About Luke Jennings
Luke Jennings is an author and journalist. Bang2writers will know him best as the writer of the Killing Eve novels, the basis for the hit TV series. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock though, the novels follow the obsessive duel between Villanelle, an elite assassin and Eve Polastri, the MI6 agent tasked with hunting her down.
What you may not know is Luke had established himself before Killing Eve, writing a number of novels including the Booker prize-nominated Atlantic. He’s also written for The Observer, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. In addition, he’s also the author of the teen stage school novels Stars and Stars: Stealing The Show with his daughter Laura. You can find out more about Luke via his website.
I sat down for a chat with Luke recently to talk all things Killing Eve and writing. Here’s his top tips for B2W. Ready? Let’s go …
1) Come Up With A Game Plan
The first novel, Killing Eve: Codename Villanelle was actually four novellas, published as Kindle Singles. I was intrigued to hear Luke had a game plan for his story, right from the offset.
‘I’d had novels published before but decided not to go the traditional route this time,’ Luke says, ‘The stories were 15,000 words each, the right length for reading on a commute home in an hour, not a big ask.’
But Luke didn’t just want to build his readership, he had another goal in mind … He wanted to attract TV producers and get his own series up and running.
‘It was a long shot, but I knew if I could get the right people to read them, the characters could have a life beyond just the stories.’ Luke tells me.
Of course, this worked and the rest is history! I love how Luke worked out how best to get what he wanted, here. I can also really relate: I thought about the same when I published my own crime debut, The Other Twin, which is now in development with Agatha Raisin producers, Free@Last TV.
TOP TIP: Think about what you want and how best to get it.
2) Audiences Want ‘The Same … But Different’
Novels, movies and TV shows have a rich history of female assassins, especially since Luc Besson’s Nikita, as Luke recognises:
‘People want to hear the same stories, but in different ways with different characters … The ingredients [of Killing Eve] are not unknown: the female assassin, the shady international organisation, the people hunting them.’
So what does Luke think resonated with his readers and audiences of the TV show so much?
‘Villanelle … You don’t know whether to adore her or be appalled by her. That’s what resonates with people.’
I feel exactly like this about Villanelle, too. She’s a complex female character: capable, ruthless and flamboyant, yet also strangely child-like too. I almost feel sorry for her … She seems lonely as she tries to cajole her handler Kostantin to hang out with her.
It’s these contradictory characteristics that give a character like Villanelle depth, which makes her feel different. She is no two-dimensional ‘hardcore hottie’, like so many of her female assassin predecessors.
TOP TIP: Mix contradictory characteristics together to make characters feel more rounded and interesting.
3) Complex Female Characters Are Non-Negotiable
It’s unusual to find female assassin characters that are not male fantasy fodder. They are beautiful, stylish, able to kick ass without a hair out of place! Whilst Villanelle borrows from this tradition, she is subtly different: she is a true psychopath.
‘There’s something missing in her,’ Luke says, ‘she is trying to fill it via various indulgences, construct a personality via fashion, food, clothes. She is attempting to mirror society … But only the act of killing makes Villanelle feel: power, destiny, sense of self. She is finally someone.’
Yet Villanelle is not the only complex character in the story. Eve herself has much more ‘to’ her than the average female lead. Back to Luke:
‘Before Villanelle, Eve is very ambivalent … Not just about her home life, but her work too. I wanted to write a character that’s in the world between the stereotypes of ‘stay at home mum’ and ‘career driven woman’.’
I love this about Eve. So often female characters at either end of the scale like Luke says, plus they are nearly always ‘exceptional’ or ‘remarkable’ in some way. In contrast, Eve is an ‘everywoman’ archetype who gets drawn in over her head. This feels authentic and refreshing.
TOP TIP: Complexity doesn’t have to mean female characters are EXTRAORDINARY all the time.
Don’t forget to grab your free guide on how NOT to write female characters, HERE.
4) Link Your Main Character Arcs
The theme of Killing Eve is obsession. Both Eve and Villanelle are from very different worlds, yet they still both have something that draws them together.
What I loved about Killing Eve is its main character arcs are linked yet go in the opposite directions. Villanelle wants to feel, whereas Eve is confronted with something much darker.
‘They are kindred spirits. Villanelle sees something in Eve that’s in her too. Eve is very unwilling to recognise this at first but is forced to accept they have much more in common than she realises.’ Luke says, ‘Eve ends up with the knowledge that she is maybe not the wholly nice person she thinks she is, especially how she treats others, like Niko.’
TOP TIP: Giving your protagonist and antagonist something in common is a great idea.
5) Know Your Story-world
Luke was heavily involved in series 1 of the Killing Eve TV show and talks fondly of developing the series and working with its then-showrunner, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. As I’ve read the Codename Villanelle book however, there’s one big difference in the adaptation I want to talk about with Luke.
In the book, Villanelle undertakes ‘perfect crimes’ that feel very plausible. The set up/pay off plot-wise is very strong. It’s also clear Luke did a lot of research, especially on weaponry. So how come the TV shows feels so much ‘fantastical’?
‘We didn’t want to get lost in [police] procedure,’ Luke explains, ‘but I would say Villanelle is never going to get away with this, there’d be DNA, fingerprints and so on … But Phoebe would say ‘That’s boring, that doesn’t matter.’”
AND IT DIDN’T. Not once did I feel there was not an adherence to police procedure in the TV series, despite reading the book. It’s simply a different approach to the storyworld. Both work.
TOP TIP: When it comes to storyworld, draw the perimeters and stick to them.
6) Figure Out WHY Certain Stories Are Successful
Love or hate Killing Eve, its success is undeniable. It’s that rare beast: both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. But how do writers find the magic ingredients for success like this?
‘Acquaint yourself with stories people love,’ Luke says, ‘Only so many stories really work. The skill is finding the stories people really love and in how you tell them.’
We’re talking about ‘the same … but different’ again. Luke figured out crime thrillers are popular; readers and audiences like assassin stories; and complex female characters are in demand. From there, he dug deep to find ways of bringing these elements forth using his great craft, writer’s voice AND long-term game plan.
‘If you can’t explain a story’s success, why people liked it, you are not ready to be a professional writer.’ Luke says.
Again, I totally agree here. As B2W always says, it’s not ‘selling out’, but SELLING … This is what professional writers do.
TOP TIP: You can write what you’re passionate about AND find your audience, it doesn’t have to be either/or.
7) Reframe Productivity
I know you Bang2writers always want to know about pro writers’ productivity, so I ask Luke how his goes.
‘I produce work quite slowly, I’ve never been the type to write 3000 words a day,’ Luke replies. ‘I squeeze it out when I can.’
This is very reassuring. Lots of us have so many demands on our time, such as day jobs and family commitments. Wordcount can become a tyranny if we feel we haven’t done ‘enough’. But Luke has a brilliant final thought to reframe this demotivating mindset:
‘Sometimes 250 words takes all day, but I’m happy if they are the right 250 words.’
TOP TIP: It takes as long as it takes.