Every story needs a good villain, or at least someone with villainous tendencies. My first novel, Dancing Priest, didn’t really have a villain, or at least one as a main character. The second in the series, A Light Shining, has an unnamed assassin. The third, Dancing King, has a public relations and political operative named Geoffrey Venneman.
I spent a few decades in corporate communications, working with and for public relations people and often collaborating with outside public relations firms. Contrary to the common perception, most PR people, or at least the vast majority I worked with, were capable, ethical people. They didn’t do anything that might be asked, regardless of whether it was good, bad, or indifferent. They would argue with wrongheaded decisions. They resisted bad advice. They worked hard to stay true to industry ethics codes.
A reporter once asked me if I had ever lied for any company or client I worked for. I could truthfully answer a firm no. Of course, the reporter likely asked the wrong question. I might have had a different answer if he asked me if I had ever been asked to lie for any company or client I worked for.
That’s been my experience. It has also been my experience to know a few PR people, and a few journalists, and it is a very few, who would never have been accused of being ethical. And it is a composite of those people (many of whom are no longer alive) who form the character of Geoffrey Venneman in Dancing King.
Venneman won’t do any and everything his client (in the novel, the Archbishop of Canterbury) asks, but it’s less a matter of ethical concerns and more a matter of what will and won’t work. He’s working for church officials he feels profound disdain for, and he’s working against Michael Kent-Hughes because he hates the monarchy. Mr. Venneman has his own agenda, and he’s ruthless in pursuing it.
I could have just as easily taking his character from national news reports and even reports in my own state of Missouri at the moment. But he was conceived and appeared on my computer screen some years ago, long before current political issues and fights. Instead, he came from a remark here, an action there, a situation somewhere else, a few people who liked to operate in the shadows, and people pulling strings without being seen or identified. I’ve dealt with all kinds of people in my career, including these kinds.
Venneman is polished; he’s an Oxford graduate, after all, and he maintains a polished Oxford accent. He uses people, without any regret for what might happen to them as a result. But he’s resourceful, and he has keen insight and perception – he knows and can appreciate when Michael and his communications man Jay Lanham successfully beat back an attack, including his own.
His plans include falsely interviewing for Michael’s communications job, the one eventually filled by Lanham, and it’s here that he makes a strategic mistake. He thinks he’ll be able to easily charm Michael, because Venneman so easily charms everyone else. And he thinks that happens. What he doesn’t know is that Michael comes away from the interview instinctively appalled; he doesn’t know why, but he reacts badly to Venneman as a person.
In short, Michael recognized the evil at work.
Venneman largely fails in his repeated attacks on Michael, but not every operation ends in failure. And he will have a significant role to play in the next story in the series.
Top photograph: What Geoffrey Venneman might look like, by Drew Hays via Unsplash. Used with permission.