by | Sep 2, 2016 | The Writer's Life | 7 comments

by Francine Mathews

About twenty years ago, I was writing the third of my Nantucket murder mysteries, Death in a Mood Indigo. It was a serial killer story. I never read serial killer stories. I hate them. They terrify me. At roughly that same point in my life, for example, I went out with friends to the movies–and all of them wanted to see The Silence of the Lambs. I gave them my blessing and watched Home Alone in a neighboring theater instead. I’ve never regretted it, and I’ve never seen one of the most iconic Anthony Hopkins films of all time.

I’ll take Remains of the Day instead, thank you very much.

So it was something of a surprise that I chose to write about a brutal serial killer. I did it under a sense of compulsion: I had awakened from a nightmare in which I was hunted by a murderous man. It was two o’clock in the morning. I was convinced a killer was standing at the foot of my bed. I was unable to breath. Unable to move. Unable even to wake up the guy sleeping beside me. 

I was haunted by demons all day. I was afraid to close my eyes that night.

And so I did what I usually do in such circumstances: I handed the problem to a character, Meredith Folger, in the hope that together we could wrestle the killer to the ground.

My first draft stank, however.
I mailed it to my editor–a woman for whom I have profound affection and endless respect. She read through it and said: 

You’re pulling your punches.

What she meant, interestingly, is that I was so afraid of my villain that I was incapable of fully embracing him as a writer. I was holding back. I was keeping him at arm’s length. I felt safest when I could set him apart as the “other.” And as a result, the character was two-dimensional. A cartoon version of Every Villain. He was unlikeable, predictable–and worst of all–immediately obvious in what was supposed to be a puzzle plot. 

What my editor suggested, and what I have come to believe is profoundly true, is that I was in fact afraid to confront the villainous aspects of myself. All of us have traits or failings we’re ashamed to acknowledge or broadcast to the world. We learn as we age to mask them around others. These are the subtle aspects of our personalities that become clearer with intimacy and time. In a thriller plot, villains are most credible, complex, and terrifying when they are adept at masking their flaws. Evil is a quality the author reveals insidiously to the reader as the pages and suspense build.

As every one of a writer’s characters stems from her own psyche, each of them must be recognized as belonging to her fully; each must be psychologically owned, validated, and honored–even the characters she abhors. 

For me, that means confronting the potential for evil in myself, the ways in which I fail myself and those around me, the flaws I carry forward into the world and subject others to, and my potential for causing damage. That helps me fashion people of complexity and realism in my fictional worlds. I try to make villains as richly human as my heroes and heroines. Because only then, it seems to me, are they credible. 

I pictured J.K. Rowling’s Voldemort, from her Harry Potter series, at the head of this post for a specific reason. My belief that even our villains reflect aspects of our writer selves is something of a metaphor–but Rowling made it tangible in Voldemort, who actually “infects” the infant Harry, unwittingly, with aspects of himself as he attempts to kill the child. One of the quests Harry must resolve on his Hero’s Journey through the Rowling books is this capacity for evil–and his simultaneous revulsion and attraction for it. He carries Voldemort, the villain he is committed to destroy, partly within himself. And as Harry ages and comes to fully understand his own complexity, that duality presents his greatest psychological battle.

Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goth, Schindler’s List

The importance of embracing the villain is something actors who are required to protray them definitely recognize–or at least, the best among them do. Consider Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. Ralph Fiennes is famous for portraying Voldemort, but to me his most compelling incarnation of evil is as the Nazi concentration camp commandant Amon Goth in Schindler’s List, for which he won an Academy Award. He embodied a man of knife-edge insanity with such cold precision that for a time, Fiennes’ personality was confused with his character’s in some viewers’ minds. 

Confronting and embracing the villian in oneself may lead to great work–but it carries a potential for tragedy. Heath Ledger, who portrayed the Joker in The Dark Knight Rises, said that he was so haunted by the character’s evil that he experienced profound insomnia for weeks after filming wrapped. He was lauded by critics for the complexity and authenticity of his performance. But it was in a desperate effort to find sleep that Ledger overdosed, at the age of twenty-eight.

I may take all of this too seriously, of course. I firmly believe, however, that writers of suspense channel the fears of entire cultures–and offer our readers the comfort of resolution in the form of justice, or at the very least, a plausible explanation of evil. To do it well, neither we nor our villains can pull any punches.

And now for the totally fun part: 
Take the BBC’s very clever Potter Rotters quiz. Which Harry Potter villain are you? 

Apparently, I’m Malfoy. Something else to acknowledge and embrace. 😉


Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. S. Lee Manning

    Absolutely love this article. The scariest thing about villains is that everyone has some of the same dark thoughts and impulses. Well done!!

  2. Sonja Stone

    Francine, what a remarkable post: insight, self-awareness, and beautiful prose! Your thoughts about masking our shadowy traits really resonate with me. Showing others who we are is always risky; it requires a willingness to be vulnerable, to face rejection. Part of the joy of writing is fully exploring my darkness–and pawning it off on my unsuspecting characters!

    I was a reluctant reader as a young adult. I watched Silence of the Lambs and was so taken with the psychological manipulation that I read the book (I remember that I loved it). It's funny you still haven't seen the movie!

  3. Francine Mathews

    That's what makes us all human, right?

  4. Francine Mathews

    Yes, we all project our riskiest selves on our most volatile characters. Recognizing that and unleashing it is empowering.
    And yes: you may see all the scary movies on my behalf. Tell me about them later.

  5. Francine Mathews

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Karna Bodman

    Oh, Francine, what an interesting post! I certainly see how actors who portray villains must internalize the motives and emotions of those characters (and may end up "carrying that baggage" with them for who knows how long). It's just that when I was reading this great piece, somehow I simply couldn't envision any "villainous traits" in you. As for going to different types of movies, I have never opted to spend my money on horror films either. Anyway, thanks for posting this — all great ideas to consider when writing our thrillers!

  7. Francine Mathews

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, Karna. I'll keep my villainous habits secret for now.