I had a wonderful chat with two of my favourite crime fiction writers, Vaseem Khan & Abir Mukherjee, for their Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast – out today!
Luckily I had two books to talk about, ONE YEAR LATER, as well as THE PRIEST AND THE LILY. We talked about camping in lockdown, as well as arriving in Outer Mongolia with only the clothes I was wearing, as my luggage had been left in Russia…
Today I ran a lesson about villains for homeschool with my nine-year-old daughter. She loved it and created a supreme baddie: Galactica, Queen of the Galaxy, who is 962 years old, born when an asteroid crashed into the Milky Way. She’s composed of ‘stars, dust gas and magic in lady form’. Great fun, and a suitable topic for primary school English, but actually, it’s a pretty critical subject for any writer.
If you want to create a villain with your child for homeschool, we began by thinking of our five favourite villains, what movie or story they featured in, and writing why they make such great antagonists.
We then created our own villain, and you can too, by downloading my worksheet: My villain.
Adults, if you want further background information, or help with your own writing, please have a look at the video, the rest of this blog and check out my exercise and tips.
So why do you need a villain? Well, without a baddie, basically, your story lacks drama. There will be no uncertainty, excitement or tension. An antagonist can provide conflict, which will help create this drama. The antagonist will also elevate your protagonist, the central character in your story, by stretching him or her because they’ll need to grow, change, and summon deep inner resources to defeat the villain – as long as your baddie is a worthy opponent.
However, an antagonist need not be a person: if you’re writing a supernatural or horror story then your villain could be a creature or a ghost or a wizard. But in other genres, your villain could be a force, a concept, a trait or a psychological state. For instance, in 1984 the antagonist is ‘the Party’, the human (or inhuman) face of ‘Big Brother’. In spy thrillers, there is often a conspiracy or a government cover up; in LA Confidential, the hero is battling his own alcoholism; in Sense of an Ending, the opponent, seems to be Vanessa, but it’s actually the anti-hero, Tony’s, own character flaws; in Solar it’s global warming.
My two tips on creating a decent villain are first, have empathy. Get inside your baddie’s head. Almost no one thinks they’re doing the wrong thing or that they’re immoral – everyone can justify their actions.
And secondly, the villain isn’t always who you think it is. Check out my thrillers – in all three, Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child and My Mother’s Secret – the antagonist isn’t who you think it is.
I recently saw a set of three mugs in one of my favourite shops. They read:
I’m the oldest child – I make the rules.
I’m the middle child – I’m the reason we have rules.
I’m the youngest child – the rules don’t apply to me.
I had great fun creating Bethany’s character. She’s the middle child in the Flowers family in my psychological thriller, One Year Later. She’s a TV presenter – which was also my former career (this is a picture of me at the start of my TV career as a wildlife presenter for the BBC).
One of the producers I worked with was talking about another presenter and said, ‘He’d stab his grandmother to get ahead.’ I had to put that quote in my novel!
Bethany is feisty, fiery, independent, driven and ambitious. She’s also a victim of TV culture where women have to look young and sexy no matter what show they’re presenting, whereas men are allowed to be on our screens at any age, looking, frankly, a bit dishevelled. Bethany is also a victim of the casual sexual discrimination and abuse against women that still exists in this industry.
He said, “Bethany, your problem is you’re smart without being intelligent,good looking without being pretty, and approachable in a girl-next-door-way, but no one in their right fucking mind would want to be your neighbour.”
Bethany talking to Nick about her TV producer in One Year Later.
Setting is so important to me. It’s almost like another character, setting the tone and the mood as well, as obviously, the location. My last four psychological thrillers, Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child, My Mother’s Secret and One Year Later, are all, or partially set in Bristol, where I lived for many years.
The novel I’m currently writing, Labyrinth, is set in London. I wanted a bigger, better-known backdrop, grittier and more urban. But, what I’m obsessed with (as anyone who’s read anything I’ve written will know!) is nature. I’m interested in the interstices between the suburbs and ghettoised wildlife; how nature creeps in, even to the grimiest, grittiest streets, and how we carry a love and fear of the wild within us all.
So what better place to set Labyrinth than Hackney! It’s pretty darn urban, but encompasses Hackney Marsh, Walthamstow Nature Reserve, the Lee Valley, and pockets of reed beds in the recently completely Olympic Park. Parakeets fly through the ash trees bordering the River Lee and coots stride across the tow path.
Cue a number of research trips! The latest one was this week – I sneaked a quick walk along the Lee with my mum before I met up with my publishers.
My exciting news is that I’m working on a new book. Provisionally called Labyrinth, it’s a re-imagining of Vertigo, the movie directed by Hitchcock. It’s a slight departure for me, as it’s less psychological thriller / family drama and more of a crime thriller. It’s set in Hackney in London, and as you’d imagine, from a re-take of Vertigo, there’s a lot about heights…
My story is about ex-cop, Maddison Jones, who suffers from vertigo. She fails to save a young woman from committing suicide, The girl falls to her death from the twelfth floor of a block of flats. The stress pushes Maddison’s vertigo to Meniere’s Disease, which is vertigo combined with tinnitus and she ends up on sick leave, struggling to leave the house.
(The picture of the double rainbow over an apartment block in Hackney Wick is by my talented sister, Emma O’Connell.)
I always like to have a theme or a leitmotif running through my novels and in this one, One Year Later, it’s Dante’s The Divine Comedy.
There’s the obvious aspects – it’s set in Italy, it’s hot as hell, but it’s about a young man’s journey through nine circles of hell; it’s about salvation and redemption, as one lovely, astute reviewer pointed out.
Above all, when one is grieving, it really can feel that you are alive, but you have lost life’s breath and found yourself within ‘a forest dark’.
Happy New Year! The snowdrops are out in the garden, looking lovely.
Thinking about this year – I’d really appreciate your feedback on what you would like to hear more about. I’m working on a couple of exciting book projects – more on them soon – but in the meantime, what wouldyou like to hear more of? Please could you complete this short survey (takes 2 minutes, promise!).
Everyone who completes thesurveywill be eligible to WIN one of my thrillers of their choice.
Is anyone in a Book Club? I must admit, I don’t really have time, although I’d love to be! I have a Book Buddy instead, which is much more random and sporadic, but she inspires me to read books I’d never have chosen myself, and then we go for a walk or a drink when we can fit it in round kids and work and chat about the book, as well as everything else!
If you’d like to discuss One Year Later in your Book Club, here are some questions to get you started.
In May 2017 we bought a house in Somerset. It was originally built in the 1950s and for almost two years we’ve been renovating it. And it’s finished! I hesitate to do a huge cheer in case something else falls apart or starts leaking – but we are absolutely delighted. In fact, our house was shortlisted for an award (LABC SouthWest Building Excellence)!
While we were working on the house (yup, it’s a stressful as everyone on Grand Designs tells you), it made me think about the similarities between building a house and writing a novel. Both kinds of projects require vision, creativity, tenacity, an eye for the big picture, being dogged about detail, technical skill, imaginative flair and fair amounts of sheer blood, sweat and tears.
Here’s what I learned about the parallels between designing a house and plotting a novel:
Vision: We had a clear idea of how we wanted our house to look – we sent a nine page brief to our architect. Julian Mills of Orme Architecture then drew a picture of what our house was going to look like, and I do believe, it’s come out as we’d all hoped it would! With a novel, you might have a vague idea of what’s going to be in it, a general feeling for its shape, a wisp of atmosphere, a hint of the kinds of characters that will people it. You might want to create an ideas board or a mood board, as we did on Pinterest (and I also do for whatever novel I’m working on). You can have a look at my previous mood boards here.
However, at some stage, you’re going to want to firm up this vision so that you can communicate your idea succinctly to publishers and agents to make them excited about your novel, as well as understanding what they’re going to get when it’s finished. There’s nothing so dispiriting as giving your novel to an editor who was expecting something totally different…
Blueprint: Orme Architecture used the original design and our thoughts to create a blueprint. This enabled us, the client, to see what our house would be like, as well as showing the builders exactly what to do, from which wall to take out, to where the light switch should go in my office.
You wouldn’t start building a house without planning it first…why do the same with your novel?
Some of you may not like planning your novels. You may just want to start writing. And that’s fine, but my advice is, you may spend a long time writing your way into finding out what your novel is actually about, and even longer editing it if you haven’t created a blueprint. This is your outline for yourself, which you may wish to share with your writer’s group, your agent and your editor. It tells you how the plot will unfold and how you’re going to structure your novel.
Creating a blueprint is the skeleton for the novel, upon which to hang your beautiful words and well-crafted sentences. Effectively, it’s going to tell you where the walls will be built (major twists) as well as where the light switches will be fitted (minor revelations). It’ll help keep your writing focused onyour theme: in our house it was minimalism, white walls and wooden floors, with a Swedish vibe; in a novel, it might be on identity, for instance, which was one of the themes in my thriller, The Stolen Child.