By Annette Dashofy
I grew up at a time when Westerns were all the rage on TV. Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Big Valley to name a few. My dad and I watched them all. One of my favorites was a series titled Alias Smith and Jones. In it, two of the most successful outlaws in the history of the West decide to go straight. Or try to. As a teen, I wrote several “novels” about these characters—novels written longhand, in pencil, in lined spiral-bound notebooks—what we now call fan fiction.
At the very beginning of the pilot episode of Alias Smith and Jones, a narrator said:
Into the West came many men. Some were good men and some were bad men. Some were good men with some bad in them. And some were bad men with some good in them…
Now, almost a half-decade later, I hold those words close to my heart. I no longer write fan fiction or westerns. I write traditional mysteries. And as I create my cast of characters for each book, I fall back on the opening narration from that old show.
As writers, we’re frequently told to create flawed heroes. Nobody’s perfect, after all. Too often, however, we forget the flip side of the coin. Our villains shouldn’t be perfectly horrible either.
Yes, evil does exist in the world. But I much prefer to write about a bad guy who has some good in him. My favorite villain of all I’ve written (and I can’t tell you which one without spoiling that book) did some truly awful things, but his reasons were understandable. Like another character from my youth, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, his heart grew as the story progressed. By the time I reached the climatic final scenes, I was heartbroken. I needed to kill this character, to have justice served. Could I possibly find a way to keep him around? He’d begun to seek redemption. Plus, I genuinely liked him! But no. He’d done too much, gone too far, and had to pay for his misdeeds.
Our villains need to have a good reason, at least in their minds, for doing what they do. They need motivation. Maybe they’re righting their own perceived wrongs.
Here’s another bit of wisdom I carry as I create villains:
Everyone is the hero of their own story.
In the villain’s mind, he is absolutely right and justified in doing what he does. He has his own internal dialogue about the victim, that rat bastard who doesn’t deserve to live. And about your hero, that SOB who’s trying to keep him from completing his mission.
Too often, we don’t spend enough time getting to know our villain. We take days, weeks, months developing our heroes and their sidekicks. A little less time, perhaps, fleshing out our victim. But too often, the killer is just a cardboard Bad Guy. Think Snidely Whiplash.
I believe it was Erle Stanley Gardner who advised that we should write from the viewpoint of the hero but PLOT from the viewpoint of the villain. (If this should be attributed to someone other than Mr. Gardner, I apologize.) For me, this is sage advice. I can’t know what the hero is up against, what he finds at a crime scene, what obstacles he faces, without knowing what the villain is doing off stage. Any time I run into “writer’s block,” I know it’s because I need to spend some time inside the head of the bad guy.
And if I’ve developed him with a little bit of good in him and understand his side of the story—his motivation—I rather enjoy that time. Bad guys can and should be fascinating.
About Where The Guilty Hide (Detective Honeywell Mystery #1) coming January 20, 2023
On the shore of Lake Erie, Pennsylvania, a body lays half hidden, the waves slowly moving it with the rising tide…
In the early morning mist, freelance photographer Emma Anderson takes pictures of the rocky coastline. She moved to Erie to escape a past that haunts her but the last thing she expects to capture is a dead body.
Erie City Police Detective Matthias Honeywell has been investigating a spate of home invasions but when one of the robbery victims turns up dead, his case evolves into homicide. Emma’s first encounter with Detective Honeywell leaves her shaken when he reminds her of her ex-fiancé-turned-stalker. Matthias misinterprets Emma’s anxiety and suspects she knows more than she’s letting on.
With the threat of another murder and no obvious leads, will Emma and Matthias overcome their mutual distrust and work together to capture a killer?
About the Author
Annette Dashofy is the USA Today best-selling author of twelve novels including the Agatha nominated Zoe Chambers mystery series about a paramedic/deputy coroner in rural Pennsylvania’s tight-knit Vance Township. Her standalone, Death By Equine, set in the world of Thoroughbred horseracing, is a finalist for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award. Her first in a new series, Where the Guilty Hide, comes out in January 2023 and is available for pre-order now.
Pre-order links for Where the Guilty Hide: