Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Author Erin Kelly…Writing Good/Evil Characters

“Stunning novel of psychological suspense…The title, which alludes to the way a new rose won’t bloom where an old one has died, perfectly evokes the story’s theme: unhealed damage inevitably stunts fresh growth. With its rich intertwining of viewpoints and time frames, its nuances of character and class, its sustained suspense and its gothic/contemporary fusion, this harrowing novel is a work of true talent.”  —Publishers Weekly, starred review
This is an excerpt from the starred review for THE DARK ROSE by Erin Kelly, which was released
yesterday, Feb. 6, from Pamela Dorman Books/Viking. 

Erin stop by today to answer a question for me about writing good and evil characters.

Mason - When creating good and evil characters, do you try to include a touch of the opposite in each, like give the villain a soft heart about something?

Erin - Some evil-with-a-twist-of-good characters are so well-established they’ve become tropes of crime fiction, like the Mafioso who’s good to his mamma. The same goes for the flawed hero; the cop with a bottle of Scotch in his desk drawer.
That’s as it should be: human beings aren’t black and white, after all. 

I wonder if anyone really does write characters who are either purely good or purely evil? Even in good paranormal and fantasy fiction, the genre that comes closest to dealing in the absolutes of good and evil, it’s the conflict between the dominant will and its recessive inverse that makes characters live and breathe.

I write mystery novels, so my books always have a body count, but what fascinates me is the ‘good’ person who kills, the ordinary man or woman who only finds out what their personal boundary is once it has been violated. When I start work on a novel, I don’t think of my characters in terms of good or evil. In fact, I don’t even know who the murderer will be. Both killer and victim are likely to change at least once between the first and final drafts. 

If I decided at the outset, ‘Here’s the villain of our piece, and here’s our hero,’ I’d find that very restrictive. I like the flexibility of exploring the good and evil aspects of everyone’s characters, before deciding which will triumph.

128453111When we meet Louisa, the female protagonist of my most recent novel THE DARK ROSE, it’s obvious from the opening paragraph that she is a damaged person in a self-imposed exile from the modern world, and is someone who has crossed a line. The grief she feels at the loss of her former lover, Adam, is swirled in with guilt for reasons which gradually come to light as the story unwinds. Likewise, Paul, the young man who eventually becomes Louisa’s lover, harbours dark secrets of his own, although in his case it’s his passivity that has allowed terrible things to happen. 

The ‘reveal’ of what Louisa and Paul both did comes late in the novel, and that’s deliberate. By the time readers find out what they have been capable of, they have been living with them for a couple of hundred pages, and are, I hope, invested in the characters and sympathetic to them. I don’t presume to predict how readers will judge Louisa and Paul, but I hope they will think before they leap to conclusions. 

In THE POISON TREE, we know from the first few pages that the male lead, Rex, is a convicted killer who is fresh out of prison for a double murder. And as we get to know Rex, and discover the circumstances that lead up to the murder, everything changes, and in the final few pages of the novel something happens that casts all the previous pages in a different light. The deeper the explanation of the motivation, the greater the reader’s understanding and the harder it is to make a judgment about whether a person is good or evil. 

When I was promoting THE POISON TREE, I said in an interview that we all had it in us to commit murder. A few people took my comment to mean that I saw all human beings as bubbling with the permanent suppressed desire to massacre. I didn’t mean this for a second, but I stand by my assertion that we are all capable of this ultimate transgression. We all have a trigger. For the majority of us, it’s love. Most of us would do anything to protect our families. Others will kill for different kinds of love; of money, or of power. 

The flipside of this is that we all have the potential for acts of generosity, love and bravery. I write about those things, too – and they don’t always come from the characters you’d expect. 

Erin, thanks for guest blogging. I think you are so right that the potential for both good and evil is in all of us. It just depends on what our trigger is that compels us to act on these emotions.

Erin has worked as a freelance journalist for 10 years, specializing in women, health, sex and lifestyle. Her first novel, THE POISON TREE was published to rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic in 2010, and was chosen by Richard Madeley and Judy for their Summer Book Club in 2011. She has written for a variety of UK publications including The Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Sunday Times, Elle (UK), Marie Claire (UK), and Glamour (UK). THE DARK ROSE is her second book. 

Share your thoughts on today’s post. Do you think we all are capable of acts of good and evil? Thanks so much for stopping by.


  1. Sounds like a wonderful read and I haven't seen this book by Erin before, so thanks for sharing!

  2. Mason - Thanks for hosting Erin.

    Erin - Thanks for an absolutely fascinating set of thoughts on good and evil and the potential that we all have for both. I think that's an important part of what makes a good mystery novel - exploring human nature and what motivates us.

  3. Erin, thanks again for guest blogging and sharing your thoughts on this intriguing element of writing. Wishing you much success.

  4. Linn, this is a wonderful book. Hope you enjoy it too.

    Margot, motivation is a key element in writing that can lead to so many different events.

  5. Hi Mason and Erin - I like the way you've set out your two stories and how differently they developed, or were allowed to develop.

    Fascinating to read .. thanks for hosting Erin - cheers Hilary

  6. Erin, I like your take on good and evil. It's true, though I hadn't realize, how some good with evil and evil with good has become a little stereotypical.

    I'm also intrigued that when you start a novel you don't know who's going to be offed.

    Thanks Mason for another great interview.

  7. As you said, we are all shades of grey, and the potential to swing either direction in any given moment resides in every person.

  8. This sounds like an awesome book. And I love the cover.

  9. Very good points. In life, even the most evil of people has a tender side or a weak side and characters should also.

    Awesome stuff.


  10. This is exactly the genre I love reading. I'm checking out her books. I'm always on the lookout for new UK novelists.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.