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The Smiling Villain – Ms Morton shares her thoughts re bad guys

It is always a distinct pleasure to welcome Alison Morton to my blog. Not only is she an author I enjoy & admire, she also delivers insightful posts which I enjoy reading – and I hope you, dear peeps, do as well. Today, Alison has written a little something about that very necessary ingredient in most books: the bad guy (or gal).

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AM White WitchDamnèd, smiling villain

O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain—
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.

(Hamlet, Wm.Shakespeare)

“And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear,
Millions of mischiefs”

Young Octavius, in Julius Caesar, Wm.Shakespeare)

Ah yes, Shakespeare’s smiling villains. Well, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for the rest of us. It also points to how we should portray the ‘bad guy’ in stories.

Undiluted villains like Fu Manchu, the White Witch, Dracula, Cruella de Vil, Mrs Danvers, Ernst Blofeld, are straightforwardly nasty, with a single goal of eliminating the ‘good guy’. We see only one aspect of them and apart from the ways in which they inflict pain on our heroines/heroes we find them a tad ridiculous and potentially boring. Proper villains are multi-layered, often with mixed motivations that sometimes they themselves don’t understand.

AM Apollodorous

Apollodorus, as AM sees him

In the Roma Nova thrillers I’ve written psychopaths (Renschman in INCEPTIO), sociopaths (Pertinax in PERFIDITAS , Caius Tellus in AURELIA, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO) and vengeful children (Nicola in SUCCESSIO). And then there are characters who hover in between such as pragmatic criminal Apollodorus in INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS whom we can’t decide is good or bad.

Some characters are weak and fall into bad company like Superbus in PERFIDITAS, some become temporary ‘bad guys’ (no spoilers here!), some are forced into ‘bad guy’ behaviour due to circumstances, some are merely opportunistic. And these grey areas are the most interesting…

How to write a plausible and interesting villain
All characters need a solid back-story, so it’s a good idea to sketch out when your villain became one, why and in what circumstances. Was it a single incident, a simmering discontent, envy, mistreatment or being a spoilt child? Did he or she fall into bad company or were they abandoned as a child or on the death of one or both parents?  Such events don’t always lead down the dark path, but they may nudge them that way.

A criminal mastermind who seems all-knowing and all-seeing with almost telepathic powers is not credible. Neither is a bumbler or a TSTL (Too stupid to live) fool. But villains should be intelligent or at least crafty. Our heroines (and heroes) need foes worthy of them, ones that will test their mettle.

Are villains ‘born bad’? We all differ in temperament and character. Some of us are laid back, others ambitious, some warm-hearted, others unemotional, some caring and holistic, others full of desire to dominate. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator is extremely useful for making up multi-layered profiles for all your characters. It’s a psychometric test system popular in business and government since the Second World War to indicate psychological preferences about how people perceive the world and make decisions. A gold mine for writers!

Villains’ dialogue should not lapse into stereotypes  or melodrama – they are people like other characters in the story and should speak normally, although irony, sarcasm and anger can be present when appropriate.

[From INSURRECTIO: After she is captured, Aurelia is taken before Caius who has usurped power in Roma Nova]

I was completely alone. With my nemesis. He went back to staring through the window.

‘I can’t decide what to do with you,’ he said. ‘You will undoubtedly try everything to oppose me under some delusion of duty, so it would be prudent to remove you permanently. And you caused me to rot in a Prussian jail for twelve years. I shall never forgive you for that.’

‘You murdered a Prussian citizen and permanently disabled another. You ran a silver smuggling organisation that threatened Roma Nova’s security. You got off lightly.’

He shrugged.

‘And let’s not forget your two attempts to kill me.’

‘You were being irritating, Aurelia, and I dislike that.’

‘Irritating!’ I raised my hands to vent my frustration but the steel grip of the handcuffs constrained them. ‘I was a Praetorian officer tasked to hunt you down. I’d hardly class that as irritating.’

‘“Was”. That’s the correct word.’ He turned and looked straight at me. ‘You’re finished. I’ve cancelled your commission along with that of every other female officer. You’re no longer a minister, nor a senator, nor head of your family. You have become an irrelevance in the new Roma Nova.’

I stared at him. Irrelevant? He couldn’t take away my identity like that.

‘Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t destroy the structure of such an old country just like that.’

He strode over to me. I took a step back, but he was too fast. He grabbed me by the throat, pressed his thumb and fingers hard, and squeezed. I could hardly breathe. He pressed harder. My head swam and my vision blurred.

‘Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.’ Then he dropped his hand and released me. I bent over coughing. Gods, his grip had been strong. I thought I was going to choke to death.
‘You have two options – adapt or go under. There is no release for you, Aurelia. You will be guarded and tracked, and if you attempt escape, I’ll execute one of your friends like Calavia. Maybe I’ll do that anyway, if only to motivate you.’

‘Only cowards let their friends take the punishment for them. Just call in the swordsman and I’ll kneel in the sand.’

‘Certainly not. You’re far too valuable a political asset. And you do have a certain amusement value.’ He smirked at me. ‘Perhaps I’ll keep you as jester, my own tame doomsayer. You’d look quite fetching in scarlet.’

I couldn’t speak. The humiliation of what he suggested – how dare he?

He laughed. ‘You should see your face, Aurelia. You always were quick to rise.’ Then his mouth straightened into a crisp line. ‘This is not a game. The old ways are finished, as is everybody associated with them.’ 

Handsome mature man.

Caius as per AM

Another technique is to put yourself into the villain’s place, to get into their mind-set. They are the strong one on the right path if they are like Caius or Pertinax, or are perfectly justified in what they do to make their way in the world if they are Apollodorus. They often care for, or at least reward, their subordinates and cannot see why others don’t see things as they do. And for an additional twist, the ‘bad guy’ may well demonstrate many of the qualities of the ‘good guy’ and share some values.

[From INSURRECTIO: Same scene as above, Aurelia speaks first]

‘I’d rather end my days in Truscium than lift one of my little fingers to help you.’

‘Always so dramatic. Phobius would throw you in there without hesitating after he’d had you and given his men a turn. Would you prefer that?’ Just for a second, something in his eyes united us as patricians, revolted at the thought of Phobius touching either of us.
‘Quite,’ he said.

In a series, the characters can overlap the books: Apollodorus, so prominent in INCEPTIO, returns in PERFIDITAS; Caius Tellus is the antagonist in all three of the latest books. The return of a bad guy must be carefully engineered. If the heroine is so competent, how come the bad guy keeps escaping? Eventually, a recurring villain has to disappear, but a writer can really enjoy themselves doing that and wring high emotion out of it for the reader.

And the grey areas?
AM stressedSometimes the heroine/hero has to show transgressive or even criminal tendencies and act on them. Does this make them a villain? Sometimes an upright character’s personality changes then they suffer a mental breakdown and they act unlawfully. Does that make them a villain? And occasionally ‘bad guys’ sacrifice themselves, ostensibly to save themselves from justice, but covertly for an entirely different reason. Putting one type of character into the opposite situation natural to them creates very interesting conflicts…

Finally, remote villains
A villain doesn’t have to be present in person or even still alive. In INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO, the first three Roma Nova thrillers, the mere memory of Caius touches the characters who had interacted with him in the second prequel trilogy. Aurelia, Conrad and Silvia recount terrifying snippets from their contact decades ago with Caius to Carina in the present and thus to the reader.

In RETALIO, the Aurelia doesn’t encounter Caius in person until Chapter 19 and then only for moments. He doesn’t recognise her as she’s in disguise. And it’s many chapters later that they meet openly. However, he has attacked her and her colleagues physically, emotionally, mentally, legally, financially and politically. His reach is long and frightening.

[From RETALIO: Aurelia is in exile in Vienna with her lover and companion of fifteen years, Miklós] 

‘The exiles are hurt and frightened. I must help them. We can’t leave Caius to rampage and destroy everything.’

‘But if what Quintus writes is true, he’ll extradite or snatch you.’

‘I have you, and now Sándor to protect me physically and once I’m fit again, I won’t be such an easy target. I just need to put myself beyond Caius legally.’ I shuddered at the prospect of being dragged back to Caius and handed over to his sadistic assistant for ‘punishment’. And it would all be perfectly legal, from the New Austrian police arrest to deportation, handover like a package at the Roma Novan border and into the cells of the Transulium prison to await Caius’s pleasure. My heart pounded at the terrifying thought of facing Caius’s vengeance.

I hope I’ve given you some practical techniques for writing credible and three-dimensional villains. But whether viewed as a writer or reader, the most disturbing villains are, of course, the ones you find reflecting your own beliefs, fears and values, whether on the side of the angels or the devils.

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Thank you for that, Alison. And as always, I LOVE your dialogue. I also love the entire Roma Nova concept, so those of you who have as yet not discovered this excellent series (all six of them, although I would recommend staring with Aurelia and read that trilogy first) have quite an adventure before them.

AM RETALIO_800x520RETALIO blurb

Early 1980s Vienna. Recovering from a near fatal shooting, Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and former foreign minister of Roma Nova, chafes at her enforced exile. She barely escaped from her nemesis, the charming and amoral Caius Tellus who grabbed power in Roma Nova, the only part of the Roman Empire to survive into the twentieth century.

Aurelia’s duty and passion fire her determination to take back her homeland and liberate its people. But Caius’s manipulations have isolated her from her fellow exiles, leaving her ostracised, powerless and vulnerable. But without their trust and support Aurelia knows she will never see Roma Nova again.

BUY LINK

From my review of Retalio: “As always, Ms Morton delivers a fast-paced adventure, very much driven by the excellent dialogue. The descriptions are vivid, the plot is compelling, and the main characters are easy to relate to, even if few of us would have the fortitude and courage of these Roma Novan ladies.”

Alison Morton bio 

AM Alison MortonAlison Morton writes the acclaimed Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction.

The first five books have been awarded the BRAG Medallion. SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO were selected as Historical Novel Society’s Indie Editor’s Choices.  AURELIA was a finalist in the 2016 HNS Indie Award. The sixth, RETALIO, came out in April 2017.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison has misspent decades clambering over Roman sites throughout Europe. She holds a MA History, blogs about Romans and writing. Now she continues to write, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband of 30 years.

One more in the gang of four

HNSIndieFinalist2016For those that have been following my blog over the last few weeks, you’ll have noticed I’ve spent some time promoting the four finalists in the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2016. Why? Because these are very good books, historical fiction at its best – plus, of course, I’m one of the final judges. And I won the award last year, so I know just how much nail-biting goes on in secret among our four ladies.

AM LBF_0053_smToday, the turn has come to Alison Morton – the last of the four to be featured. Alison is a lady who lives in France, speaks French like a native and yet comes across as very English – with a whiff of the stern Roman. This is probably why she writes books set in a fictitious country called Roma Nova – Alison’s books fall in the alternate history category, which has its own challenges, primarily that of building a credible context. AURELIA is the fourth in the series – but it is also the first, at least chronologically. And for those who enjoy nail-biting, this is a one of those reads that has you doing just that – and staying up far too late. Anyway, let’s turn things over to Alison and hear what she has to say about her book!

Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your book!
While I was drafting the first three Roma Nova thrillers, particularly SUCCESSIO, I became increasingly intrigued by the heroine Carina’s clever and no-nonsense grandmother, Aurelia. Her public role was well-known – head of a powerful family, senator, businesswoman, imperial advisor – but she gave out strong ‘keep out of my past’ signals. I wanted to know how her story tied up with that of Caius Tellus, the traitor who’d grabbed power in the Great Rebellion, and who was the mysterious man who turned up in SUCCESSIO with a red rose, a flower that Aurelia hated.The only way to answer these questions properly was to write Aurelia’s story as a young woman.

Did you know already from the beginning how the plot would progress, or did “things happen” as the story trundled along?
The antagonism between Aurelia and Caius Tellus was set up as historical backstory in the INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO, as was the shadowy history of the Tellus family and the Great Rebellion. Secondly, silver, its extraction, processing and selling was and is Roma Nova’s lifeblood; anybody or anything threatening that was threatening economic survival. The third factor was to dig into Aurelia’s military career, discover how she became a government spy and of course, to unearth the identity of her life-long love… Throw all those in the pot and the story worked itself out.

For me, it is with the re-write of the first draft that the story goes from black and white to technicolour – i.e. this is my favourite part of the writing process. Which is yours?
I sweat the first draft out with cursing, tea and backache. The story is more or less there, but the first self-edit is where it twists threads, wrings emotions, ramps up the action and makes life nearly unbearable for the protagonist. It’s also where I look at the lighter moments and bring in a few quips and quirks about the characters, so it’s more fun.

What was the most difficult scene to write in your novel?
When the heroine feared her small daughter had been abducted.

Describe your protagonist in maximum five words.
Tough, compassionate, impatient, intelligent, loyal

Are you planning any sequels to your book?
The sequel, INSURRECTIO, came out on 12 April – a few weeks ago! And I’m drafting the next (see curses, tea and backache above).

What were your main reasons for going down the indie route with this book?
As for the first of the series, INCEPTIO. Alternate history stories from a debut author were a little quirky for the mainstream when I started in 2010, although the Roma Nova series has now secured me a top agent for a number of my rights. I love the control over design, production and timing that indie authors enjoy, plus the ability to use my previously acquired business skills. Once an entrepreneur…

Going forward, do you see yourself as remaining an indie author? Which are the pros and cons?
We are extremely lucky to live during a publishing revolution, or is it evolution? I see myself as an author, full stop. Some rights I will retain and others I will sell for mainstream publishing if the occasion arises. But whatever choices I make, I will still be directing my own writing career. This is the essence of being indie.

Finally, what does it mean to be a finalist for the HNS Indie Award 2016?
When the email with the news pinged into my inbox, I stared at it, let out a whoop of joy, then danced round the office. Finally, I celebrated with champagne. More soberly(!), I am deeply honoured. The HNS indie review scheme is unique; AURELIA being selected as an Editor’s Choice was wonderful, being shortlisted as one of nine for the 2016 Indie Award was unbelievable and now being one of the final four is dizzying. If AURELIA goes no further, I will be thrilled out of my socks that she has come so far. Of course, I hope she may take the ultimate accolade…

Thank you, Alison, and I imagine all the finalists are hoping for that ultimate accolade 🙂 If you want to learn more about Alison and her Roma Nova world, visit her website. And for those curious about AURELIA, here’s the blurb:

AURELIA_cover_image800x520Late 1960s Roma Nova, the last Roman colony that has survived into the 20th century. Aurelia Mitela is alone – her partner gone, her child sickly and her mother dead – and forced to give up her beloved career as a Praetorian officer.

But her country needs her unique skills. Somebody is smuggling silver – Roma Nova’s lifeblood – on an industrial scale. Sent to Berlin to investigate, she encounters the mysterious and attractive Miklós, a known smuggler who knows too much and Caius Tellus, a Roma Novan she has despised and feared since childhood.

Barely escaping a trap set by a gang boss intent on terminating her, she discovers that her old enemy is at the heart of all her troubles. She pursues him back home to Roma Nova desperate now he has struck at her most vulnerable point – her young daughter.

On Amazon US
On Amazon UK

The other finalists are Barbara Sjoholm, Maria Dziedzan and Lucienne Boyce

Putting a new spin on Roman Women

AM PerfiditasToday is a first for me. So far, everything posted on this blog has been written by yours truly, but today I’ve thrown my doors wide to Ms Alison Morton, author of the alternative history books Inceptio and Perfiditas (just released). These books are set in a Roman Empire that survived its downfall, and interestingly enough, in Ms Morton’s remodeled Roman world, women are not relegated to the role of wife and mother – most definitely not. So, without further ado, I give you Alison! (Sound effect: loud applause)

 

Girl power?

In August, I was reminded at a conference about the Bechdel test which asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Many contemporary works fail this test of gender bias.

In her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf observed about the literature of her time what the Bechdel test would later highlight in more recent fiction:
AMVirginiaWoolfAll these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted.  And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies.  They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.

The Bechdel test has developed since its origin in 1985 to include the depth of the female characters’ stories and the range of their concerns. Several variants of the test have been proposed—for example, that the two women must be named characters.

AMWomenEuroHistorySo in an age still stumbling towards equality, it’s a good test to apply to one’s own writing. Are the women instrumental in pushing the story forward? Do they make decisions at the critical points in a novel? Historical writing should always be in context; societal dynamics of history cannot be altered by parachuting in a 21st century feisty young miss against all those norms even when writing a subgenres such as romance, historical fantasy or alternative history.

But as we know, writers write in the context of their own societal mores; we can’t help it, that’s what we are immersed in from babyhood. I remember the rather twee Ladybird history books of the 1960s; by our standards sexist and paternalistic, but at the time perfectly normal. Writing the same children’s history books now a historian would, I hope, take a startlingly different point of view. Maybe today we still can’t have feisty Roman empresses ruling openly, but we can explore the sources containing information about them and their influences with a more open mind-set. Berenice, the queen of Judea and Livia, the wife of Augustus, would be splendid examples of women of power to investigate.

In our modern historic fiction, we can transfer this openness into our stories and make connections between women characters that are unknown from the sources, but wouldn’t be impossible. Women acting together could become agents in the plot rather than the token ‘love interest’ or mother/daughter/sister of the male protagonist.

In my alternate history thrillers, I’ve taken this much further and developed a society descended from Roman dissidents where women rule, but men are not disadvantaged. Life in Roma Nova is much more nuanced than that. My female protagonist’s story starts in INCEPTIO in a standard Western society. When she is compelled to flee to her dead mother’s homeland in Europe, Roma Nova, she finds the Roman-infused culture unnerving, but in a strange way liberating. Other strong female characters surround her; her grandmother, cousin, female colleagues and friends all drive the action. The ‘love interest’ is male and an integral part of the story, unlike many female love interests in historical thrillers. Holding an alternate historical mirror up to the standard produces very interesting reflections.

AMCarina_illegal_smIn PERFIDITAS, the second story, our heroine is well-integrated into her new society and takes a leading role. But treason is in the air. Tough as she is, she is floored by the betrayal of both Roman values and her emotional core. Whether she has the resilience to pull herself out of it and save her country is something you’ll have to read the book to find out…

Alison’s second book in the Roma Nova series, PERFIDITAS, was published a week ago in paperback and ebook formats. She’ll be launching it at Waterstones Tunbridge Wells on 6 November. Do go along!

 What’s PERFIDITAS about?

Captain Carina Mitela of the Praetorian Guard Special Forces is in trouble – one colleague has tried to kill her and another has set a trap to incriminate her in a conspiracy to topple the government of Roma Nova. Founded sixteen hundred years ago by Roman dissidents and ruled by women, Roma Nova barely survived a devastating coup d’état thirty years ago. Carina swears to prevent a repeat and not merely for love of country.

Seeking help from a not quite legal old friend could wreck her marriage to the enigmatic Conrad. Once proscribed and operating illegally, she risks being terminated by both security services and conspirators. As she struggles to overcome the desperate odds and save her beloved Roma Nova and her own life, she faces the ultimate betrayal…

What others have said

“Sassy, intriguing, page-turning…  Roma Nova is a fascinating world” – Simon Scarrow

Powerful storytelling, vivid characters and a page-turning plot”
– Jean Fullerton

Scenes and characters are sometimes so vividly described that I felt I was watching a movie.” – Sue Cook

And here’s a trailer with some exciting music:

http://alison-morton.com/blog/perfiditas-book-trailer/

AM photo Alison Morton is the author of INCEPTIO, an alternate history thriller published by SilverWood Books in March 2013
Shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award   B.R.A.G. MedallionTM honoree
Next in series PERFIDITAS due out on 17 October 2013

PERFIDITAS is available through your local bookshop (paperback), on your local Amazon (paperback and ebook) and on other online retailers.

You can read more about Alison, Romans, alternate history and writing here on her blog at www.alison-morton.com

or on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor

PERFIDITAS page: http://www.facebook.com/Perfiditas

Twitter: @alison_morton

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