Writing Nasty Villains with Leah Giarratano (Perth Writers Festival workshop)

Vodka Doesn't FreezeVoodoo DollBlack IceWatch the World BurnSilence of the LambsHannibal Lecter Trilogy : Red Dragon / The Silence of the Lambs / Hannibal  (3 Disc Set) Dexter is DeliciousDexter: The Complete Season 1

This article is based on a 3 hour workshop at the 2011 Perth Writers Festival.

Following an exercise to get to know each other a little, Leah Giarratano went over her personal history as a clinical psychologist specialising in treating people who have been through traumatic experiences and conducting psychological evaluations of prisoners.

Leah introduced the characters and plots of her four novels featuring main character Sergeant Jill Jackson (Vodka Doesn’t Freeze, Voodoo Doll, Black Ice and Watch the World Burn).

Next was the topic of psychopaths, both in terms of clinical psychology and in terms of fictional characters. “I always wanted to meet a psychopath,” she began, “…until I did.”

She discussed that while characters like Hannibal Lecter (from Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, later made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins), who can kill and eat another person with no remorse have become a storytelling cliche, that doesn’t change the fact that people like that actually exist.

Leah discussed a distinction between:
Type 1 psychopaths, incapable of feeling empathy; and
Type 2 psychopaths (or just people with an anti-social personality disorder), who are capable of empathy, loyalty, human connections and feeling genuine remorse.

She discussed a range of traits common to many type 1 psychopaths, as well as the question of to what extent psychopathic behaviour tends to be due to biological factors and to what extent it tends to be due to factors which are learned (aka the nature/nurture debate).

She then discussed the problem of trying to rehabilitate psychopaths and that there is currently no effective program of treatment to cure adult type 1 psychopaths.

Leah gave an overview of two famous studies (Stanley Milgram’s study on obedience to authority and Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison study) to emphasise the capacity of everyday people to do bad things; that “all of us have a dark side.”

The workshop notes state: “When writing a villain we don’t necessarily have to get in touch with our shadow selves, but we do have to be curious about why people do terrible things.” She suggested thinking of the natur/nurture debate and asking: “If you were raised under different circumstances is it possible you could be anti-social?”

Leah advised, “One dimensional characters are flat, have a single motivation and are easy to pigeonhole and ignore.” She advised that well-written villains should have complex motives and act in ways which can surprise a reader.

She recommended that there should be a strong reason why a main character has a goal crucial to their wellbeing and an equally strong reason for another character (who you could call the villain) to stop this goal. Another important consideration raised was what the main character stands to lose if they don’t achieve their goal. (It is also useful to consider what the villain stands to lose if they don’t achieve their goal.)

She also got us to do several exercises to help identify with what it’s like to feel strong emotions and capture details about those emotions in writing, and to imagine what it’s like to be a psychopath and capture that in writing.

Leah read from her own writing to provide practical examples of what she discussed, as well as relating ideas her characters and other fictional characters, such as Dexter Morgan (from Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels, which the TV series Dexter is based on) and Hannibal Lecter.

Leah Giarratano’s workshop Writing Nasty Villains was a mix of real-life psychology and the craft of fiction to create and understand realistic characters who do bad things, drawing from her experience as a clinical psychologist, as well as how such characters fit into stories as a whole. More on Leah Giarratano and her fiction can be found at http://www.randomhouse.com.au/Author/Giarratano,%20Leah.

Vodka Doesn't FreezeVoodoo DollBlack IceWatch the World BurnSilence of the LambsHannibal Lecter Trilogy : Red Dragon / The Silence of the Lambs / Hannibal  (3 Disc Set) Dexter is DeliciousDexter: The Complete Season 1

The Australian Literature Review

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3 Responses to Writing Nasty Villains with Leah Giarratano (Perth Writers Festival workshop)

  1. Sam Stephens says:

    Sounds like a fascinating class!

    I think the biggest villain mistake I saw in a book once was when the writer made the villain too likeable. I started to feel sorry for the villain, and started wishing the “heros” would just leave him alone. After all, he was just misunderstood!

    I remember reading once about creating realistic villains – they have to have a reason for their evil. They have to think that what they’re doing is not nessessarily right, but at least logical.

    People aren’t evil just for the hell of it, they have to have a reason behind it. No matter how twisted it is to us, it has to make sense to them.

    ie. The guy who kills teenage blondes because his teenage mother ditched him and he ended up abused in an orphanage.

    Or the guy who kidnaps hobos and tortures them in his basement because he believes they’re aliens on a recon mission from Mars.

    It seems the more twisted the reasons for someones behaviour, the more fascinating the villain.


  2. Michael Grey says:

    To me the most interesting bad guys aren’t ‘villains’ in the classic sense other than somone who also thinks they’re right. Right versus right is much more compelling than right versus wrong. It wrong foots the reader and makes the ending much more open to how it could go.

    A good example would be Horza and Balveda in Iain M Banks’s Consider Phlebas. Both agents on either side of a war neither is sure they want their own side to win, but bound to their course by earlier decisions.

  3. Pingback: Leah Giarratano – Author Interview | The Australian Literature Review

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