Fictional Villains Must Still Kick the Dog
By Larry Kahaner
One of the challenges of using your non-fiction skills and experience to write fiction is the issue of characters. Much of work-related prose doesn’t feature people. There are exceptions of courses – you may have written a profile – but even then, you only touch on the person’s personality because the story is usually more about his or her work.
Novel writing is different. It’s all about characters. It’s all about how they feel, how they act, how they relate to others, their demons and on and on. Readers want to know these people in great detail. If you, as a writer, don’t make the reader understand and care about the characters (and that holds for the bad guys, too) then no amount of clever plotting is going to make your novel a success.
How to do this? Simple.
In books, as in life, we judge people by their thoughts and actions, but mainly by their actions. If you want the reader to emotionally connect with your characters have them do something that elicits an emotional response. For example, Shakespeare had an easy and immediate way of telling the audience who were the evildoers. They would walk on stage and kick a dog. They would do it in a way as if the dog were a contemptuous creature. What could be a more heinous act but to hurt an innocent dog? On the other hand, as movie director Alfred Hitchcock noted:
In the old days villains had mustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don’t want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings.
I partly disagree with Hitch. Although audiences are indeed more sophisticated than those before them, the old villain tropes still work – and they work well – because they register an emotional click of disgust from readers.