by Joe Stephens
As a reader and writer of detective fiction, one of the things I pay attention to and struggle with is the creation of a believable villain. As a reader, some of the best villains I remember have been complete sociopaths, with no remorse whatever. The comic book equivalent would be the Joker. Those can be entertaining, especially when they lose. An example from literature I’ve read recently was from James Lee Burke’s Light of the World. The killer was, based on some veiled backstory, messed up as a child. But, regardless of how he got there, Asa Surrette was a demon who gained joy from inflicting pain on others and had no mixed feelings about it. I did enjoy seeing him go down at the end of the book. And I was glad it was a painful death.
An example of that kind of character from my writing is a man named Antonio Bezaleel. He’s a pedophile in my upcoming book, In The Shadow.We know little of his history, and that’s on purpose. I didn’t just forget to tell you how he got to where he was at the beginning of the book. The reason is that there’s no amount of childhood trauma that can justify the unspeakable things this man does. It’s hardly spoiling things, considering what I write, that his end is ugly.
But for me, the most satisfying villains are the ones where we can see how they see themselves as the victim. They are flawed but relatable, at least to a degree. We can at least understand how they see the world. A good example of this from my recent reading is in Robert B. Parker’s last Spenser novel, which was actually finished after his death by his literary agent. The bad guy is a horrible man, but there’s a logic to his evil. And, though they are hard to find, there are even limits to it. He loves and is dedicated to his family. And we understand that much of his darkness comes from a very poor childhood that taught him that might makes right. So yes, we’re glad he loses, but we see in him not a complete monster but a flawed human being that, if he’d been caught early enough, might have actually been a decent person.
From my writing, an example of someone who ends up on the wrong side of the law, as well as the struggle between good and evil, is Johnny Tuttle from my first book, Harsh Prey. He becomes entangled with the mob and does awful things, but I hope readers will see him as a man who is simply in over his head because of one terrible mistake. He’s a man who truly does try to do right by his family but is so sullied by the ugliness, which, to be fair, he has brought upon himself that we are saddened though not surprised by how things end up for him. And ultimately, though we see him as a person who was predominantly good and whose influence on my hero, Harry Shalan, remains powerful, we feel that he deserved what he got.
So what are your favorite villains? Why did you find them compelling as a reader?
Joe Stephens is a teacher at Parkersburg High School. He is also the author of Harsh Prey and Kisses and Lies, both of which are available in paperback and Kindle formats. The paperback may be purchased from
Amazon, from J & M Used Book Store in Parkersburg, and from the author’s trunk.
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