May 7 – 13: “Are broken-hearted villains suspenseful?

This week join ITW Members C. E. Lawrence and William H. Cunningham thriller fans as we discuss developing the antagonist when a love interest goes bad: “Are broken-hearted villains suspenseful?”


C.E. Lawrence is the byline of a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright and poet whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). SILENT SCREAMS, SILENT VICTIM and SILENT KILLS are the first three books in her Lee Campbell thriller series. Her other work is published under the name of Carole Bugge. Titan Press recently reissued her first Sherlock Holmes novel, THE STAR OF INDIA.

  1. I’d say yes. Being broken-hearted is similar to any other major internal conflict, which is a key factor in being interesting. You probably don’t want a cry-baby, gloom-and-doom, I-can-never-look-at-a-rainbow again type of villain. But someone who’s had his or her heart ripped out and wants revenge sounds good to me.

  2. Jeremy,

    I agree with you.
    The trick, as you say, is to stay away from certain typecasts.
    I think not many villains can top a “vengeful scorned lover.”


  3. Hey, good comments, guys. Interesting idea about doing bad things for good reasons, James – I think in real life that happens all the time, so why not in fiction?

    An interesting example of a real life villain who was allegedly heartbroken was Ted Bundy. Every girl he targeted resembled the fiancee who broke up with him. Interestingly, he later wooed her back and dumped her. Talk about a sociopath!

  4. I like that question– can people do evil things for good reasons. I have a character struggling with that in my work in progress. Makes for great internal dialogue. I’ve been in lengthy discussions with a philosophy professor about this via email and Facebook. As a old lawman, such mind-stretching talk makes my brain hurt.
    I don’t think real villains are motivated differently than real heroes and heroines– love, hate, revenge, heartbreak–it’s all compelling. If done correctly, I believe villains see themselves as the protagonist.
    Jealousy can lead to heartbreak and has produced a load of brutal behavior. Sometimes even loneliness can spin someone up. I remember one bad guy who fought us (bad, all-out spitting, claw-your-eyes-out stuff) from first contact at arrest, then every time we moved him, took him to court, etc. And then his lawyer suggested we let him have a few minutes to hold hands with his wife… Calmed him down like music to a savage beast. Simply amazing. If he knew where I lived he’d probably send me a Christmas card…or try and shoot me.

  5. Marc,
    What a fascinating story – and it’s interesting to me that you’re a former lawman (a cop, I assume?) You know, I watch real crime shows where the cops interview subjects in a non-confrontational manner, and then I write scenes in my thrillers where they bark at them, knowing that’s not how it’s really done. Problem is, the gentle approach rarely makes for good drama in fiction, unless the cop is obviously “playing” the suspect and you can let the reader in on that.

    Speaking of scorned lovers, there’s one true crime show that’s entirely devoted to that topic! (You can tell I watch a lot of true crime.) You’re right – it’s so endlessly epic, isnt’ it? From Shakespeare to soap operas, it’s a rich mine for drama.

    Who are some of everyone’s favorite broken-hearted villains? And let’s define broken-hearted as someone who’s been let down by anyone – not just lovers, but parents, families, friends.

  6. Hey Carole-
    I always enjoy your perspective.
    How about Travis Bickle (Robert Dinero) in Taxi Driver. Guess you could call him a hero or a villain depending on how you look at the movie. He definitely felt let down by society. Maybe broken-brained more than broken-hearted.
    The angst that led to his violence was pretty compelling.

  7. Marc,
    That’s a great example! Actually, I think of that character as a typical anti-hero, or deeply flawed protagonist, only because he’s the center of the story. Though I have to say his actions are more that of a villain – in another movie, from another character’s POV, he would be the villain, right? Maybe he’s protagonist/antagonist all rolled into one, like Raskolnikov.

    I think you’re right in calling him a broken-hearted guy, for sure – and he’s also such a good example of a morally challenged character at the center of a story. Speaking of Raskolvnikov, btw, what do you all think of him as a broken-hearted character? Does he qualify for that label? And is he a villain or a hero, in your opinion?

    Also, any other great broken-hearted villains we’ve overlooked? Oh, I have one – how about Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs?

  8. Though he’s the protagonist, Raskolvnikov is a villain in my opinion. He’s conflicted, but so are most bad guys. I must confess that it’s been years since I’ve read C&P so my Dostoevesky is pretty rusty. I do remember Raskolvnikov as feeling he was above everyone else–which is another trait common to bad men.
    Buffalo Bill…abused, twisted, yep. There is no end to the list of bad guys who say they were abused. Interesting factoid though– I have a psychologist friend who specializes in the study of sex offenders for the law enforcement side of things (IE not treatment). According to his research, if you took a hundred sex offenders and a hundred law abiding men, the same percentage of each group would have been abused themselves.
    Not my cup of writing tea but that might be the good beginnings of a plot–an abused lawman chasing an abused offender.

  9. Marc,
    I totally love your idea – I may steal it for my next thriller series, in fact, with your permission. Very cool idea! And Raskolnikov, yes, does have superiority notions, but they co-exist with a terribly low self esteem, anxiety, and perhaps even mental illness. He’s kind of delusional, actually.

    The subject of serial killers is something I have some familiarity with. I hate to say “authority,” but I’ve studied the subject a lot. It’s true that a lot of people have abusive childhoods and don’t become killers or sociopaths, but research indicates that there may be some mitigating factor in their lives – a caring teacher or neighbor or relative – whose care and love somehow prevents the child from becoming a total sociopath, criminal, etc.

    A recent Radiolab (the best show on radio!!) pointed out that Ted Kaczynski (the UNABOMER), for example, was the subject of a horrific psychology experiment at Harvard in which he was subjected to extreme humiliation – and he already had a fragile ego. This may have helped put him over the edge. The whole thing is tragic, fascinating, and instructive, imo – the path of a sociopath.

  10. By all means, Carole–have at the idea. I thought about holding it back before I pushed submit but realized I wouldn’t be likely to write it myself anyway. My editor likes the world-in-jeopardy stuff. Besides, I’ll bet we could both write such different takes on it that it wouldn’t matter.
    Interestingly enough, the same psychologist friend of mine interviews dozens of prison inmates about the the abuse they received. He also polygraphed them. According to him, many admitted that they were not abused but said that society expected that they had been–from the investigating officer (of the criminal case where they were a perpetrator) to their lawyer, the prosecutor, the judge, their probation officer and prison officials. The early abuse story became the easy way to get acceptance and understanding.
    I know many are abused in early years, but not nearly as many as we have been led to believe. I think this makes sociopaths and killers more rather than less interesting. If not abuse, what motivates them to such evil? The really bad ones I’ve dealt with appear to have something lacking…something important that was left out. I know of one young offender who came from an otherwise stellar family. Over-achieving siblings, sweet parents, the works. A family friend that had known them for years said to me: “I knew that kid was bad from the time I looked into his eyes as a baby.”

  11. Wow, Marc, that is chilling – the Bad Seed theory, as it were. I’m not a researcher, but I have to admit, if I were, I’d be very interested to look deeper into these people’s lives.

    One thing all law enforcement folks know is that criminals lie. And sociopaths lie not because they have to, but because they CAN. Sometimes just for the hell of it. And many of them are very good at fooling polygraphs.

    SO that leaves us…. where?

  12. True enough. Lying comes all too naturally for some. But my friend’s study is interesting for several reasons–the large number of offenders who admitted that they had lied about being abused, not in a group setting but in individual interviews, without knowing they were part of any study. The poly’s were used as a tool to fact check the interviews. A few might lie just for the heck of it, but by the time they’re in jail, lies that are damning or make them look like they were liars in the past, seem less common. As they say, “there’s no money in it.” Only a small subgroup are what I’d call true sociopaths. Most just have selective consciences. It’s not ALL about them…just MOST of it.
    Anyway, interesting stuff–and good grist for the mill.

    1. “Looks like everyone but you and I is sitting this one out.”

      You guys are pulling the load quite well, Carole. The discussion between you and Marc is fascinating. Thanks to you guys, Jeremy, J.H., and James for participating.

  13. sorry if I ran everyone off with my talk of sociopathic behavior…
    Wish I was able to make it down to ThrillerFest this year. Too much going in in AK, I’m afraid. I plan to make it next year though. It would be good to meet all the folks I’m been reading and corresponding with over the years. Alaska can isolate a guy.

  14. Michael,
    It’s been our pleasure, but I didn’t want to hog the airspace. We got a bit off topic, but I guess that’s okay.
    Alaska?? That’s where people go to escape the law, isn’t it?

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVI: Register Today!



One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!