As YA author Laura Powell releases Witch Fire, the highly-anticipated sequel to Burn Mark, she provides valuable insight into one of writing's great selection dilemmas... how to choose your villain.
Villains are every bit as important as heroes. And they’re often more memorable, with bland do-gooders sometimes struggling to assert their charisma up against twisted evil-mongers of doom. In fact, my favourite fictional villains are some of my favourite literary characters, full stop. Captain Hook, Mrs Coulter, The White Witch, Long John Silver, Mrs Danvers, Tom Ripley … I could go on.
The real world is full of villains, from the bullying teacher and unfit parent to the mob boss and military dictator. When you’re writing fantasy, the principle characteristics of evil are the same. It’s just that the sadism is accessorised by a supernatural power or two.
Humans have a primal fear of creatures of the night, and of what we don’t understand. That’s why age-old terrors such as witches, fae, demons and vampires are so liberating to write about. Of course, the challenge is to make your mythical monster stand out from the rest of the pack. You’ll need to find a way of updating them, especially if your story is set in the modern world, as well as re-working their traditional attributes to keep the story fresh and cliché free. Often the hero and villain will have something that binds them together, whether this is a troubled past, a mutual need or even the same mythical pedigree (good vampires versus bad vampires, for example).
Creating a back story for your villain will give him or her depth and make them feel real. What’s their motivation – a grievous wrong, a burning shame, a horribly misplaced conviction that “the end justifies the means”? The most memorable baddies tend to be charming ones: evil is at its most dangerous when it’s seductive.
Villains can have redeeming qualities just as heroes can have flaws. Few things in life, after all, are black and white. These days, it’s increasingly common for the monsters to be misunderstood, while it’s their human counterparts who are mad, bad and dangerous to know.
Why I Chose Witches
The true history of witch-hunts and witch-trials has all the gory fascination of a horror film. No wonder witches in fiction have been done to death – often literally. But when I decided I wanted to write a crime thriller with a paranormal twist, I couldn’t resist casting witches as both heroes and villains.
With their abilities to see through walls, fly through the air and possess people’s minds, witches have many ways to outwit the law. This would make them great gangsters. It struck me that a coven could easily be re-imagined as a Mafia-style organisation, and the Inquisition as a modern police force. So in the world of Burn Mark and its sequel Witch Fire, witches are a small and persecuted underclass. Those who turn to crime are still hunted down and burned at the stake, by inquisitors who use jargon lifted from the War on Terror.
I knew I had to get away from the over-familiar accessories of wands, cauldrons and Latin chants, and come up with my own magic system. My witches work by channelling mental powers similar to ESP into other people, animals and objects. It’s a ritualistic yet messy process, using bits of rubbish and mud and bodily parts. For inspiration, I looked at the African-American magical practices of hoodoo, as well as British folklore. I wanted to explore how such a primitive, mysterious force would survive in a high-tech society that’s fighting it on one hand, yet wants to exploit it on the other.
Witches have always been a mix of sexy and scary, victims and tyrants. That’s why they’re so exciting to write about.
For where there’s a witch, there’s a way…