In her super-useful guide Write to be Published, Nicola Morgan has some very sensible advice about characterisation and character development. In the section ‘Cardboard Villains and Saccharine Heroes’, she writes; “A bad character sometimes benefits from some soft edges that test our judgement of them.” Similarly, she says, “Avoid the too-good... give your angels a touch of hell’s fire.”
Later, I had an interesting conversation with a six-year-old Harry Potter fan – not yet old enough to read the books himself but currently having them read to him before bed and watching the movies as he goes. He’d had a tough night, his dad explained, plagued by bad dreams. The little feller was terrified and confused in equal measure having discovered that Tom Riddle and Voldemort were the same person. So it seems that denying readers the clear moral certainties of the cardboard cut-out villain – even by the introduction of a backstory like this – makes bad guys more frightening; more real. It tests our judgement of them – something the six-year-old in question clearly found pretty uncomfortable.
(This trick works in the right hands. Given the same material, George Lucas managed to make a laboured trilogy about a whiny teenager.)
Having learnt lessons like these slowly over the course of five books – only two of which have been published - I’ve just finished a chapter of Takeback in which our antagonist calmly dissects the methods and motives of our heroes. And man, he really pulls them apart. He’s older, wiser, and cleverer than them, and his victory (at least in this draft) is pretty unequivocal. Even a cheap jibe from our wisecracking gang-leader can’t rescue the situation. Very satisfying writing session indeed.
By contrast, today my crew are stealing Jaguars and driving them through a shopping centre. That’s the thing about writing – no two days are the same. News on our Takeback – my picaresque heist extravaganza – coming soon, by the way.