Lisa Gardner: Creating the Diabolicial Villain (& Other Great Characters), by Janice Gable Bashman

Lisa Gardner creates great characters that grab the reader’s attention and don’t let go. Gardner states that “before you get to the what, you must make your reader care about the who.” It doesn’t matter if it’s the diabolical villain, the hero or the heroine, or the mother of a missing kid. And when it comes to creating the diabolical villain, she believes the villain should possess charisma and principles, must persevere when faced with adversity, and must have something important to fight for, all characteristics that make him (or her) a chilling and memorable villain. Gardner’s ability to create great characters and make them come alive quickly draws the readers into the story and keeps them hanging on to every chapter, every scene, every word.

Twelve of Lisa Gardner’s books have hit the New York Times Best Seller list, and she has over 20 million copies of her books in print, including her latest novel, Live to Tell. The fifth book in her Detective D.D. Warren series, Love You More, was released in March 2011. She is the 2010 Thriller award winner for best hardback novel for The Neighbor.

Why is it so important for an author to make readers “care about the who” before they “get to the what”?

There’s an adage in writing that there are only seven stories in the world, and they’ve all been told. Basically, readers know the “what” of any novel—been there, done that. Thus, it’s the characters in a book that really make it stand out. For example, Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs. On the one hand, another serial killer novel in an overcrowded suspense marketplace. On the other hand, Hannibal Lecter. Here’s a character that broke all the molds. A serial killer with charm. A serial killer so brilliant, you couldn’t help but respect him. Readers connected with that. Readers were mesmerized by that. Then Harris paired Hannibal with an equally compelling heroine, newbie FBI agent Clarice Starling. Suddenly, readers had something more than a “serial killer novel.” Readers had a battle of wits between two worthy opponents, both of whom captured the imagination. And a little bit of success ensued.

How do you accomplish this quickly in your thrillers?

Beware TMI [too much information]. Crafting a complicated character is a matter of establishing layers, which most writers get. Where we screw up is crafting interesting characters with interesting backstories, then throwing it all in the reader’s face in the first three pages. Dole out your characters. Seed your opening pages with basic information—what would you politely share at a cocktail party? Hint at more interesting things to come. Then walk away. Character revelations should happen naturally over the next four hundred pages and not be force-fed in chapter 1.

Also, craft characters that can evolve with the story. When I first wrote The Neighbor, the wife, Sandy Jones, was supposed to be evil. But then I fell in love with her daughter, Ree, and I couldn’t give Ree a terrible mom. So, instead, Sandy’s story became one of redemption (with a twist, I suppose), but it happened organically. I didn’t have to change the character I started; Sandy simply made different choices when it came to key turning points in the novel. She learned from her past mistakes instead of repeating them. That’s when characters feel natural to readers. They are people, doing the best they can, and some of their choices are better than others, but we relate to their desire to be a better parent, spouse, neighbor, even as danger looms just outside their front door.


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