Saturday, 9 January 2016

On creating interesting villains - Lazarus

Are you ever more interested by the villain in a story than the hero? Or do you like heroes who are a hair's breadth from being villains? Ever watched Peaky Blinders, or read Lee Child's Jack Reacher?

In a lot of fiction and fantasy, villains are just plain bad, through and through, whether they were born that way or took a bad turn and never looked back. The hero's job is then to put them down. Okay, there's a huge market for that.

But it's exciting to come across a villain who can be at least as interesting, and maybe more interesting, than the protagonist. In my SF series (The Eden Paradox), the character everyone remembers is Louise, at least as much as the main protagonists Micah and Blake. Initially because she seemed to be such an evil bitch, but as the series progressed I nuanced her and made her more interesting, giving her quite unique insights, and even some of my more sanguine readers seemed to hesitate before pulling the trigger on her.

In my latest novel (Sixty-Six Metres), I wanted to do something a little different, a little closer to Peaky Blinders. There are five villains, and although two of them are more in the background, for the other three the reader gets to walk around inside their heads. One of them Jack Reacher would blast away without hesitation, but near the end the reader starts to see a different side of him, and is actually quite shocked when he is killed, especially since in that chapter the reader is in his point of view, even as he dies.

The second main villain, most of us would not need Jack Reacher to do the dirty work for us, and I do have a secondary character who is basically a normal young woman kill him. But again, i tried to make his way of thinking and seeing the world compelling, and one of my readers said he has some pretty good points...

The third one is called Lazarus, because he died and was resuscitated, and is the most interesting to me. When I was having the draft of Sixty-Six Metres reviewed by two independent literary consultants, one said I had too many villains, and that maybe I should get rid of Lazarus. The other one said don't you dare! So, without any more ado, I'll introduce you to Lazarus, and his way of seeing the world, and people he might have to kill...

Lazarus crunched his way up the gravel pathway to Kadinsky’s dacha, aware there would be a marksman upstairs training cross-hairs on his face. Americans aimed for the heart, Russians for the head. The gravel was thick with pebbles, impossible to run on, and Lazarus’ significant weight left dimples in the circular path surrounding the empty clay-coloured fountain, a statue of Pan in its centre. The Greek god of mischief’s flute was bone dry.
Lazarus had to leave his car and the key with a guard down at the estate entrance, and trek the remaining two hundred metres alone. He didn’t mind the exercise, but he disliked the psychology. Everything about Kadinsky was a reminder of who was boss.
            A gruff man with designer stubble, wearing a suit stretched tight by muscles on top of muscles, opened the oak door. The goon inspected Lazarus, taking in his sheer size, probably wondering how much was lean, how much was fat, and where best to pop him with his ‘38 if necessary. The face, or the back of the head, as always. He patted Lazarus down while another watched from the upper landing, a Kalashnikov hanging from his shoulder. Lazarus wasn’t carrying a weapon. He didn’t need one, there were plenty around, and his hands could snap necks when required. Not that he enjoyed killing, but he preferred it to being killed.
            Whenever he was in hostile terrain he made rapid assessments of opponents, putting them into one of three categories: commas, semicolons, and full stops. Commas could be scared off, they’d turn and run, and didn’t need a bullet. Semis, when wounded, would go crying to their mommas, no longer a threat. Full stops needed to be put down quickly, a head or neck shot so their finger couldn’t pull the trigger in that last second of shocked clarity. These two were semis. One shot, one bone broken, they’d call it a day. They weren’t in it for love or loyalty, just dreaming of an early pension. Lazarus never dreamed. He was saving that for when he was dead.
            The search over, the goon jerked his thumb towards a set of double doors with frosted glass to the left on the ground floor. A golden Labrador intercepted him, and Lazarus squatted down, held his hand out, waiting while the dog hesitated then came over and sniffed his hand. Lazarus stroked him. The dog lapped it up. If only humanity were gone, just animals. The goon nudged Lazarus in the back with his knee. Lazarus rose and spun around on the spot, towering over him, making him step back in surprise. Lazarus heard the swish of the Kalashnikov being unshouldered and clicked into readiness, trained on his face, but he didn’t look up. He didn’t glare at the goon who had fumbled for his gun, didn’t need to, just loomed over him, the dog at his side sensing who was master.  
            “Lazarus,” a voice came from the room, “stop shitting around and get in here.”
            He turned to see Kadinsky – fat, bald, expensive suit, gold watch and bracelet – in the doorway, before he turned and went back inside. Lazarus followed, the dog too.
            A tall girl in a black lace cocktail dress, tousled hair, sandalwood eyes that danced when she walked, handed him a Scotch, no ice. Kadinsky already had one, plenty of ice. Lazarus took the drink, met her eyes once, then planted himself in a soft leather armchair. The Labrador lay down by her feet. Two other girls were in the room, an athletic short-skirted blonde, Latvian or Finnish, and a Chinese girl in a full length silk dress, as well as yet another suited goon who looked serious and sharp, a full stop guy for sure.
            Lazarus nursed the square, chunky whiskey glass, swirled the amber liquid once, then downed it. The brunette gestured with the Scotch decanter. Lazarus shook his head.
            “What do you want done?” he asked Kadinsky.
            Kadinsky smiled, revealing two gold molars. “That’s what I like about you, Laz. Always to the point.” He stifled a yawn, then snapped his fingers. The girls left, the dog trailing behind, as if he too wasn’t allowed to hear what came next. The full stop remained.
“I still don’t have the device, Laz. And I don’t have a warm feeling.”
Lazarus knew Kadinsky well enough: ambitious, powerful, good at maintaining his kingdom, but impatient, always wanting more. Greedy. Kadinsky would never make it to the top. But the Rose would make him a major player, get him attention from the Kremlin, win him favours. If he could pull it off. Lazarus reckoned it was better not to have such attention, better to know one’s place. And better to take your time. Life wasn’t a novel for most people, especially in his line of work. It was a few pages that ended abruptly, usually mid-sentence. Lazarus wanted to end on a good line.
He said what Kadinsky wanted to hear. “The girl Nadia will retrieve it. Danton will take care of her and Adamson.”
“Yeah, but the buzz around Frankfurt – for which we have to thank Adamson, apparently – is dying down. Attention’s focusing on Penzance. They identified the bodies, Janssen and the others.”
Lazarus heaved himself up out of the chair, the full stop’s eyes tracking him. He went to the decanter, poured himself another. Without offering Kadinsky any, he sat down again. It was good that Janssen was dead, the guy had been a real jerk. Kadinsky never should have entrusted him with such a job. Nor the girl: too inexperienced for such an operation. But he said nothing.
“I want you to go down there, get it done.” Kadinsky’s voice was a dangerous blend of anger, frustration, and fear.
Lazarus put down the glass. “You know the deal. I don’t do field work. I don’t exactly blend in.”
Kadinsky glowered. “Leave us,” he said. The full stop glanced at his boss, then left by the rear door. Kadinsky got up, went over to the decanter, filled his glass and plopped in two ice cubes, spilling Scotch onto the table. He wandered over to the window and surveyed his territory.
The idea occurred to Lazarus that he could kill Kadinsky, here, now. He wouldn’t make it out of there alive, but it might be worth it. Except someone else would just fill the boss’s shoes. For some strange reason the world needed people like Kadinsky. Which meant it wasn’t worth saving.
“I trust you, Lazarus. Which is why I’m going to tell you what I’ve told nobody else.”
No, you don’t trust anyone, you just want me to do something, and afterwards you’ll decide I know too much.
“I’m in pretty deep with the Chinese.”
Lazarus joined the dots. “You told them you have it.”
Kadinsky took a gluttonous swig, gulping noisily. “They’re expecting it the day after tomorrow. Fat price.” He turned around, the gold chain hanging from his wrist glinting in the last rays of afternoon sun. “Double what the Kremlin would pay.”
The Kremlin never paid, they just let you live longer and made you work harder for them. But the Chinese?
“As long as it’s not Cheng Yi,” Lazarus said. But Kadinsky didn’t reply, just stared out into the barren gardens as if he’d spied something interesting.
So, it was Cheng Yi.
Lazarus had worked on an op in Hong Kong once, for the Kolorokov brothers, trying to make inroads into the contraband markets there. That’s where he’d first encountered the ex-spymaster from Shanghai. An eight man team, only Lazarus got out alive. Reason was, he didn’t run when the sniper bullets kept flying. Standing there, surrounded by bodies, he’d just waited, until Cheng Yi himself arrived, unarmed, but somehow still controlling the snipers.
His English accent had been impeccable. Apparently he’d studied something at Cambridge.
“Tell your bosses they are not welcome here.”
Lazarus needed another whiskey just remembering it, but this news meant he should stay sober. Kadinsky was right to be scared. No point saying he shouldn’t have gotten involved with them. Everyone made bad decisions every now and again. Most didn’t cost you everything, though. Probably he’d tried the Kremlin but they didn’t take him seriously, as he didn’t have the right connections. A major screw-up. But it was still salvageable. Just.
Kadinsky took another swig, then downed it all. “Cheng Yi thinks I’m going to double-cross him, hand it over to someone else.”
“What did he threaten you with? This isn’t exactly their country.” Not that it would matter.
 “He has videos. He’ll send them to the Kremlin, show I was working for him.”
“Ah.” Greed had gotten Kadinsky this far, but it was going to bring him down. Lazarus hoped he’d have a ringside seat.
Kadinsky walked back to his chair, sat down again. “Any advice, Laz? I’ve heard that dead men can see the future.”
Lazarus could predict Kadinsky’s: his body full of holes, soaked in blood. He almost gave a shit for the guy, way in over his head. Almost.
“Give it to him, then move to Rio. Otherwise you’ll work for him the rest of your life, which won’t be that long. The Kremlin will work it out sooner rather than later.”
Kadinsky gave him a long hard stare, during which Lazarus didn’t look away. Then Kadinsky uttered a forced laugh.
“Which is why I need to get my hands on it, or else I’m finished.” He leaned forwards, a grotesque grin on his face.
Lazarus could move quickly, and he considered reaching out and grabbing Kadinsky’s chin and neck, and saving both the Kremlin and the Chinese a lot of hassle. It would make a good last line. But then again, maybe he had a few more pages left in him. He predicted what Kadinsky was about to say.
“Which is why I need you to go and get it, to make sure. Because if I go down, I won’t go quietly. Everyone goes down with me. You can be sure of that.”
Lazarus was sure. He spread his hands theatrically. “You want me to go incognito?”
Kadinsky sat back, smug, like an actor pleased with his own performance.
“Actually, yes. There’s a small-time wrestling championship. The perfect cover. You’re going as Rasputin, the Russian Bone-Cruncher.” He laughed, then laughed some more.
Lazarus hated jokes. They were always at someone’s expense, this time his. But he knew Kadinsky never really joked, and you didn’t say no to a guy like him, who knew where all your friends and relatives lived. Kadinsky had already buried two of Lazarus’s nephews.  
              “Good, that’s settled. You leave early tomorrow, private jet to Bristol, you’ll be picked up from there.”
            Lazarus began to get up.
            “Which girl do you want for tonight?”
            “Thanks, but I don’t –”
            “Which girl?” Kadinsky’s smug smile was gone.
            “The brunette,” he said. He watched for any trace of reaction, in case the brunette meant something to Kadinsky, but there was none. As expected.
            “Dinner’s at seven,” Kadinsky said. He pressed something, and the double doors opened.

Lazarus sat in an armchair by the bed, thinking of Sasha, the car crash, the ice cracking. He closed his eyes. Seventeen years ago. Her book had been so short, barely a few of chapters. But he read it every night.
            There was a knock on the door. He didn’t answer. The door handle turned and the brunette stole inside. She was beautiful, no point denying it. But then Sasha had been, too. And when you’ve loved and lost someone truly beautiful, other beauty seems hollow, it doesn’t touch you. She crossed the bedroom towards him.
            He held up a hand. “I don’t want you,” he said, as curt as he could manage.
            She stopped. “You want one of the other girls?”
            Her voice was deeper than he’d expected, like Sasha’s.
“No,” he said. “I don’t want anyone.”
            She stayed where she was. “If I leave now, I’ll be punished,” she said.
            Too bad. He’d held true to Sasha all these years. The brunette’s face grew sad, then resolute, like she knew what was coming. She turned to leave. He imagined Sasha, watching. She’d scold him.
            “Wait,” he said. “You can stay. But no sex.”
            She didn’t move. “He’ll have his men check.”
            “Check what?”
            “The sheets.” She lowered her voice. “Me.”
            He imagined Sasha storming out to find a gun to shoot Kadinsky, though not in the face.
            “It’s okay,” she said. “I respect you for it.” She glanced over her shoulder. “You’re lucky you have the choice.” She moved to the door.
            All these years he’d imagined Sasha by his side, watching over him. He’d never told anyone, even when drunk, that he still carried her around with him. He imagined Sasha at the door. She would say that one of them had to leave, and it was her. She’d be gone by now. Make it quick, she’d say, as she closed the door behind her, and don’t tell me about it, ever.
            “Wait,” he said. The room felt empty, just him and her. “Get undressed.”
            She smiled, mouthed “Spasiba,” and let her dress fall to the floor.
            She was perfect, the ends of her tawny hair just reaching her nipples.
            “How long has it been?” she asked.
“A lifetime.” 


  1. I always find not treating a villain like a villain during brainstorming is what makes a great antagonist. The cliche phrase, "every character is a villain of their own story," has always stuck with me

    The bad guy doesn't know he's bad. He thinks he's doing the right thing.

    Great read! I'll be back for more!

    1. Thanks Kevin. When I'm writing 'bad' characters I do climb inside their heads and see it from their side. This was most difficult with two female baddies, Sister Esma and Louise. I have them make short speeches that show how they rationalize what they do, for the greater good... Although Louise starts to realise she is bad...

    2. Right. Reminds me of breaking bad. If you haven't seen the show, and are planning to, don't read this!!

      But at the end he finds out that he's doing what he's doing because he likes it. As long as the reasoning behind the 'bad guys' actions are relatable from audience to character, its fine!

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