I’m writing a great suspense novel. The love interest is hot, the mystery is intriguing, and the heroine knows how to rock a pair of keds. There’s just one problem, the villain doesn’t ring true.
In order for the plot to work as it is, we need to buy that he likes murdering people just for funzies. He also doesn’t want to get caught, but he loves teasing the FBI with hints.
Now, when a villain isn’t ringing true, I have to ask a few questions:
Are there people in real life like this?
Sadly, yes. So, it does pass the “real world” test.
But that doesn’t mean a reader is going to buy it. I mean, a vending machine is more likely to kill you than a shark, but I haven’t seen a whole lot of stories about a small-town mayor dealing with a mysterious, killer vending machine. (Though, Vending-Machine-Nado may be in development?)
I’d bet that most readers would find a vending machine related death highly unbelievable, whereas we all know when we’re at the beach we’re just inches away from being squished to death by ferocious shark jaws. So, while these attributes may occur IRL, in a way, fiction has to be truer than reality.
Have books and movies worked with that kind of villain before?
Yeah. Pretty much every serial killer movie, TV show, book, and macabre Sunday morning comic comes to mind. So, that’s not it…
If these motivations can work, both in real life and on the page, what’s wrong here? Is there some aspect of this character that’s different than characters with similar motivations in pieces that work?
Ding ding ding!
Random serial killers “work” as villains because, I think, we imagine that person has a compulsive desire to be in control, to be special, and to feel clever. They murder so that they can have the ultimate control over someone else. There aren’t many serial killers out there, so this act makes them special. And they tease the cops so they can feel like a superior mouse to the stupid cat cops.
They’ve lacked all these elements in their life, which is why they are willing to take such extreme measures to attain them. (Full disclaimer, I’m not saying this is the actual psychology of serial killers, as I think it’s likely much more nuanced than that, but I think this is how most readers/viewers would interpret those types of motivations.)
I’m pretty sure that the reason my villain doesn’t make sense is because he has a speculative power, one that would give him a certain amount of control over other people.My villain doesn’t need to kill people to feel special and in control. He already is special and in control! So his motivation lacks authenticity.
Now of course, there are evil characters with super powers, but they usually have some higher motivation, like the pursuit of power, revenge, protection of other superheroes, love, an intense desire for tomato soup on a rainy day, etc. etc.
By realizing what, exactly, is the problem, I can take a few steps back and see that his motivation has to involve higher stakes for him, he has to have a higher purpose.
Now I just have to figure out what that might be….hmmmmm….