Writing unforgettable villains

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By Toby Neal

Batman villains: The Penguin, The Riddler, The Joker 1967

Public domain image. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Crime writing is fun—and the most fun is dreaming up evil characters who do unspeakable things! Without good villains, the mystery genre would be dead. These deviants drive the plots!

As a former therapist in the psychology field, I have a bit of an advantage in creating bad guys and gals who exemplify the worst of the human race—and showing them in a way that’s believable because its based in an understanding of the human psyche. The best villains are shades of gray, spookily relatable because they are us … in the right situation and circumstance.

Bestselling Hawaii mystery Torch GingerA good villain teaches us something about the world, other humans, and most thought-provoking of all, about ourselves. What would we do, given the situation, circumstances and background of the villain in the story? Some part of us wonders if we’d be much different.

My best villains

I’ve written a serial killer with social anxiety and schizophrenia (Torch Ginger). I’ve written a sadistic gangster villain (Wired In). I’ve written a heroic bandit who stole from the rich to give to the homeless (Broken Ferns) and I’ve written a sociopathic identity thief who falls in love with a ruthless gangster (Black Jasmine.) I’ve written 20 mystery/thrillers, and every one of them needed a villain to drive the story—so I have a special soft spot for them. So many villains, so little time!

My favorite villains have been women. Women, statistically, commit less than a fourth of the violent crime (or any crime, really) than men. But when a woman goes bad? Truly bad? She can wreak a swath of havoc a mile wide, leaving nothing but rubble, ash and broken hearts in her wake.

bestselling Paradise Crime boxed setMy current favorite villainess is Pim Wat Smithson, mother of Sophie Ang, heroine of the Paradise Crime Series. Pim Wat is supposedly institutionalized as a catatonic depressive in Thailand. But really, all the years she was supposedly having a lie-down with a cold cloth on her forehead, Pim Wat was traveling the world, killing people as an assassin.

Pim Wat is a consummate actress, deadly as a viper, and completely narcissistic. She loves what she does and “scripts” her kills, with costumes, dialogue, and little theatrical flourishes. That she is the mother of Sophie, a character we’ve come to know as heroic, dedicated, and self sacrificing, is a wonderful juxtaposition that tugs at the reader’s heartstrings.

Toby Neal

After a few “stretches of exile” to pursue education, Toby returned to the Hawai’ian Islands where she was born. have been home for the last fifteen years. Her career as a mental health therapist has informed the depth and complexity of the characters in her books.

Outside of work and writing, Toby volunteers in a nonprofit for children and enjoys life in Hawaii through beach walking, body boarding, scuba diving, photography, and hiking.

 Get to know her on:

And follow her on Twitter @TobywNeal.

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