How to write villains in a thriller. heather Sunseri.

There is no shortage of people who do bad things these days, making it rather easy to draw inspiration for the villains that belong inside thriller novels (or any other genre of novel, really).

But villains come in all shapes, sizes, and physical characteristics, and their personalities vary widely. Villains can be easily recognized as human traffickers, as in the case of Truth is in the Darkness, or as a spree killer like in Secret is in the Bones. But villains can also show up in stories (and real life) in less obvious ways.

Villains not easily recognized at first are my favorite to write. Villains who show up in the form of loving family members, respected community leaders, attorneys who are supposed to abide by a set of ethical standards within the system of law and justice, the trusted town doctor, or even a main character’s close friend. (I’ve written many of those types of villains between the In Darkness series and the Paynes Creek Thriller series.

As a reader, you might think as you’re reading a novel, “I knew something wasn’t right about that guy (or girl), but I couldn’t put my finger on it.” Then, “Bam!” it hits you in a plot twist.

But how do writers find inspiration for the characters that live in the gray areas of life?

Easy. Watch the news. Read articles about crimes committed. How many times have you heard or read about witnesses who claimed their neighbor who just committed a crime: “He (or she) was so nice. Quiet. Kept to themselves. Went to church on Sundays. I just can’t believe they did this thing they’re accused of doing.”

I mean, you could just get out in the world. Interact with people on a daily basis. You’re bound to come across villains. So many of my characters are based on past employers or coworkers who behaved poorly.

Anne Lamott quote if people wanted you to write warmly about them they should have behaved better.

But truly… It’s just as easy to watch or read the news each day. And when you see someone behaving poorly, dig a little deeper into that person’s public life and find out if he or she simply made a mistake. Or do they behave poorly often?

I’ll give you an example…

I read the “The Morning”, a morning newsletter from The New York Times most mornings. And earlier this week, a Times reporter wrote about “two men who spent decades behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.” One of those men was Curtis Flowers, a black man who spent more than twenty years on death row in Mississippi. I remembered Flowers’ story from Season 2 of the podcast, In the Dark. (Great podcast, by the way!) There was no good evidence, and no witness could put Flowers at the scene of the crime, yet Flowers was found guilty by a jury of “his peers.” The U.S. Supreme Court eventually threw out his conviction, and the state of Mississippi dropped all charges soon after.

So what went wrong?

I’ll tell you what went wrong…

The villain in our story, Prosecutor Doug Evans, became obsessed with proving guilt instead of discovering the truth, and he tainted the prosecution with racial discrimination. So, he lied, cheated, and stole a man’s life away for a quarter of a century.

Mr. Evans tried Flowers SIX TIMES! He simply wouldn’t give up.

“Flowers’ first three trials resulted in death sentences that were overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court. His fourth and fifth trials ended in hung juries. Flowers’ sixth trial, in 2010, sent him back to death row at Parchman prison, where he might have remained had the U.S. Supreme Court not decided to take up his case.” American Public Media

I am sure there are people who still think Flowers committed the murder in question. I did not sit on any of Flowers’s juries, nor was I an investigator in the case. But I also believe strongly that our justice system is flawed mainly by humans who behave poorly. And based on the thorough investigation that American Public Media did for In the Dark, I lean toward innocence for Curtis Flowers and guilt for Doug Evans.

Doug Evans behaved poorly. Is he a 100% terrible human being? I don’t know him personally, so I cannot say if he has redeeming qualities, but digging deeper into news articles about him, I can only form an opinion that he has wronged a lot of people and has a lot to answer for. I also discovered that he has a wife who stands by him and defends him, and he is a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church.

He is the district attorney for Mississippi’s Fifth Circuit Court District, which covers Attala, Carroll, Choctaw, Grenada, Montgomery, Webster and Winston counties. He was reelected in November 2019 for another four-year term, running unopposed.

According to APM Reports, Evans is unlikely to ever face consequences of his many, many infractions inside the court room. Prosecutors across the country rarely do. The only way to hold Evans accountable is at the polls. And we all know how well the polls work to hold people accountable for being terrible people.

But here we are…

We have a church-going prosecutor who is adored by his wife, but who behaved terribly time and time again inside the courtroom and caused at least one man more than twenty years of his life.

Of course, if I were writing this villain, he’d definitely be punished one way or another in the end. But before that, he’d be a kind, upstanding citizen. I’d make the reader like him and drop little hints throughout the story as the truth comes out. Villains are complex. Done well? They’re the absolute best kind of character to write.

Tell me: Who are your favorite villains — those characters that you just love to hate in the end?

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