In the criminal underworld, silent hit men who operate alone and discreetly and whose victims are never found are known as ‘crocodiles’. In crime fiction, they lurk in the pages of all good novels and are symbolic of the ultimate villain or predator.
It has been said that crime fiction and noir are the perfect substitute for adult fairy fairy tales. The troll under the bridge becomes the killer in a hard boiled thriller that scares, entertains and educates us. That requires strong antagonists because we can’t have a hero without a villain, so the creation of the villain is as much a challenge and a craft for writers as the creation of heroes and heroines. In many cases it is the villains themselves who are remembered and who make or break a story.
Where would Thomas Harris or his readers be without his creation of Hannibal Lector?
And who can forget Al Pacino staggering around a posh restaurant in the 1980 film Scarface abusing diners, telling them that they needed people like him so they could point their fingers and say ‘that’s the bad guy’.
So how to create the ultimate villain? While almost every writer will have their own method, but for me a few simple rules help.
First you can’t just throw all your character names into a bowl and pick one to be your villain. For your novel to work, the villain must be special. Your sleuth deserves a worthy adversary—a smart, wily, dangerous creature who, like a crocodile, tests your protagonist’s courage and detective prowess. Stupid, bumbling characters are good for comic relief, but they make lousy villains. The smarter, more invincible the villain, the harder your protagonist must work to find his vulnerability and the greater the achievement in bringing him to justice.
Also, it’s better when the reader can muster a little sympathy for a complex, realistic character who feels the crimes are justified. So, in planning, I try to wrap my head around why the villain does what he does. What motivates him or her to kill? Consider the standard motives like greed, jealousy, or hatred which feature in reality, then go a step further. Get inside the villain’s head and see the crime from his perspective. What looks to law enforcement like a murder motivated by greed may, to the perpetrator, be an act in the service of a noble, even heroic cause.
A few ways a villain might justify his or her crime/s:
- righting a prior wrong
- revenge (the victim deserved to die)
- vigilante justice (the criminal justice system didn’t work)
- protecting a loved one
- restoring order to the world
Finally, I think about what happened to make that character the way he or she is. Were they born bad, mad or sad, or turned sour as a result of some early experience? If your villain has a grudge against society, why? If they can’t tolerate being jilted, why? I may never share the whole story, but to make a complex, interesting villain, I need to know the answers to these questions.
Like fishermen who choose to fish in crocodile infested waters, you have to learn to think like a crocodile.
So that’s fiction covered, but does the same apply to reality. Do we need guys like Tony Montana so we can point our fingers at the bad guy? If so, how do we live with creatures like Brutus, the world’s most famous crocodile, a 17 meter long “Saltie” known for his missing front leg mauled by a shark many years ago? Now, at an estimated 80 years of age, Brutus is the Northern Territory’s biggest tourism draw card, an imposing figure who, in touch of natural irony, feeds on sharks.
A causal glance of the daily news will shout a loud ‘yes’. Indeed, there’s a phrase in media circles that often determines what stories run and which ones get bumped to page 8, below the fold.
“If it bleeds, it leads.”
Shootings, rapes, stabbings, assaults, crime scenes and drug epidemics = fear, anxiety and panic. What better way to get our attention than to control what we are scared of?
So when a real life crocodile snaps a tourist or a fisherman from a river bank in far north Queensland or the Adelaide River in the Northern Territory, it’s a sure fire bet the event will lead the local and more widespread news bulletins. As with shark attacks, when crocodiles kill a human the nation is divided, especially when the suspected croc is nick named Michael Jackson.
Depending on your culture or background, crocodiles (in the literal sense) feature regularly in fairytales. The song ‘Never Smile at a Crocodile’ in the story of Peter Pan is a Disney classic. Western children grow up with this in their minds and on the television screen. In other cultures crocodiles feature in the learning lessons of life also. In parts of Asia, for example, children are taught not to teach crocodiles how to swim.
Sometimes this is misinterpreted as meaning not to give away family or business secrets to outsiders, but in fact it refers to maintaining respect for someone older or wiser than you. You wouldn’t teach your grandmother how to cook, or your father how to slaughter a pig.
In the northern parts of Australia, crocodiles are both feared and respected. In some ways this applies to the human crocodiles as well, the assassins who, like their pre-historic namesake, lurk beneath an unseen surface and strike with deadly force, often snatching their prey into the water, never to be seen again.
But as with real crocodiles, whose victims are rarely recovered, such as the case of a 24-year-old German tourist whose remains turned up in a Billabong several months after disappearing while swimming in a national park, so too are the victims of assassins.
But where is balance? The policy in the Northern territory is shoot ‘rogue’ crocodiles who attack humans.
Less than a month ago another fishermen was taken from the banks of the Adelaide River. On this occasion, the fishermen was taken while fishing from an old ferry track next to the river, and was wading in the water trying to retrieve a fishing hook when he was taken.
Police launched boats at about 8.30pm to search for the man. Several gunshots were heard at about 9pm. A crocodile was shot and police found human remains at about 9.30pm.
It is understood the man’s wife heard a scream and then turned around and saw a crocodile tail splashing in the water.
In the past year, there have been four confirmed fatal crocodile attacks in the Territory. In an attack in June, 62-year-old Bill Scott was taken from the rear of his moored boat in Kakadu National Park.
The Adelaide River, downstream from where the man was taken, is the location of the Territory’s famous jumping croc cruises. Tourist operators take groups out on boats to feed the local crocs, which jump to take pieces of meat hanging from a pole. Brutus is the most sought after crocodile on these trips.
So what then of the Ultimate Villain? We know that crocodiles are territorial and do not move outside their ‘patch’. Local fishermen know this too. Do we tolerate monsters like Hannibal Lector in the same way we tolerate monsters like Brutus?
Stay in your place and scare us, but don’t go too far or we will shoot you?
Perhaps that is the sad irony. In fiction we need the Ultimate Villain to tell the ultimate story. In real life we also need the Ultimate Villain to have the ultimate holiday, so long as we can control them.
I don’t live in the Northern Territory so I don’t have to worry about crocodiles, but I can’t help but see the hypocrisy in this. Like Hannibal Lector, who we all loved as long as he stayed in his cage, Brutus can keep eating sharks and bringing in the tourists, just as long as he doesn’t hurt anyone.
If he does, you can bet the rangers will be out with guns loaded, ready to kill the Ultimate Villain.
To learn more about saltwater crocodiles, a truly remarkable prehistoric legend of Australia’s Top End, this is a useful website.
A revised edition of head Shot is now available from Arcadia Press… http://www.scholarly.info/book/397/
“Catch and kill your own…
The underworld lives by this code.
When somebody gets out of line, they handle it themselves. The victim ends up face down in a driveway with three bullets in the back of the head. Bowling ball style.
The families don’t call the cops and they don’t expect our help. They wash their own dirty laundry and they do it on their own terms.
It’s been that way since I can remember, probably since anyone can. This is how they live. And how they die…”