Saturday 2 March 2024

Why We Love The Bad Guy by Rachel Wolf

Why are we so obsessed with the bad guys? There are so many books and films where the antagonists are more compelling than the protagonists. From Satan in Paradise Lost to Tyler Durden in Fight Club, I do enjoy loving a baddie. 

Five Nights is a novel set on a cruise ship, where a billionaire and his family and guests sail from Portsmouth to New York. Over the course of the cruise, secrets spill out and someone will die. 

I wanted to write a novel about the hugely wealthy – particularly those who are selfish and entitled – and look at how badly they’d behave when something threatens their wealth and lifestyle. I also wanted to watch how characters change when tempted with great riches. Greed is a powerful motivator! 

In writing about these characters, I also wanted the novel to be one people enjoyed reading. Do we love bad guys? I decided we did. But why?

I suppose one of the reasons we feel drawn to antagonists is because of a secret desire to release all the shackles on our own behaviour. It’s freeing to live vicariously through fictional characters, enjoying bad behaviour with no consequences. We spend so much of our lives trying to live well – obeying rules and being aware of the importance of trying to get things right. 

There are a few characters in Five Nights who don’t think twice about what they say. They never spend time considering the consequences of their behaviour and trying to get things right – and this was a lot of fun to write. They are rude, selfish, and they talk to other characters in ways I’d never speak to someone in real life. Sometimes when I write, I choose characteristics from people I know – certain tells or manners of speech that make someone distinct. I also put together mood boards with images of how they might dress, and things they may say, eat, watch or places they’d visit. I did this quite carefully for the Scarmardos because I just don’t have the usual pool of people in my day to day life for inspiration. I needed their terrible qualities to be exaggerated and inflated, as much as their wealth.

I think another aspect of the appeal of the ‘bad guy’ is confidence, although this runs a tight line with conceit. There’s nothing quite as attractive as a lack of self-doubt. People tend to be plagued by self-doubt. We question ourselves repeatedly, we play over scenes from our lives in our heads like a bad rehearsal. How wonderful if we never doubted ourselves at all! Characters who never question themselves, however, are often narcissistic and ultimately selfish and sometimes cruel. When Hugh Grant went from the bumbling Charlie of Five Weddings to the charming Daniel Cleaver of Bridget Jones, he’d never seemed more attractive. He never once pauses to stumble over his words or repeatedly apologise for his inadequacies. 

This is certainly true of some of the characters in Five Nights. They live a life focused on their own pleasure, no matter how it might affect others. They don’t second guess their decisions. This is as attractive as it is repellent and it was great fun to play with when writing the novel. No one wants to marry a Daniel Cleaver, but a mini-break could be a lot of fun.

Emily, my protagonist in Five Nights, finds herself briefly the object of some love-bombing by the Scarmardos. Adoration and flattery can be very appealing – these men certainly know how to turn on the charm when they need to. In practice, love-bombing can be a very selfish tactic. It’s often done in order to deflect, or to get someone on side and to reel them in, so that you can behave badly later and get away with it! Yet to be the object of love-bombing, bombarded with charm and attention, does have its moment. Emily needs to be on her toes. She is out of her comfort zone, surrounded by threatening letters, mysterious happenings and threatening behaviour. 

Attention, and its sudden withdrawal, can also make relationships seem more exciting. The on/off element, the will he call question. Reliable, steadfast partners might be what we want in real life, but on the page, we want something a little more exciting. We go on rollercoasters to feel our sense of balance upended, and we search for fictional bad guys for much the same reason. 

Writing Five Nights gave me ample opportunity to study bad behaviour and to try to work out why it can seem so appealing. I hope readers enjoy reading about my entitled characters. They are certainly characters you love to hate!

Five Nights by Rachel Wolf (Head of Zeus) out now at £9.99 as a paperback original 

A powerful family. A luxury cruise. A killer on board… You're invited to join the infamous Scarmardo family on a five night voyage aboard their glamorous new ship. It's a chance to see your best friend, Belle, newly married to Mattia Scarmardo. You haven't seen her in years. Five - On the first night, you'll be wrapped up in the glamour of the ship. Four - On the second night, you'll wonder who is sending you threatening notes. Three - On the third night, someone will die. Two - On the fourth night, you'll discover that someone knows the truth of what you did. One - On the last night, you'll be left for dead. Will you make it back to shore alive.

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