Writing a SymPathetic Villain

villainThere’s a fine line between love and hate, between madness and sanity, between a caricature and a character. It’s easy to paint a villain with broad strokes, make her or him larger than life–like the bad guy in a Bond movie.  But how does one create a villain whose villainy is a matter of circumstance, an individual who, under normal conditions, would actually be a pretty fun guy?

How does one make a character who does awful things elicit pathos in a reader?

Alice Sebold did this in her book The Lovely Bones. If you’ve never read it (or seen the film) it’s the tale of Susie, a girl who is kidnapped, raped and murder by a neighbour. The neighbour, Mr Harvey, is an utterly abhorrent, ghastly, depraved man, a serial killer, and Sebold manages to show his desperate loneliness in how he lives alone–and builds doll houses, which is creepy…and pitifully heartbreaking.

That small thing, the man alone building doll houses, was enough of an appeal to my emotions as I read the book, and, despite all that Mr Harvey had done, I remembered the loneliness that I had once experienced in my own life–and I felt pity for the man. Granted it was a fleeting sensation, but Sebold kind of blew me away with her skill as a writer.

When I wrote Alex, the villain in Next to You, I never really thought of him as a villain. CHIN NextToYou1920_1920x3022_1024I thought of him as the redheaded actor Eric Stoltz, a good-looking good guy having a really shitty year after a family tragedy and being dumped by the love of his life.

People do all sorts of less-than-intelligent things when life goes to hell. Alex walks that fine between love and hate, between madness and sanity, between wanting to do the right thing and winding up doing the wrong thing. I know what I wanted to do with Alex when I wrote him. I wanted to pull off a Sebold and show his humanity. I wanted the reader to have a little sympathy for him–in spite of his despicable actions.

Although it’s available for pre-order and on Netgalley for reviews, with the book’s release a little over a month away, it’s too early to tell whether I managed a balance between caricature and character with Alex’s reprehensible behaviour, if he comes across as simply a villain, or if he’ll elicit pathos of any kind from readers. Perhaps readers will find his desolation pathetic rather than sympathetic. However, I am hoping that someone besides me feels, for at least a fleeting moment, pity, or recognises his frail humanity.

 

 

 

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