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Friday 8 May 2020

✉ Writing Villains by Jeff Bond

Today author takes over our blog to tell us about "Writing Villains". His latest novel is The Pinebox Vendetta (, Jeff Bond, 263 pages), a Thriller, book one in the Pruitt-Gallagher saga series.

"Lyrical prose, tight pacing, and memorable characters elevate THE PINEBOX VENDETTA into a top-tier thriller ... Bond deftly weaves his plot around a group of vividly rendered characters ... While suspense elements give THE PINEBOX VENDETTA a classic feel, its politics couldn't be more timely. With a twist on nearly every page, THE PINEBOX VENDETTA is a satisfying suspense thriller that offers Ivy League chills." -- IndieReader (4.7 stars)

"Endlessly fascinating ... intrigues, betrayals, and conspiracies ... terrific as a study in endemic corruption."
-- Clarion Reviews

|| Synopsis || Teaser: KCR Preview || Author Guest Post || About the Author || Giveaway & Tour Stops ||

Writing Villains

by Jeff Bond

      Rock Pruitt—the villain of my new thriller, The Pinebox Vendetta—is already causing problems.  Among the early review quotes I can attribute directly to him are: “I became irritated every time he appeared, almost to the point of not finishing the book” and “I hate that it [the book] exists.”

      Before we write him out of the series Pinebox is meant to begin, though, consider these comments from readers with the opposite reaction: “Rock outshines Jamie [the opposing clan’s protagonist] at every turn” and “I absolutely loved following Rock around, living inside his brain.”

      It’s risky business angering readers, but on the whole I’m happy with how Rock turned out.  The best villains inspire strong reactions, intensifying the cheers of those rooting for the hero, winning over others who can’t resist the deliciousness of their unique evils.  In Rock, I feel confident the Pinebox series has a complex, reliably loathsome antagonist to keep the conflict high between the Pruitts and Gallaghers, the two dynasties at the heart of the saga.

      Writing villains can be fun, but it takes careful attention.  It’s easy to get lazy and do a haphazard job.  The protagonist is the character who is expected to show depth and grow throughout the book.  The villain is on the page less, with a more straightforward role usually dictated by the plot’s need to make things tougher for the hero.

      Seasoned readers and writers understand, though, that villains who burst off the page can elevate a genre fiction title.  So what makes one memorable?

      The writer’s first task is to create a real person with motives and objectives, not some maniac who commits heinous crimes for kicks.  A common thriller trope for addressing this is the childhood trauma origin story.  Here, the villain has suffered abuse or been otherwise traumatized in a particular way that explains their warped perspective.  This technique works best when the author finds something fresh—maybe an interesting clique dynamic or some fallen idol they believe was wrongly persecuted, rather than the standard abusive parent.

      In fact, if a villain is going be acting far outside the normal range of behaviors, many readers will expect a backstory like this, some means of reconciling this abhorrent person.  For Rock, who wears “abhorrent” pretty well, I inserted a scene where his father needles him after losing an academic competition to a boy of foreign heritage.  This establishes a mindset that Rock perpetuates into adulthood, of making crass generalizations based on race.  There's nothing cheaper than an author having their villain spew racism just to amp up reader dislike, then leave the attitude completely unexplained in the rest of the story.

      To be effective, a villain should be granted the same humanity the rest of a book’s cast is allowed.  Their logic should be internally consistent.  If that logic is warped, I find it helpful to dream up justifications or worldviews that I actually believe myself, or at least respect.  This keeps me honest and prevents me from stacking the deck in my protagonist’s favor.

      It can be challenging to write authentically from the villain’s perspective when they are, say, preparing to commit a shocking act.  But this is when it’s most important to knuckle down and do the work.  In these situations, I’ll dig back through my own experiences for some unflattering moment—a time I was petty or selfish or irrationally jealous, if only for an instant—and tease it forward.  Maybe all I did was swear under my breath or crumple a scrap of paper, but what if I’d kept going on that line of emotion, given in to that core of nastiness?  What might I have done?  What could I have talked myself into?

      Villains also need redeeming traits. In The Pinebox Vendetta, Rock is well-liked by bodyguards in his clan.  Early on, he buys a round of drinks for the homeless people he enlisted to spread his anti-Gallagher propaganda:
      The indigent were an agile, capable workforce. Rock had used them variously before and enjoyed their give-and-take now, carrying two dozen donuts into a bar and splurging for pitchers once the job was done. The homeless stank, but they had spirit. They were beyond kowtowing to authority and couldn’t be bullied like regular members of society. Rock respected that.
      Rock’s contempt is present (“stank”), but his actions and appreciation toward the homeless are honest and true to his character.

      Timing can be important in a villain’s characterization.  If the reader meets a villain right at the jump and is meant to understand they are villainous—perhaps to start the clock ticking against the hero—then the author’s task is to deepen them as the story unfolds.  If we learn a terrorist is plotting mass destruction on page one, then by page 100 we should know their political ideology, by 200 that their beloved aunt died at the hands of their intended target, and so on, until by the end the reader has enough answers to accept the plot the author has given them.

      Conversely, if a villain will be revealed midway through or at the climax—like in my first novel, The Winner Maker—then the opposite technique is needed.  Here the villain begins as a regular character, one of many, and accumulates detail over the course of the story that foreshadow their dark turn.  This one is a balancing act.  If the details are too glaring, the twist is telegraphed and loses its punch.  If they are too subtle, the character shift feels contrived and jarring.  And, of course, the whole thing is complicated by the fact that every reader has their own tolerances and radar for these clues.

      My last bit of advice for anyone in the villain-writing trade is a little gauzy: let your villains be odd.  They have goals that don’t square with regular sensibilities.  They are likely to be outcasts or asocial.  Let them fly into a rage about random topics.  Let them insist on ridiculous contingencies—that the getaway car must be a stick shift—just because it feels right.  It’s tempting as a thriller writer to make villains ruthless and precise, to amp the pressure at every turn, but resist this urge now and again.  Let your villain have a knock-down-drag-out fight with their henchmen and spend four manuscript pages recovering, getting their master plan back on track.

      There is a peculiar sort of pleasure in sinking deeply into your villain’s world.  For me, Rock Pruitt—awful as he is on so many levels—began flowing easily onto the page as the novel progressed.  I just knew exactly where his chapters needed to go and had total confidence writing his reactions, so much so that I’ve kicked around the idea of writing a novella with him as antihero, pursuing some dastardly goal.  I doubt I’ll do it.  I think the blowback from some of my loyal readers would be intense.

      Still, though, in certain moments Rock is alive in a dark recess of my brain, whispering, goading.
Aw, come on, wimp. Let’s get the Maserati out on the open road and take another ride…
From the author of The Winner Maker and Blackquest 40 comes The Pinebox Vendetta: a genre-bending thriller that combines a love story, cold-case murder mystery, and political blood feud — told over the course of a single breathless weekend.

The Pinebox Vendetta
Available NOW!

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CMash said...

Great post! I'm starting this book today!!!

Jeff Bond said...

Thanks so much for featuring Pinebox on your blog -- I appreciate it!

My Life in 916 said...

Nice post thanks for ssharing