Interview With a Killer (or not)

While we’re on the subject of villains…one way to get a handle on your mystery is to get a handle on your villain.

killer

Your killer (or any other criminal) should be fully developed before your story even opens. That is to say, he won’t be changing over the course of the novel. Everything that has contributed to your villain’s life of crime has already happened, especially because, by the time your story opens, the crime will have already been committed or will be committed very soon. So it makes sense to create a comprehensive character sketch of your villain before he sets foot on the page.

The best place to start is with the most significant event in the killer’s life that directly affects your story–AKA the murder or other terrible crime that needs to be solved. You can learn more about this event and get a feel for your villain’s voice by conducting an interview with him.

A few ways to do this is by establishing the scene as:

  • A police interrogation after being arrested
  • A written statement after confessing to the crime
  • A courtroom trial with testimony and cross-examination
  • A deathbed confession
  • A confession to a clergyman
  • A confrontation with the sleuth (amateur or otherwise), possibly in the moment he’s caught

Or you can get creative and have your villain apply for a job with Killers For Hire and get called back for an interview.

The idea with any of these interviews is to establish not only your murderer’s character but the details of the mystery as well.

Consider asking the following questions in your interview to establish the motive, method, and opportunity of the crime:

Who was the victim and what was the nature of your relationship?

Where did the murder take place and why this particular place? 

What time did it occur? What was the weather like?

What were you wearing? Were you trying to blend in or avoid being seen?

How did you get there? How did you get away?

How much planning was involved?

What weapon did you use, if any, and why that particular one? 

Where did you get it or who did you get it from?

Have you ever used that weapon before? Did you need special training to use it?

Did the weapon deliver a swift death or a long, slow, tortured process?

What wounds were inflicted?

How long have you planned the killing or was it a crime of opportunity?

Were there any accomplices?

Were there any witnesses that you know of?

Was this your first kill? If not, how old were you when it happened? How did the killing make you feel?

What did you do with the victim? Did you leave the body there, mutilate it, bury it, drown it, burn it, pour chemicals over it, leave it for the vultures?

I know this may sound scary to some of you pantsers out there, but trust me, once you decide who your killer is and figure out the what, where, why, when, and how of your murder, writing the rest will be cake. Even Dame Agatha Christie knew her killers and how she wanted her novels to end before she began writing.

So what does your killer have to say for himself?

 

 

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Villains, Antagonists, and Everything in Between

In last week’s post, I wrote that one of the most important aspects of writing a mystery is the villain. I chose this word, instead of antagonist, because it sounds delicious.

But there are differences between the two. So here’s the definitive answer on both.

Villains are always villains.

Antagonists are always antagonists.

Sometimes villains can be antagonists.

Sometimes antagonists can be villains.

Sometimes antagonists can be protagonists.

If that didn’t clear things up for you, here’s a better explanation:

Villains are motivated by evil. Not necessarily Satan, though I suppose that could also be true. Villains are cruel and malicious by nature and resort to criminal activity. Their whole existence is to cause harm and destruction. They may feel slighted by humanity or superior to it. They may even feel their diabolical actions are a form of social justice or in the world’s best interest.

Any way you slice it, villains are always villains. They may, however, not always interfere with the sleuth’s investigation. A villain may just go about her merry way killing off all the bellringers in a local competition to atone for the murder of her ancestor over five generations before without ever thwarting the investigation because she wasn’t on the suspect radar until it was too late.

Antagonists, on the other hand, don’t have to be evil at all. They may merely oppose or try to block the sleuth from achieving his external goal, which is to solve the mystery. This can be done without breaking any laws such as by starting rumors, deliberately stalling, lying, or evading. An antagonist may have the same goal as the main character or may just want the main character not to achieve it.

An example of the difference between a villain and an antagonist in a mystery might be:

Little Timmy, seeking revenge on a classmate, causes an accident that kills the classmate. Timmy’s mother, trying to protect her son, obstructs the investigation by hiding physcial evidence and lying to the detective about Timmy’s whereabouts at the time in question.

Timmy is the villain because his motive was to cause harm out of revenge. Timmy’s mother is the antagonist because she literally opposes the sleuth–she does not want your main character to solve the mystery because it would mean something horrible for her child.

Now as I said, villains can sometimes be antagonists. Not only do they commit the crime, but they lead the detective on a wild goose chase as well, perhaps taunting the sleuth with riddles, leaving false clues, and goading her into playing an “I’m smarter than you” game. Many mysteries centering on serial killers will use this device.

Villains as antagonists also love to knock your sleuth unconscious (every Nancy Drew mystery ever) in order to escape or even hold your sleuth captive.

In the same sense, you may have an antagonist who becomes a villain due to circumstances beyond her control, like feeling threatened or being exposed.

Consider a woman who stages her own disappearance in order to leave an abusive marriage. Her husband hires a private investigator to track her down. The woman’s goal is to not get caught and is in direct opposition to the P.I.’s. As the story progresses and the investigator closes in on her, the woman who is desperate and afraid she’s been recognized, murders the potential witness to prolong her freedom.

Though I’ve only seen the movie, I suspect Amazing Amy from Gone Girl is an antagonist who becomes the villain because she uses misdirection first which then escalates to murder as a means to an end.

In most mysteries, the protagonist will be a sleuth, amateur or otherwise. In capers and heists, however, the antagonist becomes the protagonist because we see the story from the thieves’ point of view. The thieves are not considered villains despite resorting to crime because they don’t steal with evil or malicious intent. They do it mostly because they can, mostly to see if they can get away with it. (And I’m sure the money it brings isn’t too bad either.) By definition, capers are lively and playful, often humorous, and you would be hard-pressed to find much more than childhood mischief as motive.

We want the thieves to succeed because the victim of the theft is usually a horrible person and deserves it, so the detective who investigates the crime becomes the adversary or antagonist.

So there you have it, the definitive answer on all things villain vs. antagonist.

Take a look at your own “bad guy.” Where does he or she fall on the scale of villainy?

Do you like your villain or antagonist more than your detective?

Do you want your villain or antagonist to get away with the crime?

A Word About Antagonists

No matter what you call them–antagonists, bad guys, villains, opponents–they always get a bad rap like 7th grade bullies.

Who's the real bully?

Who’s the real bully here?

It only seems natural that we think of antagonists as evil because they make it increasingly difficult for our main characters to reach their goals. And because we love our main characters and want to protect them and watch them succeed, we make sure we create antagonists our readers will hate.

But antagonists don’t have to be evil, and we shouldn’t always think of them so one-dimensionally.

Regardless of whether it is your protagonist or antagonist, all characters are motivated by something. All characters have a distinct and specific internal need that drives them, however subconsciously, toward their goals.

Antagonists are no different, though usually they are motivated by ignoble desires like greed, lust, power, and revenge. But if we truly look at what causes those characters to embrace their dark side, we’ll see some sort of tragic event in their backstory. Perhaps they were subjected to neglect or abuse, witnessed corruption or violence, were bullied or humiliated. Enslaved even.

We aren't born bad.

Antagonists aren’t born bad.

These are all events that could have happened to our main characters too. And in either case the internal need for each type of character is the same: the need to be protected or to protect, the need to be loved or to love, to be accepted, to be recognized, to face fear, to just be happy.

Unfortunately, while our protagonists take a more worthy approach to fulfilling these needs (saving the world, kittens, old people), our antagonists take a slightly different, selfish path to reach them.

So when dreaming up your antagonist, try to sketch him as a complex, multi-layered character and not just a vehicle to make your protagonist’s life hell. Ask yourself what he is motivated by and what need he is trying to fulfill. For instance, a teenager living in the ghetto whose father always told him he’d amount to nothing may choose to join a gang and prove he is worthy of his father’s respect. Not evil (though he may do evil things), just a bad choice in how he goes about proving it. Another kid with the same history may choose to further his education, become a lawyer (much more evil), and move away. The same need, a different, more moral (cough) response.

Which brings me to another bit of advice. There are two different reasons your antagonist and protagonist will clash.

First, your antagonist may want the exact same goal as your main character. For instance, two men fighting over the same girl (if only).

The same goal motivated by different reasons.

The same goal motivated by different reasons.

Obviously, they will both do things to stop the other from getting her. Your protagonist will choose more righteous actions while your antagonist will generally be a douchebag. Is the latter evil though? He may be, but he may also be your main character’s best friend. What makes it wrong for one man to fall in love with that girl and not wrong for the other? Both inherently need to feel loved, though one may be motivated by feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, or jealousy.

Secondly, your antagonist and protagonist’s goals may be mutually exclusive. That is, one may not want the other to reach it. For instance, the Nazis wanted the Ark of the Covenant for power. Indy didn’t want them to get it.

Now this is a villain.

Now this is a villain.

Did either achieve their goal? Technically, yes, but not in the way they had imagined. And that’s okay if the goal doesn’t turn out the way your characters think or want, if the ark ends up in some military warehouse where another power-hungry leader can get to it. At least your main character saved the day for now. Not for reasons of power or greed or lust. For humanity.

And that, my friends, is my humble opinion on the difference between protagonists and antagonists. It’s not that their needs or goals are necessarily different; it’s that the antagonist, growing up jaded and cynical, is motivated by selfish reasons and makes bad choices.

Rosewood Lane: From a Writer’s Perspective

Kudos to creepy paperboy(s) for making this movie slightly unsettling, despite the paperboy looking like he’s about 19 and still riding a bike. A 12-year old would have been creepier.

Though as bad as Rosewood Lane, starring Rose McGowan, is, a writer can learn a lot about plot by using this storyline as an example of what not to do.

Here is my top 10 list:

10. Never play the “crazy” card, using it as an excuse to let your antagonist do whatever he wants. Even if your bad guy is paranoid, schizo, delusional, psychotic, or just a generic form of mentally ill, your antagonist will always have a motive for why he does the things he does. It may not be logical to sane people, but it at least has to be plausible to the audience. Your bad guy will encounter an inciting incident and have an external goal much like your main character. You should never use the excuse that “he’s crazy” to justify his actions.

9. Never write an animal into your story just to kill it off later. (Unless you’re Stephen King.) Having your antagonist kill an animal just to prove he’s evil is like beating a dead horse. The audience should know he’s evil long before he gets his hands on Fido or Fluffy especially if you’ve spent as much time creating your villain as you did your protagonist. Don’t fall victim to the trope. Instead, do something less cliché like getting Fido or Fluffy help your main character vanquish the villain.

8. On that note, never have your main character leave her pet outside or alone in the house when she knows there’s a psycho murderer on the loose. And certainly don’t leave it outside if the murderer has a history of killing animals. It’s completely irresponsible of your main character, and your audience will hate her and you for it.

7. Never place a weapon into your plot just because you think it’s cool. I mean, what lawyer for the District Attorney’s Office lets off steam by shooting a crossbow? And don’t let said lawyer leave the weapon lying around in the basement with a psycho murderer on the loose who has already broken into the basement. While it is true that if you introduce a gun in the first chapter, you need to make sure someone uses it, you should also make sure your weapon du jour has a credible reason for being used. Police detective>Gun; Hunter>Crossbow; Ex Special Forces soldier>sniper rifle; Lawyer>Crossbow=NO! Baseball bat, maybe. Wusthof Cook’s Knife, more likely.

6. Never mention bits of backstory without explaining the significance of it. For instance, if your creepy paperboy spouts off nursery rhymes and your protagonist mentions off-handedly that he must have heard one of her radio shows on nursery rhymes, then please explain what this show was about and what the correlation between nursery rhymes and abuse victims and/or psycho paperboys is. Because if we don’t know, we won’t be able to understand your psycho paperboy’s motive (See #10.)

5. Never introduce subplots you have no intention of following up on. If your protagonist has a conversation with another character about having been in therapy before, make sure the audience knows exactly why she was in therapy and how her actions now seem to warrant more sessions. I mean, I don’t think Googling the paperboy’s address to talk to his parents after he’s broken into your main character’s house, stalked her on his bike, rearranged her porcelain knickknacks, and tried to kill her boyfriend is unjustified or abnormal behavior needing counseling.

4. For that matter, never write a story without at least two-to-three subplots as they provide the audience relief from all the tension of the main conflict. Many subplots include elements of humor, romance, and every day nuisances to allow the reader to catch her breath until the next big upheaval happens. It is often these subplots that show the depth and complexity of your characters because they are not just reacting on adrenaline.

3. Never introduce a supernatural element into your story then explain it away in the resolution. Yes, this may be construed as a plot twist, but it is also misleading. Your reader wants to know what kind of story she is reading and will allow herself to invest in this world as long as the author delivers. If you have not provided any clues that the other-worldly, adopted paperboy with the reptilian eyes who can be in two places at once is really just one kid in a set of triplets, your reader will feel duped and cheated.

2. Never write a resolution that fails to tie up major events. That’s the whole point of a resolution–for the audience to see the widespread effects of the main plot and most subplots. What happened to the lawyer boyfriend who was buried alive somewhere? Your main character just spent two hours trying to find him, digging through piles of dirt in her backyard to no avail, so it must be time for a bath, and we must never mention his fate again.

And my #1 thing to never do in your story is:

1. Never ever have your pscyho paperboy shoot your main character in the back with a crossbow then rip out the arrow as she runs to her car (because how else is she going to sit in the seat) only to have her beat the crap out of him with a baseball bat one-handedly, get in the car, spend 30 seconds trying to start the car with her left hand because apparently she is now paralyzed on her right side, make a 3-point turn, slam her car into the paperboy who is now riding his bike straight into her, watch the bike fly over the car without the paperboy on it, then get out of the car to look around the street for his body. If you can’t find all the problems with this scene then I can’t help you.

There you have it. Ten things you should never do in your plot. Hope this helps.

Insidious: From a Writer’s Perspective

I’d heard from several reliable unrelated sources that Insidious was the scariest movie they’d ever seen, so I had to watch it. At midnight. In the dark.

Umm, not so much. Chock one up for creepy, discordant music, though, and some disturbing images of 1950s doll-like psychotic mannequins. But I’ve seen the fire face guy before in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, the old lady in my head while reading a book, and the little boy in the cap in my dance troupe. None of them are that scary. (Well, except for the old lady in my head.)

A few problems I had with the overall story:

1) The protagonist does not actually know he’s the main character until about two-thirds into the story. The entire first act and much of the second is based on Renai and her actions. She has a relationship with her children (well, ok, I don’t believe there was a need for Foster at all–the screenwriter could have easily had Josh “see” Dalton walking around in his astral body, which would have foreshadowed his whole childhood as an astral-projector), she sees the demons/ghosts/rip-off Buffy bad guys, she makes the family move houses, she contacts the priest, the mother-in-law, and Elise. She wants to be believed; she knows her son’s coma isn’t normal (if it’s possible) and she wants him out of it. (I think there could have been a nice scene where she actually talks to Dalton while he’s in it to reinforce her worry and her fears.)

2) Not one insinuation is made that Josh was having an affair. He was grading middle-school papers until 11:30 at night at school because they needed extra money for Dalton’s medical bills. Even I don’t believe it and it was the truth. First, teachers, correct me if I’m wrong, do not get paid overtime, and they aren’t forced to stay at school to grade papers when they can take them home and do it. Secondly, there is a completely missed opportunity to see Josh in his astral projection mode when he falls asleep at his desk. Yes, we see a black and white image of Dalton in his bed in a coma, but astral projection connotes movement–you travel to different realms. You do not just stand there. How is the audience supposed to know he wasn’t just daydreaming? (At the very least, we should have seen Josh in the scene at his son’s bedside.)

3) If I need to bring a character in (the mother-in-law) halfway through the story to explain something, then I haven’t done my job at creating my main characters or their backstory well. By the end of the first act, we should know who the main character is, what his external goal and internal need are, and whether or not he’s going to take up the challenge of achieving them. Unfortunately, Josh doesn’t even know what his goal is until Elise tells him he has to go into astral projection mode to find Dalton and bring him back. (This didn’t happen until I was completely bored and ready for the movie to be over.)

4) Nothing is explained. I’m so sick of watching scary movies that rely on flashing freaky images across the screen to divert our attention away from the real purpose of watching a movie–to be entertained with a story. I still want to know why the old lady chose to attach herself to Josh, why his mother could see her in the photographs (how could Renai see them for that matter?), what the point was of the demon/doll/mannequin blasting away the 1950s family, and who the antagonist was. If it was supposed to be fire face guy, I need to know a little more about him (like who he was before he died) besides that he sits in a pseudo toyshop/alchemist’s lab and listens to Tiny Tim‘s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” (Incidently, antagonists have their own external goals and internal needs that motivate them just as protagonists do. The audience should be privy to this information as well–even better if you can make us sympathetic to the bad guy at the same time we want to see him defeated.)

I also need to know that Dalton can astral project and that he isn’t just scared to sleep in his room at night. Not to mention why they needed to move to the first house at all. Renai said she didn’t want things to be the same, she wanted to start over–start over from what? Was Josh having an affair? Did she just get released from a mental hospital? I need to know what happened before the story starts, so I can understand why I am coming in at this moment in time.

5) On the other hand, I do not need to know that Renai is an aspiring songwriter. While it’s a nice characteristic, it isn’t intrinsic to the storyline. She’s not even the main character. Isn’t there some detail the writer could have given Josh to actually make us sympathetic to him? As it is, he has no relationship with his wife or children and he doesn’t even take an active role in the plot until Elise tells him to.

6) And lastly, these malevolent beings supposedly want to inflict pain on the living, but I don’t see that really happening in the movie. There is that one dude who looks like The Crow/Joker, and he did try to attack Renai. But other than that, what is his purpose? I think this bit of action would have been better left to fire face guy. Oh, but wait, we’re not sure if he’s the antagonist or not.

There are some major elements of storytelling missing in Insidious, and it isn’t even scary enough to make up for it. Had the screenwriter just made Renai go in to get her son and had Josh lead her and Dalton out, some of the problems with this movie would have disappeared.  Renai would have achieved her external goal of rescuing her son and her internal need for being believed.

Like I said, “Some of the problems.”