind must be like to think up such a twisted, sadistic character? Would you believe me if I told you that it was the character’s humanity that really sends those chills down your spine? Yes, believe it or not, it is the human side of such characters that make the hairs of your neck stand on end.
Let’s take Tom Harris’s Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter for example. Do you really think Dr. Lecter would have been nearly as terrifying if he didn’t have such passion for Agent Starling? Think about it. Imagine Lecter instead as a ten-foot flesh-eating monster that did not resemble a human in anyway. I’ll be the first to admit a flesh-eating monster can be scary, but it wouldn’t have unnerved you on that inner psychological level. If you let yourself think about it for a minute, you will realize that it is the fact that Lecter is human and responsible for such atrocities that is really unnerving you. The fact that Hannibal Lecter could be your everyday physician or the neighborhood mailman is what really makes people terrified of him. In Silence of the Lambs the author makes readers see the dark side of humanity, that inner evil that has the potential to manifest itself in each and every one of us.
This potential for inner evil is what all suspense writers should focus on when creating their villain. After all, it is the manifestation of this dark side of humanity that becomes the basis for your entire story. Now, this doesn’t mean that your villain has to be a flesh-eating serial killer with a taste for fine wine and art. The villain can be an anti-hero like a parent who has lost a child to drunk driver. The loss of the child could be what manifests the character’s dark side. The character could then become obsessed with avenging the child. Perhaps the character (let’s call her Carol) begins hanging out at bars watching which individuals drive after drinking. Carol then follows them home. As they step out of the car she runs them down and kills them.
Now, some readers will sympathize with Carol. Others will see her as having a screw loose. Either way, the author has made a suspenseful character. Carol is very human, yet the tragedy involving her child has manifested her dark side and driven her to kill. The fact that Carol, an average mother who has never harmed a fly, could become a killer is what will scare the reader. Readers will relate to Carol, yet they won’t like the fact that they do.
Carol is just one example and a far cry from Dr. Lecter. Yet what if I told you that, as a child, Hannibal Lecter lived on a farm. What if young Hannibal had a lamb on the farm that he considered a pet? Hannibal wakes one morning to feed his lamb, only to find a farmhand slaughtering it for the market. Hannibal’s father tells him the lamb will be used for food. The death of the lamb triggers that dark side within Hannibal. He soon rationalizes that instead of eating other animals it would be better to eat his own kind. Heck, from the animal’s point of view I’m sure it seems like a good idea.
Now we see Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ as a tragic character that was scarred by the loss of a pet. Suddenly Hannibal is not all that unlike Carol. Each has suffered a traumatic loss, and in their minds they are bringing justice to the situation.
When creating a suspense villain, the writer must look into the motivation of the character. The writer must develop the villain as human first. He must understand what his villain’s life was like before the dark side manifested. The writer then must figure out what leads to the manifestation. Once this is done, the writer can begin writing about this character and his dark manifestation.
In most suspense stories, the villain’s motive is not revealed until the climax of the story, yet the writer must know what that motive is before writing the first word. The villain’s motive will help drive the story. The writer can reveal clues along the way and help the reader draw his or her own conclusion as to why the villain is doing such things.
This is where the writer can play with the reader’s mind. As the writer builds his cast of characters, he can create other characters that may also have a motive for committing the crime. This will keep readers guessing as to who the real villain is. This of course adds suspense, to the story and that is really what suspense writers are shooting for.
So far we know we must have a normal human side of our villain so we can get our readers to relate to him. We must have a motive that manifests the dark side within the villain. Finally we must know that motive before we begin to write. Accomplishing all of these things will bring the character to life and give him greater depth.
Since we now have a villain, we of course need a hero. In suspense fiction the hero is usually a police officer or private detective investigating the case. There are other professions that work just as well; for example, Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta is a forensics pathologist. Use whatever works for you. The hero is, for the most part, on the side of the law, seeking out the dark manifestation in order to halt its actions.
The hero's views will usually oppose the villain's, although you will sometimes find that the hero will relate to the villain's human side, especially in the case of Carol, which we discussed earlier.
You should have your hero’s motivations in mind before writing, as well. Now, on the simplistic level this could be: Tim became a cop to fight crime. Yet if you want the character to become three-dimensional, you must give him more of a life.
Suppose Tim became a cop because his father was a cop. Perhaps his father was killed by a serial killer that he was investigating at the time. The serial killer was never caught. Six years later the killings start again. Tim has since become a cop like his father. Fate finds Tim on the trail of the same killer who murdered his father.
See how we are adding depth to the hero. We now have a background on Tim. We have Tim’s motivation for being a cop. We also have something else . . . we have the potential for a dark side to manifest in Tim. What happens as Tim pursues the serial killer and eventually confronts him? Does the dark side manifest in Tim seeking vengeance for his father’s death or does Tim’s motivation to honor his father, by being a good cop, cause Tim to arrest the killer and bring him to justice?
See how we now have two characters on opposite sides; the suspense builds, and the story climaxes with the confrontation of these two characters. Situations like this will keep your readers glued to the page in hopes of seeing the outcome. Yet none of it works unless you know your two characters and their motives. You, as the writer, must get inside each character’s head and fully realize what is driving the characters in their actions. If you can do this, the plot for your story should begin to develop quite easily. You’ll then be on your way to creating a nail-biting story that can get under your reader’s skin.
To help you along, I offer a simple exercise. Watch your favorite movie or reread your favorite novel. While doing so, examine the hero and the villain. Write down each character’s motives. Then write down the things that make you relate to the character. Think about the villain’s motive and what lead up to it. If you were in a similar situation, could a dark side like this manifest in yourself? Could you become this villain?
On the other side, think of the hero. What drives him or her? How easily could this ‘hero’ manifest a dark side to stop the villain? Are the hero and villain alike in any way? Do they share a common trait?
When you’re finished, try developing some characters of your own. Develop some motives for the villain and hero. Let the dark side manifest from the villain and drive him toward his goal. Do a similar exercise with the hero. Give the hero the temptation of the dark side. See what kind of plot you come up with. I think you’ll be surprised.
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