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.