February 23, 2010


by Pamela Jaye Smith
242 pages, Michael Wiese Productions

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

What’s not to love about a great villain? The goody-two-shoes hero may triumph at the end of the day but more often than not, it’s the bad guy who provides the best lines and the biggest thrills. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of villains. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone their wicked deeds and murderous rampages, I just can’t imagine a decent adventure without them.

The simple fact is that without a top-notch adversary to go up against, the main protagonist in any story can often seem a singularly dull individual. Try to imagine Bond without Blofeld, Beowulf without Grendel or King Arthur without Mordred. Let’s face it, Darth Vader was a far more interesting character than Luke Skywalker. The brief snippets of information we are given about Sauron in The Lord of the Rings is enough to keep one going through the books in the hope that he will be revealed in his full malevolent glory (imagine my disappointment when he finally appears at the end of The Return of the King as a bloody big cloud). A good villain can make a good story just as surely as a flat one will leave a reader cold.

I’m currently in the planning stages of a new novel featuring my stoic Victorian police inspector Edmund Forrester. Having sent him up against all manner of strange and fantastic foes, I want to give him an adversary in my next book who is not just bad, but truly, deeply wicked. My research has led me to creepy websites about serial killers, Sax Rohmer’s tales of Fu Manchu and repeated viewings of Daniel Day Lewis’ terrifying performance in There Will Be Blood. Most recently, I was thrilled to discover Pamela Jaye Smith’s The Power of the Dark Side, a guide for writers to help create great villains and dangerous situations. The book is not solely aimed at novelists but also screenwriters and those in the gaming industry. Great villains, she tells us, can be found everywhere. Her eclectic sources reflect this belief. I’ve never read a book that so comfortably cites Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Basic Instinct in the same breath. As one is bombarded with different examples of villainy from multiple genres and mediums, it quickly becomes clear that Pamela Jaye Smith certainly knows her topic.

The Power of the Dark Side is structured in a very logical way, helping to make it accessible and easy to dip in and out of. Such accessibility is vitally important for a good reference book as one is unlikely to read them cover-to-cover. In this instance, the subject matter was so fascinating and well-laid out that I actually did read the book in this way. Early chapters define the dark side, examining personal, impersonal and supra-personal forces at work. The mid-section of the book looks at the different types of evil characters: the anti-heroes, the witches, the supernatural forces or evil organisations against whom your protagonist can struggle. The closing chapters of the book provide motivations for evil characters and the ways in which a hero can confront them.

With such a detailed breakdown of the dark side, it is highly unlikely that any wannabe writer could make it all the way through the book without finding some form of inspiration. Unfortunately, this does not mean that the book is perfect. Smith’s examination of evil is by no means exhaustive. Those looking for an in-depth analysis of dark forces will find themselves disappointed. No sooner has Smith started on one topic does she skip onto the next. For example, just as I was getting my teeth into a juicy section on witchcraft, another subject was introduced. Frustratingly, my curiosity had been roused but not satisfied.

Another aspect of the book which might annoy readers – especially aspiring novelists – is Smith’s habit of writing in note form rather than expanding into fuller, clearer sentences. Using such a format to summarise chapters is all very well but one occasionally gets the feeling that important information might not be getting the right kind of exposure.

The Power of the Dark Side is undoubtedly an entertaining read. Bursting at the seams with ideas, Smith provides numerous pointers to help shape your baddies into true villains, your fiends into monsters and your cads into total rotters. Whilst the book gives a great overview of villainy, one is left with the feeling that this decent but ultimately disposable book could have been an essential reference tool had it the depth to match its broad scope.

Hereward L.M. Proops

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