Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What Happens When Your Villain is Smarter than You?

by Janis Patterson

I’m having a problem. I’m 60,000 words into A KILLING AT EL KAB (and loving it!), just at the point where my sleuth should start to pin down who the villain is. Only thing is, my villain has so far proved himself much smarter than I. There are clues (breadcrumbs, if you will) pointing to him, but there are more pointing to just about everyone else. At this particular point, I could probably make any one of half a dozen people the killer with equal ease.

I know who the killer is. I know why, and where, and how he killed. He is a very smart man – so smart that he hasn’t made a mistake yet. I know I have to find some flaw in his behavior, some crack where his villainy becomes obvious, but as of yet I haven’t. He has covered his tracks brilliantly, made no mistakes, and my semi-psychic but denying it sleuth is totally clueless as to how to handle a crime.

Okay, during a totally unrelated meeting this morning a thought of how to expose him hit me (good thing) but it means there is a lot of tweaking to be done in the stuff I've already written. I'll do it, though, if only to ensure my triumph over him. He's an arrogant, condescending so and so, and besting him will make me feel very good.

So I can hear y'all asking, why did I create him like that? Believe me, I didn't!

Every so often one local writing group or another will offer a workshop on creating characters, and for many years I attended every one. Some were pretty basic – physical description, work/hobby/whatever, dark secret in their past (and they all had to have a dark secret in their past) etc. Others were detailed to a ridiculous degree – all the above plus things like their favorite flavor of Jello, favorite movie star, who were they closest to in their family, their favorite teacher in elementary school, who would they be if they were a figure in history, what would they be if they were a food... Things I'm not even sure of even in myself! I remember one character interview that went on for seven single-spaced pages

All these workshops did was instill in me a great sense of envy for those who could follow whatever recipe was being taught. Oh, I followed every step with alacrity, made everything just as it should be... and bored myself to tears. After making up so much stuff about a character I found they had all the life and reality of a cheap paper doll. I feel the same way about detailed outlines. Ho-hum. No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader.

In case you haven't twigged to it yet, I'm a pantser. When I start a book I have a shadowy idea of the storyline and a couple of stick-figure characters that are more archetypal placeholders than anything else. The rest is done on the fly, and it often surprises even me. My characters walk in almost fully fledged (though they do change and expand and sometimes surprise the heck out of me as I write) and tell me what I'm to do, and if I dare to change what they have decided, they often get huffy and refuse to talk to me sometimes for days.

I tried to explain this to The Husband (a science rather than a word person) without much success. He listened politely, then asked a question or two, then shook his head, murmuring that writing sounded more like possession than it did creation.

He might be right. But I did figure out how to defeat my villain... and please don't tell anyone. Word does get around, and I do want to surprise him!


Cheryl said...

Interesting post, Susan. In my own writing, I always know when things are going well because my characters constantly surprise me. Your husband might be right about "possession"!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I love the way characters take over--sometimes making you do more work than you intended. Great post!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I always write a rough outline or synopsis before I start writing, but like you I can't always adhere to it. Makes for interesting writing!

Jan Christensen said...

Great post, Janis. Like you, I don't outline--takes all the fun out of the writing. I rarely know who dun it until I'm about two-thirds or even three-quarters of the way through so I can also be surprised by who the villain is. Give several characters opportunity and motive, then pick one. Writing is a lot of hard work, so I figure it should amusae me. And that way, hopefully it will also amuse the reader. Glad you found a way to catch your villain!

Book Readers said...

Very interesting post Janis. Love the last part...and no, we won't tell him!

Denise Rodgers said...

So funny. I'm not a pantser; I'm a plotter, a planner, and an outliner. Oh, and a pre-writer. But... once I start writing, the characters (who I feel I already know) take over and all my planning gets thrown out the window. I'm on book #3 now (haven't launched book one yet, but that's another story). In the first two books I knew exactly who was the murderer and in both cases this changed by the end of the book! So I know the guilty party in book #3, but as I'm only about a quarter of the way through, still not sure that this character is going to end up as the villain. Won't know till I get there, and getting there is so much fun. I can so relate with you, Janis. Only thing is I have to learn to launch already. Doing that is the true mystery for me!

Jean Henry Mead said...

I'm with you, Janis: a pantser who outlines nonfiction but can't for the life of me outline a novel because my characters won't stand for it. I enjoy tuning in each morning to witness what they're up to that day. And the killer usually eludes me until the very end.

Morgan Mandel said...

It's not always easy to keep up with our characters. They seem to be one step ahead of us.