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An Author's Perspective:

Brainstorming: Creating a Worthy Antagonist
by Janice Cantore

© 2016 - All Rights Reserved

Latest Title: Burning Proof

Publisher: Tyndale House Publishing

Release Date: March 1, 2016



A lot of people ask me if I draw from my law enforcement experience to create characters. Yes and no. I often draw from the best I saw in my coworkers for my protagonists, and occasionally tweak some incident I was involved in, but I've never met a criminal who was interesting enough to be considered a worthy antagonist. In fact, we had a saying about criminals: "We don't catch the smart ones."

In general, it was a truism. The masterminds you see on TV crime shows don't exist in large numbers (thankfully). Crime is most often opportunistic and impulsive. It's easy to trip people up when they really haven't put much thought into their actions. This is true even when it comes to murder. The deed is usually committed in the heat of the moment and the victim knows their assailant. There is obvious motive, lame attempts to cover up the killing are easily refuted, and it's just a matter of putting together a case and then clicking on the cuffs.

While in patrol, the first killer I arrested had just murdered his girlfriend. He handed me the gun and confessed. This was great for the detectives who filed the case against him, but it would make for a boring antagonist in a book.

So I need to venture out of my experience, play the what-if game, and work to draw a worthy opponent. I'd be willing to bet that every thriller/suspense/mystery writer would like to create a villain as memorable as Hannibal Lecter. He was intelligent, evil, articulate, interesting, horrifying, and totally three-dimensional. He was a perfect foil for the protagonist in the story The Silence of the Lambs.

I'm in the beginning stages of a new novel and putting serious thought into my antagonist, brainstorming the perfect bad guy for this story. This is usually the darkest part of my writing journey, and as I consider drawing an evil person, three main questions begin the process:

  • What type of person is my villain - man or woman; young, old; educated or not; impulsive or a planner; obvious or unusual; alone or part of a team; etc.?
  • What's the motive?
  • And what's the method?
There are a lot more questions to ask, but these get me started.

I spend a lot of time reading about true crime and watching true crime programs for ideas. In my research, whether we're talking about a man or a woman, the one who removes him- or herself from the area of the crime immediately, keeps his or her mouth shut, has resources or just gets lucky stands the best chance of evading justice. Consider these real-life examples:
A woman kidnapped her infant daughter to deny the father parental rights. She planned the crime a couple of months before bolting. She had fake IDs, money, and a plan. She fled to South Africa and evaded capture for twenty years. When she was caught and extradited back to the US, she was sentenced to a mere twenty-one months. Meanwhile, the daughter took Mom's side, and the father who'd spent his life savings and twenty years of his life trying to find her is rejected and devastated.

On the FBI's ten most wanted list is a man who's been running since 2004. He killed an armored car guard during a robbery. This guy is smart, very good-looking, and very talented. He has a master's degree and speaks French and Spanish. He was profiled on an FBI TV special, and the thought is, he's being helped by an extensive network of family and friends. The price on his head is $200,000, but there have been no good leads.

In a twenty-year-old cold case, recently solved, a teenage mother was raped and murdered in her bed, with her toddler nearby. From the outset, a possible suspect was missed and was only apprehended two decades later by an alert cold case detective. A best friend of the girl's older brother was responsible for the crime, which he claimed just happened by accident. He'd only wanted to burglarize the house and didn't realize the girl was there. These stories are like bare bones, tracings, really, in my process. I add "what if" questions to each scenario, try to envision interviews with these people.
The FBI's fugitive is most intriguing. Maybe the trail to my antagonist will begin there. Creating this character will take time, questioning, writing and rewriting. Will he or she be another Lecter? One can dream.


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