I read a lot of mystery and suspense novels. Authors ruin many of them for failing to develop their antagonist in a manner that makes their downfall gratifying to the reader. Sometimes we don’t even know the name of the murdered. When we do, it turns out to be some throwaway character that hasn’t touched us in a meaningful way. We turn the last page, stretch and yawn and feel vaguely dissatisfied without know why. Murders, bank robbers, and terrorists aren’t supposed to be likeable, you’re probably thinking. Well . . . maybe and maybe not.
Mistake number one is inviting some unknown character into your plot. You don’t know very much about him, and neither does the reader after they’ve finished your book. We know he is bad because his appearance is out of kilter. He looks nothing like the people we want as our friends, and we certainly wouldn’t invite him to a dinner party. He might be too handsome for his own good, and therefore mistreats the women in his life. He might be unattractive, with all of the prerequisite snarls, sneers, and grimaces. He might use the f-word, or one of the many b-words. No one likes him, and we aren’t going to like him either.
Ask yourself this question while you’re stirring up your next batch of characters. Who is the most frightening; the unknown guy who lifted a finger at you in traffic this morning, or the live-in boyfriend who left those marks on your best friend’s pretty face? What about your supervisor’s son who likes your dress a little too much. Ahhh, you say. Now you’re getting personal. Of course I am, and that is the major element that makes a story hang together in a suspenseful manner. The devil we know is a lot more frightening than the devil we don’t.
What makes someone intensely frightening to me? He or she must have some ‘in your face’ characteristic that makes it impossible to avoid them. They must have some logical connection with my main character in a way that is going to bring about a major collision. At some point in the story, I must become the main character and feel what he or she feels. I must have that feeling that they are going to tangle their fingers in my hair at the wrong moment, go after my bank account, attack some family member, or otherwise damage me in at some indefensible manner. And the most telling point of all is the fact that I must feel somewhat guilty in defending myself. The villain must be more – much more – than a faceless thing. In our heart-of-hearts there is no problem in taking a golf club and pounding a ‘thing’ until it becomes a mound of dead flesh. The really great novels are little more than morality plays where otherwise loveable characters run amok. Don’t make your character curse at me; instead give me a reason to slap the helping hand aside that he extends in my direction. You need to know what he is doing, or thinking about doing, and it must keep you awake well into the night . . .