February 17 – 23: “Are broken-hearted villains suspenseful?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re talking charcater development with ITW members Debbie Herbert, R. J. Pineiro, Allison Brennan, Frank Zafiro, Basil Sands and Mitch Silver. While developing the antagonist when a love interest goes bad: are broken-hearted villains suspenseful? Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along. You won’t want to miss it!


Mitch Silver was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island. He attended Yale (B.A. in History) and Harvard Law School (“I lasted three days. I know the law through Wednesday, but after that…”). He was an advertising writer for several of the big New York agencies, living in Paris for a year with his wife, Ellen Highsmith Silver, while he was European Creative Director on the Colgate-Palmolive account. They have two children and live in Greenwich, Connecticut. The Bookworm, Mitch’s second novel following In Secret Service, just came out in paperback. His upcoming thriller, THE APOLLO DECEPTION—about what did (and didn’t!) happen on the moon 50 years ago—will be published this fall. Mitch also won the American Song Festival Lyric Grand Prize for “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed.” His blood type is O positive.


Debbie Herbert, A USA Today, Publisher’s Weekly & Washington Post best-seller, writes psychological suspense. She’s published by Thomas & Mercer and Harlequin. Her latest book, Scorched Grounds, is a chilling, fast-paced story about family tragedy and confronting what terrifies us most. The main character struggles with chromophobia as she works to prove her father guilty of murdering her mother and brother when she was a young child. Visit her website for a free story.


Frank Zafiro was a police officer in Spokane, Washington, from 1993 to 2013. He retired as a captain. He is the author of numerous crime novels, including the River City novels and the Stefan Kopriva series. He lives in Redmond, Oregon, with his wife Kristi, dogs Richie and Wiley, and a very self-assured cat named Pasta. He is an avid hockey fan and a tortured guitarist.


Allison Brennan is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of forty books and numerous short stories, including the Lucy Kincaid series and the FBI Mobile Response Team. She recently relocated with her family and pets from Northern California to Arizona and is looking forward to baseball Spring Training.


R. J. Pineiro earned a degree in electrical engineering from Louisiana State University in 1983 and joined the high-tech industry in Austin, Texas, working in computer chip design, testing, and manufacturing. R. J.’s first published work, Siege of Lightning, a novel about a sabotaged space shuttle, was released by Berkley/Putnam in May of 1993. A second novel, Ultimatum, about a second Gulf War scenario, was released the following year, 1994, by Forge Books, which went on to publish R.J.’s next 12 novels over the following 13 years.


Basil Sands is the author of action packed thrillers, novellas, and short stories and a professional audiobook narrator. Born on a homestead outside of Fairbanks Alaska, he served in the Marines, was Chef to the Spies (dining manager at the NSA), owned a computer shop, worked as a lumberjack, ambulance driver, radio host, and government IT guy. He’s married to a Porsche driving Korean woman, and has three grown sons and a Yorkie named Heimdall, The Norse Dog.



  1. Absolutely they are, or at least they can be if well written.

    Most of what we would call villains, the actual definition in the popular mind of “villain” differs from one culture to another, are all driven by some kind of emotional factor. A teenaged boy is rejected by his step father, later he gets mocked by the jocks at school because is excels in academics. As an adult he joins the military, but is grotesquely injured and later humiliated by the scars. He has a tendency toward depression, and his physical test scores were less than average. He meets and falls in love with a girl in college only later to find out that he is but one of many lovers for her. She was English, with a lovely posh accent. She represented the world to him. Her betrayal becomes the final nail in the coffin of his conscience. He declares her a slut and convinces himself that all “foreigners” must be “disciplined” to avoid a tragic life like his own. After college he excels and becomes a politician or a corporate leader, and in time gains enough power to begin exacting his revenge on the girl and the jocks…and everyone in the world who may have doubted him.

    This is the generalized story of Napoleon, Caligula, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Stalin, and a plethora of other historical villains. Everyone of them was jilted by a lover in one way or another. It may have been a real lover of the physical nature, or it may have been their love of art, politics, power, might, or some other psychotic delusion. They all acted not on logic, but based upon emotion, specifically those loves denied in whatever form that was for each individual.

    I think that regardless of our understanding or acceptance of the actual reason, most all villains are broken hearted in one way to another, and this emotional fissure is what drives them to what in the end gets them labelled them as “the bad guys”.

  2. There are many ways to portray a broken-hearted antagonist. There’s the the tried-and-true “ex” — the lover who can’t let go, can’t bare to see their former partner happy with someone else. There’s the stalker-type who was never in a relationship, except in his own mind. Or the girl who can’t admit that she’s falling in love with her sister’s husband …

    But loss means more than a relationship gone bad. It’s about fear (of being alone); it’s about loss (of a loved one — not just to another, but in death); it’s about grief. What happens when you lose someone to violence? Can you engage in violence in order to right this wrong? Vigilante stories are powerful because they recognize that fear, love, grief, loss are powerful driving forces that could turn an otherwise good person into a killer. And never forget that love goes beyond romantic relationships — the bond between child and parent; the bond between siblings; the bond between men and women who went through a crucible together (such as war.) Any of these loves can be healthy … or they can be twisted.

    No matter what, the antagonist needs a powerful motivation for whatever crime he’s committing. Why does he do what he does?

  3. Short answer – yes!

    Love (and all its variations, as Allison points out) is a powerful emotion. I can cause people to act in ways that are unpredictable and extreme. And THAT creates suspense!

  4. Absolutely! I love a character, good or bad, who is relatable and we’ve all suffered some degree of a broken heart. What better motive for an antagonist to begin a slippery slope that descends into fantasizing, then executing, revenge on the one who hurt them. A broken heart can = a broken mind.

  5. Do you guys go into the loves and losses of the antagonists of your stories? As far as back-story I mean or fleshing them out as compared to hinting at the things that drive the bad guys to do what they do. And can you describe your favourite villain from your own writing?

  6. Absolutely. I always say that “villains are people too.” Most villains weren’t born villains. Typically, it was their life experiences and how they handled them that pushed them to the dark side. Some of those experiences could very well be the loss of a loved one.

    I write primarily action-suspense thrillers, so my villains tend to be terrorists, drug lords, human traffickers, organized crime types, or even gang leaders. Many of them have powerful motivations to be bad after suffering great loss, in some cases to a rival organization or even to an American bomb. The field here is ripe with creative ideas, and you don’t need to think too hard. Just start researching the life stories of famous (and not so famous) real-life villains and you’ll see what I mean. Some were hardened by a lifetime of trials and tribulations that pushed them to become villains.

  7. Hi Basil, Normally, I do flesh out the backstory to make the antagonist have a credible motive for his behavior. The favorite villain from my own book is from, believe it or not, my very first book that was published by Harlequin. It was a very quirky paranormal romance where a mermaid was chased by a serial killer that she caught dumping a body at sea.

    Who is your favorite villain from your books?

  8. You know, I am in a bit of a conundrum as regards to my favorite villain to be honest. I write military thrillers primarily and the bad guys are typically really bad terrorist types who are wholly unlikeable. That said my latest trilogy, ICE HAMMER, has one who I tend to think of as an honorable enemy. Chinese Army General Zhang Ko Bai, while being a ruthless conqueror, is still quite likable…unless you happen to be an American resistance fighter.
    I was able to paint a very clear picture of him I think, because instead of imagining him as a traditional bad guy, he is basically a patriot for his side, and has no choice but to do what he does in an invasion of North America. He is intelligent, he is handsome, he is brave, and he is also responsible for tens of thousands of dead Americans.

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