Writing Believable Baddies - A Hornets Nest?
Updated: Aug 4
In my latest book, Lethal Legacy, I’m told by readers that the villain feels human. I’m not sure why, but male readers sometimes ‘like’ him while female readers usually don’t. I hadn’t written him to be likeable, just to be three-dimensional and real. I added his backstory and emotional issues to add perspective and to help understand some of his anger. But to me, that doesn’t make him likeable. Just understandable and human.
So, when I recently heard writing advice suggest writers make their antagonists not only believable but that the ‘bad guys’ needed to be likeable, it got me thinking.
I agree that characters need to be believable, which usually means making them three-dimensional and human, no matter if they are the hero of the story or the villain, but I wondered about the likeable part. The writing advice guru suggested that even Hannibal Lecter became an anti-hero by Movie number 3 – Hannibal Rising. Could that be true? I haven’t read Silence of the Lambs or seen the movies, but from what I’ve heard, this is unthinkable. I know it’s fiction, but still…
I did a little research about the book and the movies. One article confirmed that the Hannibal Lecter character became more of an anti-hero by the last film. It also provided an interesting critique and perspective.
You can read it here.
I write mystery suspense thriller novels with villains and everyday heroes and I want readers to enjoy my books. I also need to see justice in the stories I read and I’m OK with not liking the villains, actually, I’m more than OK with it.
Do readers of crime thrillers now need to like the villain in a story?
Let’s be clear. I find the notion of cheering for a serial killer unthinkable. It appals me. Again, I know it’s fiction but that doesn’t make it OK. I also want to see good triumph in stories, even if it’s not clear cut, I want the good guys to win. That means I need to be able to identify who the good guys are, and they can’t be serial killers.
Yet, there’s a trend in fiction to portray criminals as pseudo-heroes or anti-heroes. The bad-boy romances, the vigilante justice themes, and the revenge killers, all blur the lines of right and wrong. When they do this, they often also remove our sympathy for the victim. Even our heroes need to be flawed. It’s a troubling trend and raises lots of questions for me.
In the real world, victim blaming is a serious issue. I worry that we encourage this when we make our fictional baddies more acceptable, give them excuses, and sympathise with their motives.
All this musing about heroes and anti-heroes made me think about a novel I read some time ago. It disturbed me and as I read, I became more and more concerned about the messages the story sent.
Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan is a beautifully written book. It was a Booker Prize nominee. Many readers and reviewers have a very different perspective from mine. I may even be in the minority. I loved Andrew O’Hagan’s writing style, his lyrical way with words, his voice. In many ways, that’s what made my observations more worrying.
David Anderton, Father David, is a priest who moves to a small Scottish Parish. He is not accepted by the townsfolk partly because he's an outsider, was raised in England, studied at Oxford, and is worldly. He's also a Catholic priest who has moved into a predominantly Protestant area. His friendship with two local youngsters – delinquents- 15-year-old Mark and his friend Lisa, creates a problem. They steal, drink, and take drugs, and Father David, instead of providing moral guidance, encourages them.
Father David is learned but not wise. He is weak, self-indulgent, and self-centered but his character is written sympathetically. His grief and loneliness evoke pity especially when we learn that his mother is strangely aloof, his father died when he was young, and his lover died in their last year of University. Becoming a priest appears to have been an act of hiding and grieving.
If it weren't for my concerns about his interactions with the youths, I would have felt sympathy for him, although I found Father David hard to like.
The youngsters are written unsympathetically, especially Lisa. Their self-destructive behaviour and hedonism invite disdain, and despite their age, naivety, and lack of life experience, they are judged. They act tough but are strangely vulnerable and we never really learn who they are and the reasons for their behaviour. They aren't presented as victims and the reviews of this book make them the villains, the people who led Father David astray.
The townsfolk are portrayed as small-minded and their reaction to the central issue is shown as mob mentality, overreaction, and narrowmindedness. They are not likeable and their anger at the collapse of their community makes them harsh. Yet, in real life, I fear Father David’s behaviour would/should cause most parents concern.
Andrew O’Hagan has created a sympathetic main character in Father David (he’s the main character but to me, he’s the villain) and to me, the lyrical language made the priest's longings acceptable. But, in my opinion, he’s encouraging the reader to accept the unacceptable.
The next paragraph contains a spoiler, so if you don’t wish to know what happens, scroll past.
I found this storyline reminded me of real-life serious issues. I know it’s fiction, but the plot is important and I fear it affects the way we judge those in positions of power and influence taking advantage of vulnerable youths.
Father David's relationship with Mark is presented as innocent, possibly love, but it could be described as grooming in today's terminology. Mark is 15 years old and he has little experience of life. Father David is 55 years old. The kiss, and Father David's confession that he would have gone further if Mark had agreed, are shocking. Yet reviews suggest Father David gained readers’ sympathy, not their anger. The reviews vilify the township and even the teenagers, but rarely the priest.
The questions this book raised for me.
This book and the idea of likeable villains made me think about how, in real life, people often sympathise with the perpetrator of crimes, especially sexual crimes. How difficult it is for victims to be heard and believed. The story demonstrates this well. The idea that a victim needs to be perfect, a model child, before being accepted as needing protection permeates this story.
The royal commission into the Catholic church and their protection of paedophile priests also made me think of the O’Hagan storyline and its reviews.
Cardinal Pell’s recent death stirred up confusing thoughts. It’s hard to watch the outpouring of sympathy for a man who stood by and allowed children to be abused, time and again, and yet did nothing. During his career, Pell maintained hardline views on same-sex marriage, homosexuality, abortion, contraception, euthanasia, the climate crisis, and women in the clergy, yet when asked about the reports of child sexual abuse within the church he said it 'wasn't of much interest to me.' A strange answer given his position and his vocation.
‘wasn’t of much interest to me.’
Does the likeability of a villain/perpetrator diminish the seriousness of a crime?
Does a victim need to be a model citizen to deserve our sympathy?
In real life, many paedophiles are charismatic. They groom children by ingratiating themselves into families and communities and by selecting vulnerable youth – those who are less likely to be believed. Paedophiles garner support and trust to the detriment of their victims.
Can being likeable encourage such an unshakeable belief in the person that even hard evidence can’t damage them?
The Australian Royal Commission exposed the Catholic Church’s protection of paedophile priests, but even today, some refuse to believe the outcomes of the commission.
So, do likeable antagonists, either in fiction or real life, make it harder to identify with the victims or feel sympathy for them?
In real life, real heroes can lose everything. I admire the Mildura police officer, Denis Ryan, who refused to ignore the allegations of child sexual abuse by priests (despite being directed to do so by his superiors). He continued to investigate, and as a result, he lost his job, was denied a pension, and continues to suffer. Graeme Sleeman, a principal of a Catholic School in Grafton, NSW, tried to protect children from the notorious paedophile Father Peter Searson and repeatedly begged the parish and archdiocese officials to act. He was dismissed. He lost his career and it destroyed his life. I’m sure there are others whose stories should be told. We see how they suffered despite being heroes who fought for justice and what was right.
The role of Fiction
My storylines draw on contemporary issues and my research means I am often delving into the big issues of the day. It can be depressing. The baddies sometimes win. People are not always held to account and not everyone gets justice. Life isn’t fair.
Is fiction a mirror of our society or should it be better and provoke thought?
I read because I want to see justice prevail. Reading crime fiction is a safe space. We know it’s not real, but it can stimulate thoughts about real life/events/situations. It can help us define our values and what we care about.
Many novels shine a light on troubling issues within our society, and I for one, thank those authors. Issues like these can be difficult to write about in a sensitive yet honest way, and they can attract much anger. I confess to getting angry at Be Near Me, but mostly because I felt I, the reader, was being led to sympathise with the perpetrator. The reviews suggest it did. I’m not sure if this was Andrew O’Hagan’s intention, after all, once a book is written, readers overlay it with their own interpretations. Does the author agree with the reviews and the sympathy for Father David, or was he trying to challenge the reader? I don’t know the answer.
What do you think?
I enjoy complex thought-provoking stories. I also enjoy stories that shine a light on moral dilemmas or ethical issues. Authors like Elliot Perlman, Peter Temple, Scott Turow, and John le Carre often highlight complex moral dilemmas within their novels.
This complexity can provoke thought about what is important and perhaps even challenge the reader to define what justice means to them.
In some cases, creating a likeable villain might be a step too far (depending on how serious the villainy is of course.) It may confuse understanding with justification.
Can we dismiss it as fiction and therefore not important?
Can we be sure Fiction doesn’t influence what society is willing to accept?
I’m not sure I have an answer but these are important questions.
What do you think?
If you are interested in Lethal Legacy - click here for more information.
If you would like to know more about Deadly Secrets - click here.