All the characters I’ve developed so far in my writing have been flawed in one way or another – Jessie is impulsive, John so unassertive, Maggie ambitious, Violet blinkered by her religion – but all of them are essentially good people. If, as I’m considering, I turn to crime fiction for Book 4 I need at least one character who is truly malevolent, and now I’m struggling. The big piece of paper where I’m sketching out the interrelationships in the new book is looking interesting but too benign. It lacks an attractive ‘baddie’, like Milton’s Satan, just charismatic enough to reel us in and make the inevitable betrayal all the more shocking.
Current events lead me to consider a possible backdrop of paedophilia, or people smuggling, or abuse of immigrant workers as the dark side of the plot. It may be squeamish on my part, but I want to avoid explicit violence against women, although setting the action in the 1970s would provide plenty of scope for misogyny and casual gender discrimination. My own working life began early in the 1970s, and I clearly recall how as a young married woman at my first job interview being asked what my contraceptive arrangements were. I said I would share mine if the Deputy Headteacher interviewing me would explain his. He didn’t pursue the matter. Women in general, and young women in particular, were routinely insulted and undermined, and it would be so easy to turn the story into a feminist rant, but that’s not what I want to write. I’m looking for a villain, a rounded, credible, intelligent, articulate character uninhibited by compassion or conscience whose behaviour wreaks havoc and threatens the people we love. Rather than trawl unsuccessfully through my acquaintance looking for such a person, I may look for inspiration among fictional villains, past and present. Scarpia? Iago? Shakespeare’s caricature of Richard III?
Or should I aim for an ill-intentioned collective, the paedophile ring, the terrorist group, the cabal of bent coppers on the take? Looking across the current literature, it feels like every conceivable angle of conspiracy has been done to death, literally and figuratively. The heroic isolated protagonist against the odds, again? Maybe the nature of successful crime fiction is that it repeats the well-worn genre protocols with just enough of a twist to pique the aficianado’s interest. Is that what I want to do? For the time being it’s back to the drawing board, and the large piece of paper.