Just Woke Up & Decided to Be Evil...
Not long ago, I read the first historical romance (I won't mention the title here) I've picked up in a long while, and I have to tell you, I was loving it. Wonderful, witty heroine, great, brisk pace, and a fabulous romantic conflict between the protagonists. Loved the author's voice, too. I was really enjoying myself... until I came to the villain, who was a mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash of the first order. His motivation didn't work for me, and I couldn't begin to make sense of his actions. To me, it honestly felt as if this guy woke up one morning and decided to be evil.
Since I write romantic suspense (and have an unfortunate tendency to ruin otherwise good books by dropping into hyper-analysis mode), I paid particular attention. Villains are my stock in trade. I like a down and dirty antagonist -- the scarier the better, and just this side of over the top, as the genre demands. But I try to stay mindful that every villain is the hero of his/her own story. That there's always a reason -- a damned compelling reason, to the villain's way of thinking -- that he/she is "forced" to resort to uber-naughtiness to achieve some "greater good." If you don't believe me, read interviews with criminals convicted of the most heinous crimes. The excuses they make for their behavior are incredibly complex, convoluted -- and perfectly rational in their minds. I've heard pedophiles rationalize things in interviews that broke me out in shudders and ignited my eyelashes. I've read the words of serial killers as they spun out the schizophrenic logic like an intricate web of poisoned silk. It's damned unpleasant putting myself into these peoples' minds to write a scene from my books' antagonists' point of view -- I often have to take a break or take a shower afterwards -- but that sort of immersion is critical in depicting an authentic evil. And compared to it, anything else tastes way too much like cardboard.
When it comes to villainy, how much is too much? And do you have any special tips you'd like to share for getting into character when the character's a creep?