At first pass, asking how bad a villain can be seems like a fun topic to write about. The most horrible characters in literary history have commonly revealed themselves via their thoughts or actions in ways that readers found appealing. Evil doers such as Hannibal Lector and Annie Wilkes and certainly Dracula have elicited some sort of positive reaction from much of the public at one time or another.
For Many Villains, It’s the Bright Side and Not the Dark Side That Makes Them Appealing
Thomas Harris enabled Lector fans to learn about the doctor’s youth in plausible terms that explained why he became a monster. Annie Wilkes was simply deranged, but she displayed eerie justification for her actions that made her creepiness, while certainly not acceptable, occasionally understandable. And Drac had all these years of never enjoying peace. If that seems far-fetched as a redemptive feature, why do vampires in literature always seem to use this argument to attract an audience?
Here’s Where the Fun Part Ends
The difficulty with writing villains becomes problematic when it relates to whom and how they choose to do-in they prey. An antagonist who kills children or the mentally challenged can present a huge issue for a writer. Mainstream publishers also shy away from stories about pedophilia, incestuous relationships (unless subtly referenced, such as in A THOUSAND ACRES), and criminals who attack the defenseless.
Here Are Some Antagonists to Avoid
I receive many novels each year that I refuse to edit because I know in their present character-configuration the story would have no chance with a major royalty publisher. One recent plot involved a returning-GI who began a sordid relationship with his 10-year-old daughter. Another story started with the dismemberment of a young boy and the central character’s lust for murdering children seeking a father-figure (I see a lot of this sort of material of late for some reason). A recent story depicted a grotesquely unattractive man who bought retarded children and raised them as sex slaves. As sickening as what I just related happens to be, there is some stuff I’ve been sent that’s even worse, but I hope what I presented clearly expresses where I draw the line.
It’s Not Censoring, It’s What a Publisher Thinks the Public Will Read
In the thriller and mystery genres, major royalty publishers aren’t going to present a book solely for its shock value. However, there might very well be a market for each of the storylines I just mentioned if placed in the hands of a Gore Vidal or a Normal Mailer or James Dickey-type. At their respective skill-level, even the most disgusting topic could be made palatable in a novel (or if someone wanted to write a nonfiction book that deals with any of the subjects). But in the realm of pure commercial fiction, I give this sort of material no chance.
Writers Must Consider Their Audiences
The purpose of this article is not to tell anyone what to write, but to explain markets. According to many polls, women buy more books than men, and people over 65 buy three/fifth’s of all mysteries and thrillers. Is it reasonable to think that these demographics want to read about pedophilia, incest, and dismemberment? The avid older readers I know won’t touch books that contain any of these plotlines.
If there is no interest in becoming signed by a major royalty publisher, then there is no reason to pay attention to anything I offered by way of explanation. However, if becoming signed by a respected imprint is of interest, one of the first things the editor will consider is the platform for the story, and it would behoove authors to be aware of what would be deemed unacceptable.
Robert L. Bacon, Founder
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