An award-winning author of novels and short stories, with two O.Henry Awards to her credit, Sheila Kohler writes crime fiction as well as literary fiction. Her most recent novel is the thriller Open Secrets, published by Penguin in 2020. Publishers Weekly said of the book: “The plot moves swiftly amid luxurious settings to a closing twist . . .” One of Sheila’s recent short stories, “Miss Martin,” was selected for the 2020 volume of Best American Mystery Stories. She draws on her experience as a writer, reader, and teacher of literature in this post about a type of character central to crime fiction.—Janet Hutchings
It is often useful in a story or novel to create a villain. Villains, let’s face it, immediately increase the suspense in a story, create conflict between good and bad—one we would like to believe exists—and make the reader fear for the hero or heroine who is put in danger. If we look at the fairytales of our youth, those we have loved, there is often this clear dichotomy between good and evil: the wicked stepmother in Cinderella; the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel for example. The more evil the villain the more there is at stake (poor Cinderella reduced to sweeping up the ashes and Hansel and Gretel in danger of being consumed by the witch).
At the same time, in a story for adults it is obviously necessary to make the reader believe in the reality of the evil villain and perhaps for them even to engage the reader’s interest. We like to follow characters we can identify with to some extent. This can be difficult to do as in life, though of course evil people certainly exist, they rarely admit to their nefarious doings, or are even conscious of their faults. So often they come to us, and perhaps even to themselves, disguised behind a show of pious words, good intentions, and apparent rectitude.
So how to make a villain credible and even sympathetic on the page? It is perhaps useful to look at the great villains portrayed in literature, those who have lasted, as examples. We can study by what means they engage our interest, hide their evildoings behind a certain facade, and convince us to follow their exploits and at moments even identify with them.
If we take Shakespeare’s Richard III, surely one of the earliest antiheroes, we notice from the start of the play how Richard engages a certain sympathy and interest: He is after all presented as a crippled man who cannot use the ordinary means to seduce or gain success. He is reduced to cunning and dark deeds by the shape nature has thrust upon him.
Richard tells us:
“I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;”
In other words, it is not his fault if he is driven to crime; it is the fault of fate; it is his destiny.
From the start of the play he speaks directly to the audience, confides in us, makes us—as we follow his exploits with fascination—complicit to some extent in his ambition and ultimately his crimes: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York; / And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried,” he tells us with such apparent sincerity. We are immediately drawn in, interested. Questions arise in our minds. Early on in the play Richard admits to his ambition, his diabolical plans, and with his wit and sincerity wins at least our interest and a certain fascination in his outrageous acts.
In the scene with Lady Anne as she follows the bier of her dead father-in-law, Richard dares to appear. He who, you will remember, has killed not only her husband but her father-in-law, manages to seduce her (and perhaps his audience, too) even at this moment and even in her great grief. He appeals to her Christian forgiveness and begs her to have pity on him. He uses flattery and provokes her guilt at the same time, telling her that these deaths are her fault, she is responsible. If he has killed, it is because of her beauty and his great love for her: “Your beauty was the cause of that effect— / Your beauty, that did haunt me in my sleep / To undertake the death of all the world, / So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.”
Then he offers to die himself, giving her his sword. He wins her and for a moment at least his audience by the use of such outrageous behavior.
If we take a more recent example of a villain like Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley, we see how Patricia Highsmith, like Shakespeare, presents her antihero from the start as an underdog. He, too, though not misshapen has suffered in his childhood. He is an orphan, has lost his parents and been forced to live with his disapproving aunt who calls him a “sissy.” He gains our sympathy immediately in a scene where his aunt makes him run desperately beside the car while she drives ahead, for example. We are moved because he is hardworking and ambitious despite these setbacks, and because of his starry-eyed admiration for his friend Dickie Greenleaf who has everything Tom lacks: money, a boat, class, arrogance, freedom.
We begin to root for him, though we are already aware he is not what he presents himself to be, when Dickie’s father sends him to Italy to bring his errant son home to his dying mother. We even begin to wish him success, watching him with fascination as he dresses up in Dickie’s clothes and stands before the mirror. Here, surely, we identify to some extent with his desire to be like the friend he admires so much.
Despite the fact that this sentiment leads him to actually take Dickie Greenleaf’s place in a scene of struggle on the water and that he goes on from there to kill again (the very unlikeable Freddie), we don’t really want the law to catch with up with him. By the end of the book, despite his crimes, we are delighted when he tells the taxi driver to take him to his hotel in the town where he appears to have escaped the law. “A donda, a donda?” the driver asks, wanting to know to which hotel he wishes to go. And Ripley who now has all—the money, the clothes, perhaps even the class—replies to our satisfaction: “Il meglio! Il meglio!”, the best.
These examples show us how we tend to root for, or at least be sufficiently interested in the exploits of, a character born or fallen into unfortunate circumstances that might explain their actions and gain our sympathy, particularly if the character shows wit and determination in their fight for success. If the villain charms us in the fight for what they consider their right, we too are taken in—or at least amused by the skillful use of flattery and apparent self- deprecating sincerity, a confession of sins: “I’ve always been a narcissist, I know.” And how easily others can be made to feel guilty for the sins of the villain, as Richard III makes Lady Anne, blaming her beauty which has inspired his great love and his terrible crimes.
All of this, when in the hands of a skillful writer, can be used to gain our interest, our suspension of disbelief, and even at times our recognition of the darker sides of our own humanity.