The Crime Readers' Association

Why do we like the wrong people? By Fergus McNeill

4th December 2015

Most of us believe that our moral compass points in the right direction. We know the difference between right and wrong, and we generally hope that good will prevail over evil. So why, when we read, do we sometimes experience those strangely conflicted feelings? Why do we find ourselves rooting (just a little bit) for the villain?

I’ve always enjoyed traditional whodunnits, where the killer is hidden, and seen only through their actions. And we’ve all read gripping police procedurals where the story is punctuated with tantalising glimpses of an anonymous baddie doing something sinister in the shadows.

But sometimes, the menace steps out of the shadows. Sometimes, rather than keeping the danger at a safe distance, we get to know the villain – really know them – and those stories take on a special fascination. For me, I suppose it all started with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of The Lambs. Here was a story where one of the villains – arguably the main villain – got away. And yet, far from feeling dissatisfied by this, I was glad; by the end of the book, I wanted him to be out there, having an old friend for dinner.

Why should this be? I’m certainly not predisposed to like murderers, so why did I find myself rooting for Doctor Lecter? Perhaps it’s because I got to know him.

Imagine that same story, without the quid pro quo, without those intimate conversations through the glass of his basement cell. Imagine if Clarice Starling had restricted their discussion to the Buffalo Bill case, and we’d never got to know the real monster, just a few feet away from her? That closeness – that understanding – makes our relationship with the villain more complicated.

Sometimes, a novel brings us closer still (for me, this is the unique beauty of written fiction over film and TV) letting us see right into the killer’s mind. It’s not a new phenomenon – Agatha Christie did it perfectly in The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd – and, more recently, Phil Hogan’s excellent A Pleasure And A Calling featured a central character that I absolutely loved, despite some of the questionable things he does.

Of course, we can only get to know someone if we are allowed to spend time with them. Perhaps that’s why, when I’m writing, I usually give at least half of my total word-count to the villain. Telling a story from the killer’s point of view has its own challenges, but there are benefits too. These characters think differently – they aren’t constrained by the same rules as you and I, so they have a greater capacity to surprise and shock us. As we spend more time with them, we start to realise that anything can happen, and that raises the stakes for everyone in the story, including the reader.

For me, the characters that have this attraction are never simply evil; they aren’t cartoon baddies, twirling their black moustaches, and being wicked “just because”. The most compelling villains draw you in subtly, and in unexpected ways. At first, we may feel sympathy for them. They may be genuinely likable, or exhibit a deep charisma that makes us want to spend time in their presence. Sometimes we recognise aspects of their personality that we wish we possessed in ourselves. Whatever the reason, we find ourselves drawn to them, in spite of their actions.

This can really open up a story – it may be the only way for us to experience crucial moments first-hand, rather than at arm’s length – and I think this is where the intensity of experience can set our moral compass spinning. Even though we know a character is bad, we’ve still lived through some amazing / shocking / terrifying events with them, and that can lead us to feel a kind of bond with them… even if that character happens to be the villain.
Through them, we’ve been able to explore the darkest places, or see the world in a shocking new way, or taste a life unconstrained by rules. Whatever it is, these characters are often at the heart of the stories that stay with us, so it’s not all bad… and perhaps, when we think about it, neither are they.

Fergus McNeill has been creating computer games since the eighties, when he started writing interactive fiction titles. Over the years he became known for his own content, and his adaptations of other authors’ material, including working with Terry Pratchett to create the first Discworld game. He also wrote and directed voiceover scripts for a number of award-winning titles.

EYE CONTACT, a contemporary crime thriller, was his debut novel, followed by KNIFE EDGE, the second in the Bristol-based Detective Harland series published by Hodder.
Now running an app development studio, Fergus lives in Hampshire. He is 44, married, with a teenage son and a very large cat.

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