One of the first things writers are taught is that your villains need to be as well thought out and as complex as your heroes.
Think about some of the classic antagonists of literature. Hannibal Lecter. Dracula. Captain Nemo. Anne Wilkes. Tom Ripley. Randall Flagg. Norman Bates.
We find ourselves fascinated with these people not just because they’re evil and we want them to pay for their crimes, but because they are three-dimensional. We know them almost as well as we know the protagonists and victims in their stories. In many ways, those books—Dracula, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Red Dragon, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Psycho, The Stand—are as much about the villains as they are the heroes.
What makes him/her/it tick? Why do they do the things they do? Were they always evil or forced into it by fate, circumstance, or a supernatural power? Do they enjoy being bad? Do they even think they’re bad? Remember Thanos from the Avengers movies? He truly believed that wiping out half the population of the universe was not only necessary, but good. Because it would ensure prosperity for the remaining half by eliminating overcrowding, lack of resources, and economic disasters.
He was ruthless, he was evil, he was conscienceless.
This is something that’s always in the forefront of my mind when I create the antagonist(s) for my novels. Who are they? Why are they the way they are? What do they think of the world, themselves, the people who are trying to stop them? Are they evil or misunderstood? Victims of circumstance or madmen?
I want my readers to identify with these villains, to believe in them as real people (or monsters), rather than just as props for the plot.
In order to do that, first I need to understand them. And that means putting myself in their shoes. It’s easy to do with a hero, but not so much with the bad guy.
And in Sins of the Father, it became doubly hard, because there are no traditional heroes or villains. Much like in real life, my characters are all painted in shades of gray.
Henry Gilman, the main character, is a man we can all identify with. He’s spent his life in his father’s shadow, and that has irrevocably shaped him as an adult. First following in the footsteps of a brilliant doctor and then dealing with the inevitable public humiliation when that same doctor commits a terrible atrocity and ruins the family name forever.
Henry struggles with money, as most of us do. He struggles to find love. He has hopes, dreams, goals. But life seems to put up obstacles at every turn, and happiness and success elude him. All of that is on the surface. But, like everyone, he is a product of his environment as much as his genetics. We are all shaped subconsciously by our upbringings. The idea of nature vs. nurture is, in reality, a false hypothesis. It is nature AND nurture that mold us, and in Henry’s case, neither has been particularly favorable.
As much as he refuses to admit it, he has inherited more than a few of his father’s personality traits, and more often than not finds himself making exactly the same mistakes as his father, for exactly the same reasons—even as he tries to do the opposite.
My goal with Henry was to create a sympathetic character so that as the story progresses, we not only feel sorry for him and root for him, but we understand (and perhaps agree with, in some cases) his actions when he slips off the path of righteousness he’s laid out for himself.
The secondary characters in the story were just as important to me, because all of them play significant roles in Henry’s actions and reactions. The friend who goes behind his back. The lover who leads him on but has her own ambitions. The police officer who is as dishonest as the day is long yet dedicated to keeping the town of Innsmouth free of crime. And, of course, Henry’s father. Cold, cruel, devious, yet at the same time proud of his son and wanting only the best for him.
In a way, Henry is a victim of several types of abuse. Physical, mental, emotional. Yet he’s an enabler of his abusers, to use a modern psychological term. He’s desperate for attention, for success, for wealth, and because of that, he doesn’t see the harmful traits of those around him. Or in himself.
This might seem like a lot of work to put into creating characters, but it’s absolutely essential. In many ways, reading a novel is like meeting new people. Except you not only get to know them through your interactions with them, you can spy on their private lives, see into their heads.
If the writer does their job right, you’ll come to know the characters of a book better than your own family.
Maybe better than yourself.
Sins of the Father
Henry Gilman has spent years trying to separate himself from his father’s legacy of murder and insanity. Now he has the chance – all he has to do is figure out who’s been killing people in Innsmouth. Then he’ll be a hero and win the heart of the woman he loves, Flora Marsh. But soon he’s caught in a web of danger, with the undead stalking the streets at night, a terrible monster lurking below the city, and a prophecy of destruction about to come true. In the process, his actions cause unwanted consequences and to save Flora he has to do the very thing he’s spent his life trying to avoid: follow his father’s footsteps into madness.
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A life-long resident of New York's haunted Hudson Valley, JG Faherty has been a finalist for both the Bram Stoker Award® (THE CURE, GHOSTS OF CORONADO BAY) and ITW Thriller Award (THE BURNING TIME), and he is the author of 8 novels, 11 novellas, and more than 75 short stories. He writes adult and YA horror, science fiction, paranormal romance, and urban fantasy. He grew up enthralled with the horror movies and books of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, and as a child his favorite playground was a 17th-century cemetery. Which explains a lot. His latest novel is SINS OF THE FATHER.