When it comes to characters there’s one phrase in the reviewer’s arsenal that would pierce the heart of even the most hardened writer – ‘pantomime villain’. Those two words, along with ‘two dimensional’ can unravel an author’s confidence faster than an empty signing line. No author sets out to write a cliché or a cardboard cut-out. We want our antagonists to be as real to the reader as they to us, but even the most established writer can occasionally produce a dud.
One of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve been given as an author is the maxim, ‘every villain is the hero of his own story’. Unlike children’s films – where the bad guys gleefully muse on their own villainy – real life antagonists rarely view their actions as evil. ‘She pushed me too far’ is the wife beater’s defence, ‘I saw red,’ the murderer’s explanation and ‘I couldn’t stop myself,’ the paedophile’s plea. Even when the offence is pre-meditated there are always extenuating circumstances, according to the perpetrator anyway.
My new novel The Fear is about a woman who confronts the man who groomed her as a teenager and convinced her to run away to France with him. As I sat down to plot the book I realised I’d have to use an even hand in the way I portrayed the teacher. Although the story isn’t told from his point of view he does have a voice – in his interactions with my main character in the present, and in the way he groomed her in the past. It would have been easy, and lazy, to paint him as the picture of evil, a man who targets vulnerable girls for his own sexual pleasure. A reader would expect explosions of temper, physical violence, coercion and manipulation from a man like that. How, I wondered, could I add depth to that very flat, clichéd image of a paedophile? How about if I made him emotional, romantic, prone to bursting into tears and a little bit pathetic? Real villains aren’t always knife wielding maniacs. Sometimes they’re kind, caring and generous. And it’s that unpredictability that can make an antagonist truly terrifying.