Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How to Build a Better Villain

If you haven't yet read Dan Wells's books I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, MR. MONSTER, and I DON'T WANT TO KILL YOU--repent! (Okay, so I haven't read the last one--it isn't technically out in the US yet.) Not only are they spine-tingly fun, but they manage to accomplish the impossible: they make you love characters you would normally run screaming from.
In my day-job, I work closely with many of these "unlovable" types. These folks are often defined in society by the worst thing they've ever done. They cease to be husbands, mothers, brothers, and daughters, and become instead "rapists," "dealers," "robbers," and "murderers." Once that label is applied, it can be very, very difficult to convince ordinary citizens that there is still good in them. That their one (or two, or a dozen) horrible acts didn't eradicate the good people they can still become--and, often, still are. (Much like my chronic laziness, snap judgments, and occasional holier-than-thou complexes don't make me a horrible person.)

One of the hardest labels to overcome is that of "sociopath." Hardly anyone can come up with anything good to say about someone diagnosed as a sociopath. We think of them as knife-wielding bush-hiders, as suave serial rapists, and as slick salesmen who will take our grandmothers' fortunes with a wink and a smile and suffer nary a pang of conscience. They are as foreign to our experience as all our messy emotions are to them.

Until now.

In I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, John Wayne Cleaver, the protagonist of Dan Wells' books, is a diagnosed sociopath who is, inconveniently, named after two serial killers and a murder weapon (his father's name is Sam). He's also fifteen, lives in a mortuary with his mother, the mortician, knows everything there is to know about serial killers... and has decided NOT to become one. He has an elaborate system of rules in place to keep himself from following his more disturbing instincts (like "no stalking people"). He's bright enough to have seen his destiny and to have designed a way to thwart it. He is intelligent, humorous, and as loving as a sociopath can be (more than you'd expect, not enough to satisfy his mother).

Then, as in all good stories with this sort of set-up, a serial killer starts killing people in John's town. John decides that, as the ultimate serial killer profiler, he has the best chance of anyone at catching the killer unscathed. He's right... and wrong. To catch the killer, John must break his own rules (like "no stalking people") and consequently grapples with the monster inside himself, who likes being out of his box.The killer's identity (discovered rather shockingly about halfway through the novel) is a surprise not just because of what he is, or who he is, but because, like all good villains, he is the perfect foil for the hero. Who is, as I've mentioned, a sociopath.

Most shocking (which is saying something about a book that opens with a graphic account of a particularly messy embalming) is how utterly lovable the killer is. The killer, in fact, understands love, compassion, and devotion much, much more than John ever will. This operates to make the reader not quite sure who to root for--and creates an ending that has a sad sort of triumph.

I've been crushing on John Cleaver since April of last year, when, out of all the books at the LDS Storymakers conference I wanted, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER was the one I decided I couldn't live without. I was SOOO right.

Dan Wells accomplished what so many authors try--and fail--to do: he created a fully-rounded antagonist. An antagonist whose admittedly evil actions were nevertheless understandable. An antagonist who could have been the hero of a different sort of story--a hero whose actions we might have regretted, but whose goal we can't help but support.

How did he do that? I'm pleased to announce that I will be interviewing Dan tomorrow night for David Farland's Authors' Advisory Conference Calls. Our topic will be (you guessed it): Monsters, Sociopaths, and Other Sympathetic Characters. For a full hour, we will pick his brain on how we can make our villains slightly less stereotypically (read: boringly) villainous. How we can remember--and help our readers remember--that our villains are also sons and daughters, parents and siblings, friends and neighbors. Please join us, bring your questions, and learn about writing villains from the master. Full call-in instructions are on the Authors' Advisory blog.

Update: Dan's call was awesome (no surprise) and the recording is now available here.


  1. Robin, this is a fabulous post. I've been thinking about reading Dan's book for a while, but your post made me wonder if it was on audio--and it is! So, I'm off now to download it with my March credit.

  2. LOL-it better be! Writing Excuses is sponsored by Audible! :)

  3. Brilliant Books! I picked up his books last summer (I am not a serial killer in June and then Mr. Monster less than a week later) and was immediately hooked. I'll really be looking into how he does this one, especially since I'm currently writing a Dark Fantasy myself. This will be a brilliant interview!

  4. BA--I have a villain myself that could use some sprucing up. I'm very excited to hear Dan's advice.

  5. One of my favorite lovable villains is Dexter. (It's a book series turned into TV series). He is a serial killer, with a code--only kill people who deserve it, and he has to make sure they are very, very guilty before he murders them. His victims tend to be people who some how thwart the police or through mishaps are found innocent, though they're not. He also works as a blood splatter analysis for the Florida police. Good setup.

    I was turned onto this series by picking up the book "Dearly Devoted Dexter" at my local thrift store and read the back blurb--perfect example for writing a query, I thought.

    Dexter is a killer you will fall in love with.

    Great post. I will have to go check out his books.


  6. Angela--I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER was billed in Europe (which published it first, dang them all) as "teenage Dexter in an X-Files episode." If you love Dexter, you'll LOVE John.