by Chris Goff
I think the hardest thing to do when writing a spy novel is finding your antagonists backstory, knowing how they think, how they feel, what kind of mindset they have. It’s fairly easy to understand what your protagonist thinks because often they think a lot like you. They love their families, their homes, their freedom, and their countries. But what do the bad guys their up against think and feel?
Truthfully, most villains are more like us than unlike us—they just see things differently. They have different customs, different belief systems, different ideas of duty and valor. The writer who takes the time and does the research to get into their antagonists’ heads is the one who creates the villains that really stick with us. Evil for the sake of evil isn’t that interesting. Evil driven by something the villain believes is much more interesting. We may not think it justifies his behavior, or agree with his ideals, but we’re engaged with a complex character and interested in what our hero learns about their adversary. It’s what the hero learns about the antagonist that provides the key to defeating him.
So where do you start?
Read the paper, watch the news, and look around. Every day we’re bombarded with people doing things we don’t understand. Instead of just shaking her head, a writer will try and figure out what drives people to do the things they do. Look back at history.
Born in North Carolina, his entire family was in some fashion employed by the US Government. It’s said he was expected to pursue the same path, something he did, but did he want to?
Snowden was a really smart guy. Quiet and thoughtful, he was deeply interested in eastern culture and became a Buddhist at age 20. By 2008, he said he planned to comment on the NSA surveillance programs, but then decided to wait until he saw what actions Obama took. An active participant in the news provider Ars Technica under a pseudonym, he expressed strong support for the US security state apparatus and said he believed leakers of classified information “should be shot in the balls.”
Then, in 2013, disappointed by Obama’s continuation of the NSA surveillance programs, he went to the media and disclosed 9,000 to 10,000 classified documents revealing global surveillance by the NSA that he viewed as unconstitutional. To simplify the discussion, suffice it to say, he claims he tried voicing his concerns internally before going public with the classified information. The US cries foul and sees the revelations as him compromising their ability to gather intelligence and protect its self and its allies from possible future terrorist attacks.
Whistleblower or traitor? What were his motives? He claims he didn’t want to live in a world that surveilles their citizens. He also claims that he hopes his actions will embolden others to become whistleblowers and says he’d do it again. But is that he truth? Does he really think what he did was worth the consequences? Does he really like living in Russia? Or maybe he hadn’t thought it out that far, but is putting on one face for the world while feeling very differently on the inside. What could that drive him to do? Or maybe he thrives on the attention and that will drive his future actions. Was it his families’ service legacy that makes him see himself as a US patriot or is he simply an arrogant narcissist who sees himself as superior because of his intellect?
Take Stella Kübler-Isaacksohn.
Born Goldschlag, she was a German Jewish woman who collaborated with the Gestapo during World War II. Raised in a middle-class Jewish family, she attended a Jewish school following the seizure of power by the Nazis, married a Jew, graduated with a degree in fashion design, and then was forced to work in a war plant in Berlin. Because she had an Aryan look, when the deportation of the Jews began, she was able to go underground as a non-Jew. Then in the spring of 1943, her parents were arrested by the Nazis. Stella was tortured by the Nazis and in order to save her family agreed to become what the Gestapo called a “catcher,” someone who hunted down Jews hiding as non-Jews. The data varies, but it’s estimated that she helped round up between 600 and 3,000 of her fellow Jews. Eventually the Nazis broke their promise and deported her parents to Theresienstadt where they were killed, and her husband and his family were deported to Auschwitz.
You’d think that would be enough to stop her. But no, she married her second husband, also Jewish and a Nazi collaborator, and continued working for the Gestapo until March 1945. After the war, she served time for her crimes, converted to Christianity and became an “open anti-Semite.” And she suffered a terrible end, one many would say she deserved. She married five times, and had one daughter who was taken from her who later immigrated to Israel. Then, in 1994, Stella committed suicide by throwing herself out of a window.
Still, did she become an anti-Semite in order to justify what she had done to so many of her fellow Jews? Did she kill herself because she could no longer live with the consequences of her actions? Did she have some unknown problem with her parents, or suffer from a form of Stockholm Syndrome?
While we can only surmise what motivates others, each variation on the theme makes for a different novel. Regardless of what you think about Snowden or Kübler-Isaacksohn, knowing more about them makes them more interesting and adds to the layers your protagonist must peel back in order to defeat them. The best piece of writing advice I was every given was to remember: the villain is the hero of his own story. Understanding one’s opponent is the key to finding their Achilles heel.
Christine, as always, thank you for the thoroughly researched post! It's often difficult to see an adversary's point of view, but you're right: when it comes to writing a proper villain, it's absolutely critical.
It's a turn universally acknowledged that the villain makes the thriller. Good blog.
Wow, Chris, fascinating stuff. Great examples, and you are so right about villains!
Oh Chris, that was a great blog! You are SO right about authors needing to do careful research on their villains, their backgrounds and motivations. Your stories about Snowden and Stella are fascinating and your examples really make us think about how in the world we can create believable characters for our thrillers. You obviously have figured it out! Thanks for this.
I love crafting villains. I just want to be sure I can defeat them in the end! Thanks for the posts.