The necessary spanner in the works

Rhobin Courtright’s task for us round robiners is: Describe a flawed or evil character you have or might use in a story. How did they become so flawed? What part will they play in the story and what will happen to them?

I do love clichés. Each was some genius’s invention, so expressive, so true, that it became part of the culture. I don’t need to explain what “a spanner in the works” is, do I?

Every work of fiction needs things to go wrong, otherwise our beloved heroes have nothing to do, and that’s not fun to read about, is it? “Once upon a time, there was a boy and a girl, and then they got married and lived happily ever after. The End.”

Every person in real life is flawed, except for you and me of course, and I have my doubts about me. (Fooled you!) A fictional person also needs to be flawed to be believable. It is perfectly possible to have page-turning tension without a villain, through misunderstandings and cross purposes. In my Sleeper, Awake, Abel, the President of all of humanity, is arrogant and manipulative. Mirabelle, the Deputy President, and his main opponent, is the survivor of trauma that affected her so badly she cannot be rational about her son. And so on. There are no villains, but well-meaning people drive themselves and each other to havoc.

But a good villain is fun. Having someone to hate and despise is a good way to draw the reader in. My just-released Maraglindi: Guardian spirit starts with this scene:

    Bruce MacCartney managed not to vomit as he looked at the trampled body. The man’s skull was broken open, pink brains showing, and… He unfroze and turned his back, somehow.

    Colin Hartley said, “He was only an Irish ticket-of-leave convict. But if your man hadn’t asked me to hold off, I’d have shot the horse by now. A killer horse is of no use.”

    Bruce prided himself on being tolerant of everyone, but this was too much. He had to speak, he had to. “No,” he grated. “He was a person with as much right to life as you or me.”

    Hartley shrugged. “Hell, they’re a penny a dozen. I am worth thousands of pounds.”

    Bruce found his hands forming fists but took a deep breath. “I could buy you and sell you a dozen times over, and I’m the grandson of an Earl, but I don’t consider myself better than you. Or… or that poor fellow. We are all God’s children.”

    Hartley looked angry, but almost paradoxically, also subservient. His lips almost disappeared, and his hands formed fists while he looked down at the ground, shoulders hunched.

    Having made his point, Bruce wanted to heal the breach, even with a fellow such as this, and he had an idea. “But about the horse. I’ll buy him off you.”

    Now Hartley laughed, his tension gone. “Once a killer, always a killer. You’ll never break him, but if you want to buy horse meat, I won’t object. Ten pounds do?”

    Ten pounds for a magnificent stallion was more than a bargain, but of course Hartley considered the animal worthless. The best deal is when both parties are satisfied, and Bruce knew himself to be on sure ground. Mick could tame any horse. “Very well, Mr Hartley. In addition, would you care to wager two pounds that I’ll end up riding him?”

    Hartley again laughed. “Done!” He held his hand out for a shake.

    Bruce had a great deal of distaste in his innards, shaking hands with such a travesty of a human, but that was the way to seal a bet. He did it.

    “Just one thing, Mr MacCartney. We do need a time limit. A month do?”

    “Very well, Mr Hartley, if you can bring him to my horse stud, alive and unharmed.”

    “I’ll think of a way.”

    Gaspar rode up and halted his horse at a respectful distance from the two gentlemen. When Bruce looked at him, he said, “Sir, the axle has been replaced, and the men are reloading the wagon.”

    “Thank you, Gaspar. Goodbye, Mr Hartley.” Bruce mounted and followed his man back to the road, so they could resume their journey home from Newcastle. Unusually for him, he had personally accompanied his merchandise, on this occasion a wagonload of cheese and six fine horses, because the wagon right now held his second wedding anniversary present for Alice: a couch and six armchairs, beautifully upholstered with a floral fabric he knew she would love. He was greatly looking forward to getting the last five miles behind him.

The point of this prologue is to set the scene, to indicate the culture, and to build up Bruce as a wonderful person. Having a nasty piece of works is what makes it possible. Once he has done his job, Colin Hartley never returns, but there are many other typical Europeans of the Victorian era to take his place.

It’s even more fun to get into the mind of a person who does terrible things. One of the stories in Striking Back From Down Under, “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime,” features the best tree faller in all of Queensland. Until the very last paragraph, he is so sure of being in the right — like so many of us. That’s why the finale gives the reader a GOTHCHA reaction, and why this story won an award.

Perhaps the most powerful way to use a villain is to reform him. To see how that’s done, you need to read Hit and Run. If a teenage multiple murderer can be transformed into a boy you wouldn’t mind your daughter dating, then there is hope for all of us.

And I hope my scribblings — well, keyboard tappings — gave you a few moments of entertainment, and if you haven’t done so already, induced you to read these books. And, Bob cheekily says, they make wonderful Christmas presents.

I have no doubt my fellow round robin conspirators will be more serious about the topic, poor things. All the same, do me a favour and visit them — after you have commented here.

Connie Vines
Skye Taylor
Anne Stenhouse
Rhobin L Courtright
Victoria Chatham
Marci Baun
Diane Bator

About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
This entry was posted in Rhobin's round robin, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The necessary spanner in the works

  1. Dr Bob Rich says:

    ShiraDest says:
    01/12/2021 at 12:24 pm (Edit)

    No, I’m a writer, editing my current work in progress.

    Which is a forever job. My friend Anna Jacobs has said, the time to stop editing your wip is when you cannot stand the sight of it anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ShiraDest says:

    Interesting invitation, Dr. Rich: as I am not on your list, and we have not yet ‘met’ one another, I will go visit, as you’ve requested, and pop back over, after my editing is done for today.

    I look forward to making your acquaintance!
    Best regards,


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Connie Vines says:

    “Perhaps the most powerful way to use a villain is to reform him. ” Dr. Bob, that’s an interesting premise for a story. Not one I could write, In reality, too many people apologize, but it means nothing. Because in their heart of hearts, the person simply justifies the action and learns a new skill-set.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Clearly, you just have to read “Hit and Run.”
      The way it happens in real life is when a person chooses to model on someone admired and respected. That’s how I got reformed. Until 14 years of age, I was a murderer-in-the making. Now, I don’t even kill insects or snails.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Diane Bator says:

    Great post! I love the excerpt!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. judyinboston says:

    I enjoyed your post, especially your excerpt from the novel. As the old saying goes, show, don’t tell, and you showed us well. Interesting about reforming a villain. I did that once, but it was only discovered after he died.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Marci Baun says:

    Humanity is far from being a race that can live in a utopia. A situation that turns one person evil can make the character of another. It’s one of the things that make humans so fascinating and unpredictable. A good example are your characters Bruce and Colin. Both seem to come from similar backgrounds. While one is obviously arrogant, callous, and elitist, the other is entirely different.

    Does every story need a villain? No, it really depends on the story.

    Fun post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you Marci. Bruce is a major secondary character. There really were 19th Century people like him, but they went very much against the grain of Victorian culture. Basically, Britain conquered the world because the childraising patterns of the upper class made them unhappy, and they took it out on everyone else.


      Liked by 1 person

  7. Skye-writer says:

    Excellent post. While I was reading it, I couldn’t help remember a total villain who was so well written my son and I agreed, she made the story. It’s a talented author who can make to really hate a character. (As the Crow Flies by Jeffrey Archer) and that evil, conniving, detestable woman makes the reader cheer even harder for Charlie Trumper to succeed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you Skye. Jeff Archer should know: he wasn’t that lily-pure himself.

      I do have an outright villain in Maraglindi, but didn’t want to use him here because I like to keep these posts lighthearted. He is “somewhat negligent in his hygiene and overuses alcoholic beverages,” to quote a nice old lady in the story.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Victoria Chatham says:

    Entertaining as always! While villains do up the ante, the environment, various situations, and setting can all add to tension and conflict without including an actual villain. Think the house in the movie The Money Pit.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you Victoria. A bit of fun is always a good idea, but I’ve never seen the Money Pit. The number of movies I’ve seen in the last ten years can be counted on the fingers of no hands, seriously.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Rhobin says:

    You are right. We all contain the elements about which we write, just (hopefully) know when not to react or use them, and usually learn this as we grow up and grow older! Enjoyed your excerpt!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Hi Bob, I do agree with the comment that fiction needs its villains. Also that villains are fun to write and occasionally one gets carried away. Then the editor’s red pen appears… Anne

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you, Anne. Actually, I said that we do not need villains. If you haven’t read it already, I am happy to email you a review copy of “Sleeper, Awake,” and see if you can find a villain.

      Liked by 1 person

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