Guest – Karen Frisch


Please welcome back our monthly guest, Karen Frisch.


The biggest challenge for a writer isn’t always the hero or heroine. Sometimes it’s the villain, who can be difficult to disguise. We have to hide him in plain sight, making him part of the action and absorbing him into the story like any other character.

The big problem: getting him to blend in without sticking out like a sore thumb so the reader can point to him and say, “There’s the killer!” Like a hot potato, he is often the character the writer doesn’t want to touch. We’re just as afraid of him as his potential victim is. Even if the main character discovers at the end that he is the character she should have avoided, writers don’t have that option.

Portraying the villain sometimes becomes more of a struggle than the actual writing when the author doesn’t fully understand the character. If an author reacts to the challenge by avoiding the bad guy, leaving him until last, he becomes that much harder to conceal. Since knowing his story allows the writer to get control, it makes sense to develop the story backward and plot the end first. His motivation creates the actions the main character must react to because his is the story that drives the novel.

Years back, when I was working on the story that would become my first published mystery, Gail Eastwood, one of my critique partners at the time, said after finishing the novel, “I never would have guessed the killer—and that’s both good and bad.” Being too subtle is as much a flaw as being too obvious, and it’s up to the author to maintain a delicate balance in selecting how and where to leave clues without being either. We have to wrestle the monster into submission in order to get inside the villain’s head.

In his book How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, James N. Frey describes the murderer as the author of “the plot behind the plot.” In order to know the murderer intimately, Frey recommends keeping a journal in the character’s voice. To make him three-dimensional, the villain must have a selfish interest about which he is passionate. He lives his life with intentions, good or otherwise, just like all characters. In other words, the better we know the devil, the more we can control him.

Psychologists recommend that people learn to face their fears in order to overcome them. A writer’s presentation of the character who is most elusive is among the biggest. Knowing him as well as we know ourselves makes him life-sized once again, bringing him back under our control—right where he belongs.

Karen Frisch’s historical romance What’s in a Name is currently available from Avalon Books. Also available are the Victorian mystery Murder Most Civil and the Regency romance Lady Delphinia’s Deception. She’s also written two genealogy books: Unlocking the Secrets in Old Photographs and Creating Junior Genealogists, both available from Turner Publishing or on Amazon.

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6 responses to “Guest – Karen Frisch

  1. I was fascinated to find out that Karen had published a book on Unlocking the Secrets in Old Photographs. It brought me back to my childhood and my father and I sitting at the table and him explaining about some of my relatives while we looked at old photographs that I think he referred to as old tin types.

    I think that today’s generation is missing some of the wonder of sitting with an aged relative going thru old photos and have their family history passed down thru visual pictures and personal tales.

    If you have any old photos have you ever been able to tell the villians from the heros? That is one of the problems of identifying villians – you may see them physically but often are unable to expose the person within.

    • Thanks for posting, Jeanne, and what an intriguing question! I’ve found lots of occasions to describe old photographs in novels. The challenge of looking at old family photos in real life, whether daguerreotypes, tintypes, or even photos from the 1920s, can be seeing what we want to see. When my relatives told me that everyone remembered my German great-grandmother with deep affection, I could see kindness in her face. It’s easy to recognize teenage boys, even from earlier decades, trying to appear cool in photographs, either through their pose or tough expression. With photos that are so old no one recognizes them, it becomes much more of a challenge. With villains in a novel, we can make them as physically appealing as we need them to be, while giving them a dark heart with dark intentions underneath. I too think today’s generation is missing the exciting discovery of learning about earlier generations, but perhaps Ancestry’s TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?” will change that. Here’s hoping!

  2. Great post, Karen! So true, and good advice along with it. Not to mention my surprise to find my name mentioned!! LOL.

  3. Darn computers! Posted my comment above before I had finished typing in my name and website!! So, I say again –great job, Karen!!

  4. Karen, being in the villain’s head is a little scary. Not sure what all I’ll find there. I like the idea of keeping a journal in the villain’s point of view. That would force me to discover his secrets. Thanks so much for this post!

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