Lee Thomas is the author of over 20 books, including, The German, (for which he won the 2012 Lambda Literary Award in the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror category), The Dust of Wonderland, In the Closet, Under the Bed, and Ash Street, among others. You can learn more about Lee and his work by visiting his website.
Lee will be teaching a workshop for WLT on October 11, called “The Ones You Love to Hate: Writing a Good Bad Guy (or Gal).” Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
Lee Thomas: I was a voracious reader when I was a kid. I read whatever was lying around the house. Among the first few “adult” books I came across were Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. I might have been ten years old, maybe younger. Most of the other books in the house were by Barbara Cartland and Louis L’Amour, and they didn’t grab me the way the Capote and Blatty did. Horror movies were also a big part of my childhood, so when I went to the library or had a few bucks of my own to spend, I looked for books that might recreate the thrill I took from those films. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King was one of the first books I bought for myself, because the paperback had this creepy, embossed cover, and I became hooked on his stories. A little later, I discovered Peter Straub and his brilliant novel, Ghost Story, which I read cover to cover three times before I sought out his other works. It snowballed from there. Even though my reading interests have expanded into the classics, crime/noir, and contemporary literary works, I still gravitate toward darker material.
Scribe: In your opinion, what is it about bad guys that’s so fascinating to write and to read?
LT: In general terms, bad guys operate with a level of freedom that heroes don’t. They have the power, whether through physical strength, cunning, or resources, to pursue their desires unimpeded by morality or law. For much of a story, the villain “gets away with it.” Whatever their plan, whether it’s Mr. Wickham from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or the titular character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the bad guy is getting what he wants, and carries on all-but-unimpeded until the heroes become aware of his scheme.
Heavies aren’t confined by society’s expectations or rules, and that is frightening, but it’s also enviable. As readers, we love that they aren’t worried about the police or the FBI or cirrhosis of the liver. We also know they are operating against what we consider the societal boundaries that keep us safe, and as such, we expect them to be held accountable for their actions. Sometimes they are. Sometimes not.
I should also mention that a story’s heavy isn’t always a figure of evil. A villain’s motivation can range from the psychotic to the well-reasoned (but intensely misguided). An antagonist can be a good person with a bad idea and the power to push it forward. Whatever the motivation, villains are generally freer to pursue their impulses.
Scribe: Do you think it’s important that the reader feel some sympathy for the villain?
LT: No, I don’t believe sympathy is essential in the creation of an effective villain. It would be difficult for readers to find sympathy for, say, Hannibal Lecter, particularly early on. He can certainly be admired for his brilliance in both insight and calculation, but readers didn’t get a glimpse into his past, the incidents of brutality that helped form (or break) his psyche until his third appearance in print: Thomas Harris’s Hannibal. At this point in the series, Harris filled out the character and made him more sympathetic, but it came well after the character had been established. By then, Lecter was already an iconic villain having appeared in both Red Dragon and also The Silence of the Lambs.
Another example would be Anton Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Chigurh is presented as unrepentant and unstoppable evil. Often enough, these kinds of characters are flashy but flat, never rising above the notion of Isn’t evil neat? But this is not the case with Chigurh. He is compelling not simply because he is cunning and vicious, but also because McCarthy elevates the character to mythic proportions through accounts told by secondary characters. In fact, Chigurh himself views his actions as mythic, believing himself an instrument of fate.
Villains have to be engaging and relatable to the reader. Granted, one way to engage the reader is by making the villain sympathetic, but it’s not the only way.
Scribe: Finally, who’s your favorite villain?
LT: My favorite villain ties back into my early influences. She/it comes from Peter Straub’s novel, Ghost Story. Alma Mobley/Eva Galli/Angie Maule (and others), is a shape shifting entity that appears at different points in the lives of the story’s heroes. This powerful being, described as a Manitou, might be otherworldly, but her motivations are drawn from a very human palette. After that, my favorite villain would be Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello. Though so many motivations are hinted at with his character, they are all subtle enough to be dismissed as the justifications of a guy who just likes to manipulate and mess with other people’s lives. There are a number of ways to interpret him, and it’s this complexity that I find interesting.
To read about and register for our fall classes, visit our Classes page.