Following a highly interactive session with Ian Sales about the Modern Day Detective, which gave us pointers to the complexity, procedure and pressure of running a modern day investigation, as well as the culture of the police, to give us that edgy realism and intensity to our writing, attendees of Creative Thursday attended the second Intensive Writing Workshop: Last Orders - How to Create a Murderer.
This exercise-based workshop with award-winning crime novelist, Guardian crime fiction reviewer and Guardian/UEA Masterclass tutor Laura Wilson, showed us, with the aid of a series of unusual photographic prompts, how to create memorable, psychologically complex villains with plausible motives.
A villain is usually the person who does the killing, but a great crime novel consists of good triumphing over evil and the status quo being restored and a villain runs the gamut from the personification of evil to someone whose actions you could condone.
In 2003 the American Film Industry published a list of top 20 villains and the top 10 is as follows:
1) Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs)
2) Norman Bates (Psycho)
3) Darth Vader (Star Wars)
4) Wicked Witch of the West (Wizard of Oz)
5) Nurse Pratchett (One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest)
6) Mr Potter (It's a Wonderful Life)
7) Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction)
8) Felicity (Double Indemnity)
9) Regan McNeil (The Exorcist)
10) Damien (The Omen)
The top 10 heroes:
1) Atticus Finch (as played by Gregory Peck)
2) Indiana Jones
3) James Bond
4) Rick (Casablanca)
5) Will (High Noon)
6) Clarice Starling (Silence of the Lambs)
7) Rocky Balboa
8) Ellen Ripley (Aliens)
9) George Bailey (It's a Wonderful Life)
10) T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)
Laura believes that even madness has to have some internal consistency, even though it can be unrecognised by the mad person as there are no limits to human self-delusion. Murder has to have a credible motive/reason why.
Motives for murder:
1) For practical reasons - money, power or self-protection (e.g. if you need a heart transplant and are on the list, bump off the others)
2) Emotional satisfaction - revenge, envy, jealousy, love, ambition
3) Conviction - terrorism, in order to achieve an ideological/social/religious or aesthetic purpose, altruism and intellectual
4) Murder committed by psychopaths, criminally insane, irrational (drugs etc.)
Any motive you can think of falls into 1 or 2 of these categories.
As the Guardian's crime fiction critic, Laura notices a lot of the same stuff, e.g. golden girl slipstream 2 years ago when they wanted the next Stieg Larsson (turned out to be Jo Nesbo) then it was novels set in Cuba, Italy, Spain and when Dan Brown had come out, she noticed a lot of Maltese crosses. Trends can also be things like friends from Uni/school who do a bad thing that haunts them the rest of their lives or human trafficking; social/domestic trends i.e. no divorce murder. There is humour in crime fiction, e.g. Elsie Tyler, Christopher Brookmore and Simon Brett, but you can't sell it abroad.
Murders motive has to be properly thought through:
1) Things are not sufficiently accurate (when you have done something you must remember you have done it, e.g. a one-handed person cannot row in a boat to escape)
2) Fear of creating problems (need tension/suspense, create it then compound it, needs to be 3 times as bad by the middle of the book)
3) Quite difficult to kill somebody (remember the physicality of the whole thing; a dead weight is a dead weight)
Consider whether your killer feels remorse and their actions must match accordingly (guilt, horror, self-loathing) and you need to understand how they got that way (not in a backstory way). You can search the national archives and all the photo's from crime scenes are there, as sometimes seeing things in black and white can be more helpful than research.
You and the murder/er needs to:
1) Have sufficient motive (to them that we can believe)
2) The character introduced early enough in the story (can be peripheral in the beginning, then can forget about them and reintroduce at the end)
3) Don't change your mind halfway through as to who's done it without going back and altering
4) Don't make them so bad in every way that it is obvious it is them (a single redeeming feature does not cut it either)
5) Don't have the villain recounting their evil plan at the end of the book (information dump)
6) Avoid them conveniently giving up
7) Convincing background (can't be just Mum/Dad issues) and avoid sexually abused child, lesbian side-kick etc. as they are too clichéd, unless you can give it a really original twist
8) Not over-explain (e.g. when tried to get reader to believe Hannibal and Clarice getting together in the Silence of the Lambs novels by explaining why he is who he is, the attempt at making him sympathetic ruined the character
Using an exercise where the attendees each chose a photograph of last meals of death row convicts on a plastic tray (we all have an emotional connection with food) we had to choose one and write in 1st/3rd person about the thoughts and feelings of the individual who has chosen to eat this as a last meal, e.g. age, sex, background, crime committed, innocent or not, circumstances surrounding the crime, what do they feel about their predicament, e.g. un/fair and whether they think they will be punished in the after life. There were several photos to choose from, including just cereal, 3 different puddings, a dozen hotdogs, large bag of crisps, fruits, salad and a McFlurry, but I chose one with a glass of water, an egg and tomato salad with 2 pots of mayo, a banana and a nectarine (turned out to be an axe murderer). The person with the cereal was a rapist/murderer and the one with the large bag of crisps was a poisoner and had chosen that meal because it was tamper-proof.
An enlightening exercise and a lively and informative workshop.