Monday, March 2, 2009 - 10:30 AM

It's been a turbulent time since my last post, and my creative process was jolted out of place. I have a couple of unfinished blots and one idea clamoring to be posted here, but before they go up, but in my estimation, none of them are ready yet. So, today, I'm writing about writing.

I've had commentary on the nature of my villains for quite a while. People tend to like them, and I'm certainly glad for that because I've been trying for years to make them Good bad guys. I don't know where that started, but I've always grown quickly tired of the stereotypical evil overlords or over-convoluted plotters or 'just plain bad' antagonists.

I think the real secret is to just treat all of your characters like people.

This may sound a little strange, but I do think this is one of the main issues that authors have when they pen the bad guys. They externalize the character, consciously or unconsciously. As much as people love to clamor about the bad guy, the truth is most people don't want to be the Real bad guy. They want to be the bad guy people admire, the rebel who goes against the grain or the man who does things that nobody else is willing (or has will enough) to do. I think that, unconsciously, people don't want to admit that evil is really rather ordinary. When the villain is written, then, there is a shadow of caricature. Either the author tends to hit the evil button way too much, or they end up writing an anti-hero, not a villain.

When I was writing the group for 'The Other Side', I wanted them to be vile, and unmistakably villains. This means hitting the evil button quite a bit. But there are many, many different flavors of evil, and even with the diversity of Leoric's lieutenants, it is a small sampling. Further, whenever you pen a villain, you want to be sure not to alienate your reader. Evil is far more effective and evocative if you can show something sympathetic behind it all.

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean you should somehow feel sorry for these characters. By sympathetic I mean that somewhere in there, you provide a chord that other people can find and relate to. Evil, real evil, isn't a huge cosmic darkness. It starts as a tiny, very sharp fracture that eventually cuts altruism and morality to ribbons. It always starts somewhere, even if that somewhere was an arbitrary decision that someone simply couldn't escape.

Leoric is easily the most sympathetic. He wanted to be a hero. His father was a hero. But as anyone who pays attention to the news knows, humanity loves to spit on heroes who show any kind of fault. Humanity praises those who want to do things like help the poor, but as a population, humanity rarely exerts any effort themselves. To Leoric, this is the vilest form of hypocrisy, and he intends to prove that point in no uncertain terms to the teeming, selfish masses who make it impossible to do what is right. His evil comes from frustrated virtue, and he is hollowed out by his hatred. In his eyes, he must ruin his own soul to bring truth to the world.

Even in contrast to Leoric's careful atrocities, Isabeau is a monster. But hiding behind the necrophilia and cannibalism is desperation. For her, it started with a desire to be more than she was, and the will to do whatever it took to reinvent herself. Isabeau is unconsciously terrified of what she's become, and though outside observers may never understand that, one might be able to see the tiny compulsive signs. Isabeau does horrible things to prove that she was always this way, because she cannot bear to think that she wasn't. Her atrocities are to numb her.

So here you have two kinds of evil both born of pain. Isabeau just wanted to be a magician and flunked out of arcane school; she didn't have the talent. Leoric just wanted to be a good person, and watched the world eat his father. Are they bad people? Oh yes, certainly. There's no mistaking that. But they are still people, and that makes the evil in them far more vivid.

Interestingly, people seem to find it difficult to write 'overwhelming good' for similar reasons, but that's a post for another time.



At March 3, 2009 7:38 AM, Blogger MCHossman said...

A good observation. I've had other conversations where the topic of 'justification' has been discussed. Most people, I would imagine, see themselves as being good whether they are or they aren't. It's important to our own self-image and when people do things that their culture, or society or even themselves would view as being bad (stealing, lying, etc.) then it is often justified by some degree of reasoning. They don't pay me enough, it's just a ream of paper, everyone else does it, etc.

Another interesting thought is for us as people to view another as bad we have to separate who they are from who we are. The higher the stakes that are involved (or the more severe the feelings between the two individuals or parties) the more cut and dry this separation becomes. Most writers, I would challenge, don't tend to do what you're doing and look into the reasons WHY this is. Or, at least, they don't include their supposition in their writing.

You need a bad guy, someone that has very little virtue or good traits so that you can justify your heroes killing them or earning the derision of a populace, etc. Writers then do what has always been done without understanding why. They create a bad guy, a 'gook' or 'nigger' or 'kraut' because that is the quickest and fastest way to capitalize on the readers expectations. In essence, writers are stereotyping before they are even aware of it - and unless the story takes the time and presents a picture from where the 'enemy' is coming from, you'll never get it. You just get a dye and cast villain who is different from others due to appearance, not from essence.

You've touched on it and I'll say it, often the Good Guys are treated in much the same way. They become silhouettes of idolatry in a sense. Creating 'Paragons of Virtue' is ridiculous if you are really trying to capture the human condition and reflect how complex people generally are. We do it all the time too, from our love of musicians to athletes and (god forbid) our politicians. Again, in literature this is done as an easy way out, a lazy man's work but the easiest way that you can snag that reader because it is, unfortunately, what they are expecting and probably hoping to find. Why present a painting when you can entertain with a comic book?


At March 3, 2009 9:56 PM, Blogger Montgomery Mullen said...

Hossman, you might want to start your own blog. Lots of good stuff there... and I agree with what you are saying, particularly your closing comments on the virtuous heroes.
You know, as another odd example of badly written good guys, I was just reading some Eddings (Elenium), and it occurred to me that some of what the good guys were doing was really petty, even malicious. Yet, these are the people portrayed unabashedly as being in the right, and it doesn't seem to tickle their normally-active consciences at all.

Kat, I'm all about the underpinnings. It's when you get in the crawlspaces that you really understand how the characters tick. That's the good stuff.


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