by Elizabeth Thornton
In a novel, character is everything, the critics say, and I believe them. Think of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Think of the novels of Nora Roberts, Linda Howard, Georgette Heyer, Dean Koontz, or whoever happens to be your favorite author. These writers are as different as the stars in the sky, but they all have one thing in common: they invariably give their readers outstanding, distinctive characters and a series of emotionally charged scenes that linger in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished.
These emotionally charged scenes don’t come from thin air. They come from the characters themselves, from their motivations, their flaws, their fears . They come from complications in the plot that send our characters into a spin and bring out the best in them or the worst.
It is this integration and disintegration of character that fascinates me, whether I’m reading a romance, a murder mystery, a suspense novel, or a work of literary fiction. In my own work, every twist in the plot (and sometimes I have complex plots) has only one function to impact on my characters and get a reaction from them.
My characters are figments of my imagination. Occasionally, I’ll base a secondary character on a biography I’m reading. Flynn in Dangerous to Love, for example, came from the memoirs of an eighteenth century footman; Amy Spencer, in Dangerous to Hold, was based on the true life story of a famous nineteenth century courtesan, Harriette Wilson. But my knowledge of character comes, by and large, from my experiences as a lay minister in the Presbyterian Church.
For a period of eleven years, I worked in a large downtown church, and part of my job was giving pastoral care to the members of my congregation. It was my great privilege to share in their joys and sorrows, their victories and defeats. I’ve seen the best in people, and I’ve seen the worst. I’ve watched helplessly as people I cared about went to pieces under the crushing weight of their burdens, and I’ve stood in awe as others have picked up the shattered pieces of their lives and become stronger because of what they’ve endured. I’ve seen good people go off the rails, and people that society has written off make a miraculous recovery. I’ve known rapists and murderers, swindlers and suicides. I’ve prayed with them and worshipped with them. But most of all, I’ve learned from them. I’ve learned not to be judgmental. I’ve learned that the line separating good from evil is very fragile. Ordinary people, nice people like you and me, have the capacity to live like angels, but we also have the capacity to do the opposite.
This is what I try to bring to the characters in my books. Of course, the hero and heroine are destined to overcome all the flaws in their characters and the obstacles in their path. Lucky them. But my poor villains, well, my poor villains are destined to become villains.
They’re not mad. Somewhere in their past, they took a wrong turn, or they made a choice that led to the disintegration of their characters. It could so easily have gone the other way.
So my villains are just ordinary people like you and me. They can be any character in my story. I often don’t know who the villain will be until I get to the last act. He or she can be one of the nice characters or one of the nasty characters. There are always three or four people I’ve set up in my mind as possible villains, but only one of them will end up with a hidden agenda.
This method choosing ordinary people to be the villains has its drawbacks. In the first draft of my book, Dangerous to Hold, my editor was aghast at my choice of villain. He was too nice, you see. I’d involved her emotions. She really, really liked him. My readers would hate me, she said, for making him the villain. Would I please rewrite someone else into that part and give this secondary character a happy ending?
My editor thought I’d have to rewrite the whole book but of course, that wasn’t necessary because I always have three characters in reserve who may be perfectly nice, innocent people. Then again, maybe not. So, I did as my editor asked. After all, I don’t want my readers to hate me, and she’s one of my biggest fans!
In The Bride’s Bodyguard, when my villain is in prison awaiting trial and he’s visited by the woman he loves, my editor wrote in the margin of my manuscript, “but this is so touching.” She was surprised that there was any good in him, because he’d been portrayed as a nasty piece of work all through the book . But he wasn’t all bad, and if the woman he loved had been a different kind of woman, things might have turned out differently for him too.
In the next chapter, my hero wishes this villain could die a thousand deaths for what he has done. And that is natural too. Because of the villain, my hero’s whole life has been ruined, or so he thinks. He has yet to pick up the shattered pieces of his life and become whole again. And only then is he free to love the heroine with his whole heart.
Just a word about stock villains. They have their place. Think of Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy. He’s the villain we love to hate, though I don’t think it’s fair to say he is a stock villain. He’s too memorable for that.
In my next release, Whisper His Name, I’ve done something different with my villains. There are two of them. One is in the shadows and won’t be unmasked till the end of the book; the other is the stock evil figure we love to hate. His disintegration of character took place long before the book opens. My heroine is a reluctant hero because she’s just an ordinary girl, and she has no choice but to take on this terrifying, cold-blooded killer . One character rises above herself and acts in heroic ways, the other character becomes totally corrupt.
I don’t often have villains who are without some redeeming feature, but I was trying something new and I think it works.
Back to Darth Vader. He’s my kind of villain because, at the very end of the three part movie series, in almost the last film clip, he redeems himself. The same thing happens in Dean Koonz’s The Watchers and what a wonderful romance that is! I wept when this disgusting, travesty of a thing, this monster that Koonz had created, and made us hate and fear throughout his book, faced, indeed begged for, it’s own death.
It would have been so easy for Koontz to leave this monster as it was, something we all abhor. Instead, he did the unexpected. He gave his monster a soul, and his book is so much the richer for it.
Sympathetic villains affect me far more than the typically stock evil characters. They’re not all bad. In fact (shiver), they might easily be you or me.
My point of view is illustrated perfectly in the climactic scene of Tolkien’s trilogy, Lord of the Rings. Frodo, the hobbit hero, and Golum, the villain, are climbing the mountain. Frodo’s task is to destroy the ring and the evil power that goes with it. Golum wants the ring for himself. Then, gradually, the heroic Frodo becomes seduced by the power of the ring. His virtue begins to crack. We know that if he succumbs to the ring’s power, he will become like the villain, Golum, a pathetic, self-absorbed creature with no good in him.
Frodo’s struggle is touch and go, but eventually he wins. He’s still a hero.
And that’s when I learned to pity Golum.
Analyzing is easy because it’s logical. Creating is quite different. I don’t think consciously about how my cast of characters will fit into the framework I’ve described here. The goal of every author is to invent memorable, sympathetic characters and involve them in a cracking good story that will engage the reader’s interest from first to last page.
And that’s what I try to do.