The best thing any crime writer can do to make his protagonist more sympathetic and far stronger is to provide a worthy (think: very strong, horribly bad or genuinely psychotic) antagonist in the mix.
Endlessly taught in most of the creative writing classes I’ve had, the villain provides the steel spine to any good thriller or action piece. You can make the protagonist as pure or as interesting or even as damaged as you like, but his adversary in evil better be virtually unstoppable.
And evil in ways most of us would rather not even imagine. But as crime or thriller writers, we must. Ask Stephen King.
Anyway, looking back quite a few years, the most obvious example of this to me is the first Dirty Harry movie, called (unsurprisingly) Dirty Harry.
In it, a young Clint Eastwood is excellent as rogue cop Harry Callahan, a legalized killer with a .44 Magnum, but his stature was greatly elevated (as far as the audience was concerned) when he came up against the shockingly savage villainy of the psychotic Scorpio Killer, played with manic intensity by Andy Robinson.
Andy Robinson did such a great job, in fact, playing a murderous and almost-unstoppable lunatic, that it was said producers and casting directors in Hollywood wouldn’t meet with him for a long time afterward, fearing he was too much in real life like the part he’d so brilliantly played.
And when he was blasted away by Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum in the last act, it was a feeling, I’ll admit, of great satisfaction. The Scorpio Killer finally, after getting away with so damn much, paid for his horrifying sins with his life.
Justice. Or just a need on the audience’s part for a form of simple revenge. For being such a terrible person. Seriously.
The bad guy’s antics are, after all, much of the reason (unsavory or not) that we continue to watch, or to turn the page, waiting for that final moment when the villain’s either blasted into oblivion or, at the very least, arrested and hauled away.
In other words, something inside of each of us can’t stand to see the son of a bitch get away with it.
Ten years later, another of the great bad guys, also played with brilliant savagery, was James Remar as Albert Ganz, the psychopath of 48 Hours (the violent but hilarious feature film debut of Eddie Murphy, not the TV news show).
Ganz killed as easily as he breathed, and went off like a Chinese firecracker at the slightest provocation, again providing all of us in the audience with a great sense of relief when Nick Nolte eventually shot him multiple times.
Which brings us, in my opinion, to one of the greatest feat(s) of film villainy in many a year, performed by the superb actor Alan Rickman.
Within four years, Rickman managed to play three of the coldest, yet wittiest, villains the screen has ever seen, thus adding that steel spine to three great thrillers.
In the original Die Hard, 1988, as Hans Gruber, he was the brilliant but murderous killer who masterminded the almost-murder of an entire office building full of people, thus giving Bruce Willis a chance to be exactly what a real hero should be.
In Quigley Down Under, 1990, as Elliot Marston, he was the evil Australian ranch owner who was systematically committing genocide against the aborigines until American gunman Tom Selleck shot him down, along with his two evil cohorts, in Marston’s own front yard.
And last, but not least, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1991, Rickman was the mercilessly evil but wisecracking Sheriff of Nottingham, a part played to the hilt by a truly gifted actor, until Kevin Costner ran him through. And through again, I think.
It’s been a while.
In any case, none of the movies above would’ve been as thrilling, or would’ve played out or ended as strongly, had it not been for the superb villains that each provided.
Which reminds me.
When it comes to superb villains, I have to mention the greatest recent villain to calmly (and sometimes humorously) murder his way across a huge expanse of silver screen:
Javier Bardem as the epitome of heartless and pure evil, Anton Chigurh, in the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, No Country For Old Men, 2007.
A terrifyingly realistic but somehow subdued performance in every way, Javier Bardem’s bad guy even terrified all the other bad guys in the film. And rightly so. And at the same time gave the film such brilliant forward momentum that it rocketed through to the shocking end.
And if you haven’t seen it yet: shocking is the right word.
In any case, my newest crime thriller, Interception City, written under my pseudonym Parker T. Mattson, is now out in paperback, published by the great folks at Black Mask, and will soon be available as an e-Book as well.
And, yes, I’ve tried to make the bad guys very, very bad, heartless and genuinely evil, even hatefully so, just in case some bad things finally happen to them in the final chapters.
Which would be justice, believe me. And will probably happen, but I’m giving away nothing here. It’s a thriller, after all, and I might’ve (or might not have) broken some rules.
Here’s the link on Amazon, in case you’re interested: http://www.amazon.com/Interception-City-Parker-T-Mattson/dp/1608726894/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1364324620&sr=1-1&keywords=Interception+City
If you read it, let me know what you think.