Heroes and Villains – David Beckler

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Heroes and villains

As with most genres, the most important character in crime fiction is the hero. This is usually a detective – amateur or professional – who solves the crimes.  Writers intending to write a series must create a character readers will want to follow through various adventures. A writer will therefore spend a lot time and energy ensuring the hero has the depth and complexity that will grab you and hold your attention over many novels.

Some succeed so well they have detectives solving crimes well into retirement age. Although when these geriatric characters are running about kicking ass it can strain credulity. Once you have such a character, you can pit them against a succession of baddies.

The problem is that you need a succession of bad guys. These must be worthy of your hero, able to test them almost to destruction. They must also be distinctive; nobody wants to read about your hero vanquishing someone who even reminds them of a bad guy they’ve already defeated, let alone the same person. Despite this, many writers use a recurring villain. This shouldn’t be a surprise as we hate to discard a good character.

The most successful “series” villains are those who aren’t fully realised. One of the earliest is Professor Moriarty. Despite his status as a great criminal, most people are surprised to learn that he’s mostly a shadowy presence in a few Holmes stories. By keeping him in the background and not fleshing him out, Doyle lets each reader create their own vision.

Other writers create a nuanced baddie and let the villain and hero each win battles while continuing a war. A great example is Rebus and Morris ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty.  These battles aren’t central to every novel Cafferty appears in and sometimes, the two help each other to vanquish a greater threat. The danger of this approach is that not only does the role of the villain become ambiguous, but as the reader gets to know the bad guy, he loses his power. Once I get to know a character, they appear less threatening.

Some authors try to overcome this by making the villain so nasty that you can’t warm to them. The problem is that they then take on a cartoonish quality and are still ineffective, for example the Hannibal Lecter that appeared in the later books.

One way to avoid this problem is to introduce a villain on the same side as the detective so can continue to thwart his work whilst supposedly working with him.  Irving Irvin in the Harry Bosch novels is a great example.

Do you believe that a writer with a fully fleshed out villain can keep using that character as the antagonist? Can you think of any instances where this has been done successfully?

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