Jennifer Hillier on Characters and Ideas

In this post, veteran thriller author Jennifer Hillier talks about how she comes up with her chilling and electrifying villains. Jennifer’s third novel, The Butcher, will be available on July 17th. And don’t miss her gripping first novels, Creep and Freak!

 

For the love of villains

As an author who writes psychological thrillers, one of the questions I get asked most frequently by readers is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

My answer is, “I see dead people.”

Okay, totally not true, I don’t see dead people (and if I did, I’d run). But I do definitely see villains. I see them everywhere – at the grocery store, at the gas station, at the gym, even next door. I read a lot of true crime, and most of the villains in these real-life stories are seemingly regular people who do really bad things. Serial killers, in particular, are fascinating to me, and so I can’t help but ponder whether the young guy at Target cashing me out secretly murders people on his days off.

My stories always start with an idea for a great villain. In my new novel, The Butcher, I wanted to know what would happen if my serial killer was someone who was a hero. Someone people looked up to, and felt safe around. Someone who was celebrated. Someone whose family loved him. Could he get away with serial murders? And if he did, for decades, and where would he end up? In a retirement home? What happens to serial killers who are never caught?

What happens if they get bored?

I wanted to know the answers to these questions, so from there, The Butcher began to take shape. I didn’t have to do much “creating” for my villain; as I wrote, he spoke to me and told me all about himself (as villains always do – they’re so narcissistic in that way!). As his story unfolded, so did my other characters, along with the setting, the conflicts, the stakes, and the subplots. But my villain remained the true star of the show, as the villains always are in my books. Everything in the story extended from him, and what he wanted, and what he would do to get it. The Butcher was the sun around which everything else orbited.

The best thing about writing villains is that they can be unapologetically bad, which gives me a lot of freedom as a writer. Unlike the protagonist, who has to be likeable, relatable, or super interesting, the villain just has to wreak havoc. Fun, right?

But the worst thing is that to write villains well, I have to get inside their heads. I have to see what they see, and touch what they touch, and this can be unpleasant, even upsetting. When I feel the need to take a scalding shower after day of writing, I know I’ve nailed it.

Another question readers tend to ask me is, “Did you base the main character on yourself?”

My answer always is, “No, but I did base the villain on myself.”

Okay, totally not true, but it’s worth it just to see them to take a step back.

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Freak

Freak

Jennifer Hillier

Sitting alone in a maximum-security prison cell, Abby Maddox is a celebrity. Her claim to fame is the envy of every freak on the outside: she's the former lover of Ethan Wolfe, the killer who left more than a dozen dead women in his wake and nearly added Puget Sound State professor Sheila Tao to the tally. Now Abby, serving a nine-year sentence for slashing a police officer's throat in a moment of rage, has little human contact save for the letters that pour in from demented fans, lunatics, and creeps. But a new wave of murders has given Abby a possible chance for a plea bargain because this killer has been sending her love letters, and carving a message on the bodies of the victims: Free Abby Maddox.

HEAT METER
Creep

Creep

Jennifer Hillier

Dr. Sheila Tao is a professor of psychology. An expert in human behavior. And when she began an affair with sexy, charming graduate student Ethan Wolfe, she knew she was playing with fire. Consumed by lust when they are together, riddled with guilt when they aren't, she knows the three-month fling with her teaching assistant has to end. After all, she's finally engaged to a kind and loving investment banker who adores her, and she's taking control of her life. But when she attempts to end the affair, Ethan Wolfe won't let her walk away.

HEAT METER
The Butcher

The Butcher

Jennifer Hillier

A rash of grisly serial murders plagued Seattle until the infamous Beacon Hill Butcher was finally hunted down and killed by police chief Edward Shank in 1985. Now, some thirty years later, Shank, retired and widowed, is giving up his large rambling Victorian house to his grandson Matt, whom he helped raise. Settling back into his childhood home and doing some renovations in the backyard to make the house feel like his own, Matt, a young up-and-coming chef and restaurateur, stumbles upon a locked crate he's never seen before. Curious, he picks the padlock and makes a discovery so gruesome it will forever haunt him. Faced with this deep dark family secret, Matt must decide whether to keep what he knows buried in the past, go to the police, or take matters into his own hands.

HEAT METER

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