We're creating a specific kind of "Woman in Jeopardy" type Romantic Suspense story as an example. You can have fun with this game as is, or adapt it to suit whatever kind of story you want to tell.
Heroine and Hero Character Wheels of our little game story. This week we're going to talk about the key attributes of the Villain -- his disguise -- and the crime that drives the story. (And also a little about the Victim, Helper and Red Herring characters.)
Villain's Cover Identity
One of the first things I noticed when I started reading romantic suspense is that the killer appears harmless and maybe even likeable and is the person the heroine confides in. And for this reason, at least on the romance end of the spectrum, it's not at all hard to spot the villain. Sometimes he's the only other character than the hero.
But as I mentioned yesterday, in any kind of suspense (romance or not) the audience may well know who the bad guy is up front. There will always be twists and secrets and surprises, but a suspense story isn't the same as a whodunnit. (Although they can overlap.)
However, suspense almost always hinges on the heroine not knowing who to trust. At some point she will trust the wrong person, and not trust the right person. And, IMHO, the strength of the story will rest on how much we agree with her motives for trusting and not trusting.
Furthermore, since this formula I'm writing is based on my own preferences within the genre, I gotta admit I'm partial to mystery. I don't mind that the puzzle doesn't drive the story, and that the protagonist may be too busy running for her life to run a cold and logical investigation. But I like it when I can be mentally flipping through the suspects and possibilities while the heroine is busy with more urgent matters.
Therefore, I like the villain to be in disguise, even to me.
The Villain's Disguise
The key to the villain in this kind of story is that he/she blends in with the other character types. In pure suspense, he could even be the romantic lead. However, romance readers seem to dislike it when a woman is truly torn between two lovers, therefore the villain or any other romantic rival should never be a real contender for her love, even if he does earn her real sympathy, friendship or general affection.
And because the killer is disguised as one of the other types of players, his wheel can be like a "Wheel of Other Characters." Or if you were a writing a straight mystery a "Wheel of Suspects."
I am currently not happy with my villain list. However whenever I run through the game, I never get stuck on the villain, so I guess it's good enough. I might also roll the sex and age of the character if it is not defined in the item.
1. Woman (older mentor or helper type)
2. Woman (same age pal from school, college, childhood, coworker)
3. Woman (rival)
4. Non-romantic Guy Pal (gay)
5. Non-romantic Guy Pal (mentor)
6. Non-romantic Guy Pal (relative)
7. Romantic interest (flawed ex-boyfriend or husband)
8. Romantic interest (too perfect)
9. Romantic interest (poor schlub she'd like to dump but she doesn't want to hurt feelings.
10. Romantic interest (charming cad she knows better than to get tangled with)
11. Authority figure (boss or landlord)
12. Authority figure (cop)
13. Authority figure (town leader)
14. Apparently unconnected person (neighbor)
15. Apparently unconnected person (worker - cable guy, secretary, butler, lawyer)
The Victim -- and The Nature of the Crime
In a suspense story, the crime might not be murder. There may be no intension of killing the victim. Or the victim could be someone killed before the story starts. The victim may even be the most boring character in the story. She's kind of a MacGuffin: she drives the motive but doesn't have to matter to the story or audience. I call her she, because in my mind, the symbolic character for her is the wealthy dowager who can be tricked into signing over her bank account, or murdered for inheritance, or whom the villain has been sucking up to, and desperately doesn't want her to learn of his sordid past.
So I guess you could say that the victim is actually defined by the nature of the crime that drives the story. Just as the Heroine is defined by what makes her vulnerable, and the hero by what keeps the heroine from trusting him, and the villain by his disguise.
Some crimes have multiple victims, so even if you spin the wheel and pick randomly, you may still have to decide which is the primary victim. For instance in the scenario above:
A Gigolo is sucking up to the Wealthy Dowager, and is blackmailed. You could make the blackmailer the villain, and the Gigolo the victim. Or you could make the Gigolo the villain and if he kills the blackmailer, both the Blackmailer and the Dowager are the victims. In that case I might prefer the Dowager as a victim -- because she's an ongoing victim. But in some stories the murdered blackmailer might be the prominent character -- someone close to the heroine. And there is always the possibility that the Dowager herself is much more aware of what is going on, and she is the villain herself. She might want to kill the blackmailer because she wants the gigolo to keep paying attention to her. (Agatha Christie was always good at pulling that twist off.)
So you could say that any blackmail plot is going to be defined by which of the three characters (the blackmailer, the blackmailee and the third party the secret is kept from) is the villain, and which is the primary victim.
I like blackmail as a crime for a suspense story, so I am going to break it down into several options so it has a better chance of being chosen.
So without further ado, here is my list for the "Nature of the Crime Wheel"
1. Blackmail (Blackmailer is the victim)
2. Blackmail (Blackmailer is the villain, blackmailee is the victim)
3. Blackmail (Blackmailee is the villain, third party is the victim.)
4. Blackmail (Third party is the villain, manipulating the blackmailer and blackmailee)
7. False Identity
8. Faked Will
9. Faked Death
10. Long term secret jealousy or passion
14. Money Laundering
15. Professional Fixer (cover ups for drunk driving Senators, etc.)
17. Long Term Love Affaire with Consequences
18. Protector of Reputation of famous figure
19. Kidnapped or Abandoned Child Returns
20. A Family Preserves Its Honor (keeping secrets in the midst of strife)
21. Hidden Loss of Family Fortune
22. Gaslight - Driving someone crazy to cover a search for hidden loot
23. Scooby-Doo (Campaign of harrassment to get someone to sell property.)
24. Competition for Hand of Heiress
25. Competition for Local Honors (Texas Cheerleading Mom, Top Churchlady, etc.)
26. Dirty Local Politics
Secondary Characters - Helpers and Red Herrings
If you wanted to completely automate the creation of this story, you could reuse the villain wheel to create the remaining characters. (After all, he's supposed to blend in with them.) The question is.... should you?
I think you shouldn't. Or at least not until later. That's becuase, by the time you get done with all of these choices, you're going to have almost too much to to work with. You're probably going to want to veto some of your more important choices. (We'll get to that in two weeks when we get to playing the game.)
With some stories, once you have those four basic characters (Heroine, Hero, Victim, Villain) and the theme/title idea starter, the additional characters may be obvious. You will want to just fill them in.
Or sometimes you find that the main four characters completely cover the roles by themselves. After all, the victim can be a helper or even a red herring, the heroine or hero can be victims, the hero can be a red herring, etc.
So you might roll the age and sex of these characters (along with the victim and villain), but hold them in reserve. Then during brainstorming, if you find yourself in need of a new kick during brainstorming, roll these other "spare" characters. Use the villain wheel, or if you want to, create a new wheel that suits the story.
Here are some thoughts on these last two character types to help you think about htis.
The helper character is incredibly important to the suspense story, for two reasons. One is that the killer may disguise himself as a helper, so always having a good helper around gives more options to twist the story.
The helper doesn't have to be likeable. The protagonist is isolated, so it's best not to give her a sidekick. That's her problem -- she is on her own. So if the helper is a grumpy neighbor who gives her constant shit about the condition of her yard, or the churchlady who firmly disapproves of her in every interaction, that's only for the good.
The helper is a bit of a utility player. She (let's go with the churchlady) can be a gossip who can be counted on for good information. She can be counted on to stick her nose in and hamper the villain at a key moment. She can be a cop, or call the cops, when you need the cavalry. She can provide shelter from the storm when your character is at wits end. And she can be a secondary victim. She can even be the main victim.
You might find, after you get the characters and story concept all worked out, that you can swap the helper with the villain for one more twist.
While the Helper is a bit of a utility player, the Red Herring is fully a utility character. Basically, this character can be a second version of any of the characters as needed. He can be a love-besotted swain who persues the heroine through rain and snow and sleet and a hail of bullets. She could be the blackmailer who gets killed. A sneaky sidekick. The rival for the hero's affection. Or a secondary helper who provides confirmation (or disproof) of key information.
Unless you're writing a full-blown whodunnit, though, this character is likely to be a bit player or maybe a sidekick to one of the others. You may not even need this character at all.
Next Week: Title and Title Words
Okay, next week we'll deal with the remaining two items on the situation sheet: Title and Theme. I held them until last because they are simple, but also because they are fun. The truth is, it's really common to use titles and themes or subjects as writing prompts. And, imho, you could substitute any other kind of writing prompt for these items and come out the same.
Then in two weeks, I'm going to put it all together with a post about the brainstorming stage. I have played around with this, but I decided this week to actually formally roll a story, and see it through -- maybe a half-hour to an hour a day -- as a test run. I'm dating the notes as I brainstorm, and I'll see if anything interesting comes of it. I might post the development of the story -- spoilers and all.
See you in the funny papers.
If you read this blog, and find it useful or entertaining, buy a book once in a while, or make a donation.
Here's a link to a list of my books. And ... hey, look at that! There's a donation link right below this sentence. (Donations are via Paypal)