The Mystery Writer: How good a person is your villain?

He was shy, handsome, smart, and charming. He was a murderer. Photo: Denver Post.

He was shy with an innocent smile, and girls all wanted to take him in their arms and comfort him.

There is a common thread in many of the indie novels I have read. The heroes are heroic and the villains are vile from the first moment they walk onto a page.

Heroes are without flaws.

Villains have absolutely no redeeming qualities.

In the minds of some writers, that may be the stuff of fiction. It’s certainly not a reflection of real life. And it has always been my belief that – for a novel to be believable – one should mirror the other.

Take the young man from Washington State. His life appeared to be the perfect existence.

He had overcome hard times, beaten the odds, and was living a life that others would watch from afar and be stricken with a deep-seated sense of envy.

He was as handsome as a movie star. Girls could not help but notice him. He was shy with an innocent smile, and they all wanted to take him in their arms and comfort him.

He was smart. He had an aggressive streak. He seemed to be a young man on the move, possessing a definite sense of purpose, and knowing exactly what he wanted to accomplish in life.

Sure, his early years had been difficult. Sure, he could have easily succumbed to the misery of his surroundings as a boy and grown to manhood with a harsh bitterness boiling inside of him.

He did not know the name of his father.

His mother had abandoned him.

He had been raised by his grandfather, a bully and a bigot who, for no particular reason, admittedly hated blacks, Italians, Catholics, and Jews.

The man beat his wife and the family dog.

He swung neighborhood cats over his head by their tails. He once threw his daughter down the stairs for oversleeping.

And he was known to walk throughout the darkness of the house, speaking aloud to some unknown and unseen presence.

The boy’s home life had been hell. But he had survived it all. He put his past behind him and began striving for something better.

For a time, he worked in a Seattle Suicide Hotline Crisis Center and was described as “kind, solicitous, and empathetic.”

He listened to the problems of those who had reached the end of their rope. His soft words helped them hang on. He was there when they needed him. He understood them. He genuinely cared about them.

He made a difference.

The young man graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in psychology, and, for a time, it was predicted that he had the potential to have a bright future in the glamorous world of politics.

He worked in the Seattle office for Nelson Rockefeller’s Presidential campaign. He even attended the National Republican Convention in Miami as an official delegate for Rockefeller.

The young man joined the re-election campaign for Governor Daniel J. Evans, posing as a college student and shadowing the governor’s opponent – recording the man’s speeches and turning them over to be analyzed by the Evans political team.

He later took a job as an assistant to Ross Davis, the chairman of the Washington State Republican Party.

He impressed everyone who met him. This boy had it all, they thought. He was good looking. He carried himself well. He would certainly get the women’s votes. He was a young man on the rise. Everyone knew that he would run for office someday. They just didn’t know when. Washington State Republicans had big plans for him.

On the strength of letters of recommendation from Governor Evans, Ross Davis, and several professors from the University of Washington, the young man enrolled in law school.

He was intrigued by the machinations of the law. He grew tired of the course work.

He started missing classes. He wasn’t seen much on campus anymore.

And, one by one, young women began to disappear without a trace. Something had gone dreadfully awry. Something had grown quite deadly on the streets of a college town. And fear began to spread like a contagious disease. The unknown was the most frightening of all.

No one felt safe. A serial killer was on the loose, and the length and breadth of his killing fields would stretch from Washington State to Florida.

His trail would be marked by a series of unmarked graves.

The killer was meticulous. He was careful. He carefully researched the women he took from the streets. He left nothing to chance. No one ever found his fingerprints to tie him to a crime scene or a victim.

But the young man with movie star looks, the young man with an innocent smile, the young man with a college degree in psychology, the young man who could have had a career in politics, the young man who was a rising figure in the Republican Party made a simple and, for him, a foolish mistake.

He refused to pull over for a routine traffic stop. And inside his car, a patrolman found a ski mask, a second mask fashioned from pantyhose, a crowbar, handcuffs, trash bags, a coil of rope, and an ice pick. The patrolman reached for his pistol. At long last, the young man was being dragged out of the shadows.

His past had finally caught up with him.

His name was Ted Bundy.

It was believed that he had raped and killed as many as thirty-five women.

Others suspected the toll might reach a hundred or more.

But so many of the missing women were never found, and Bundy, until his death in a Florida electric chair, never gave anyone a clue as to where those nameless, unmarked graves might be.

He did not kill because of lust or a thirst for violence, he said. He wanted to possess all that someone owned or possessed. And the greatest possession of all was their lives.

Ted Bundy had the chance to have it all. He was a man believed to be smart, shy, kind, and empathetic. But even Bundy described himself as “the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet.”

And a member of his last defense team said, “Ted was the very definition of heartless evil.”

A villain always has two sides.

Write them both.

The good side makes the bad side even worse.

My new historical mystery is Lost Side of an Orphan’s Moon. You’ll never guess who the villain might be. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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