Being the Bad Guy

Sunday, April 19, 2009 - 11:47 AM

My last (real) post spurred a considerable dialogue between two commenters. You guys are awesome for having so much to say, and rather than comment directly there, I'll be commenting here.

After letting the brain recover from paperwork burnout, I started back in on 'With Iron' again, and I noticed that I was thinking through more angles than I previously had, particularly regarding the future of the work wherein the heroes start showing up. But I also re-examined the nature of the villain I'm writing about, and the two peers in his future.

I did resolve that these villains will not be misunderstood heroes, though they may start as one. They will not be virtuous or compassionate, by the time they reach the end of their story. They might not be vile, necessarily, and in fact the three I have in mind are generally not as depraved or demented as Leoric's allies in the Other Side. None of the three are insane, for one (though one is a little off in the head, he's still quite rational). But, as Ryan points out, the villain starts somewhere.

Rather than go on and discuss the various reasons why a person might turn to evil, I'm going to share a bit about Tahvo, the so-called protagonist of 'With Iron'. This won't spoil any part of the actual story, but it might provide an idea of how I'm starting this project. Tahvo grows up in a clan-based society with a strong warrior ethic and an underlying animist faith which is more pervasive than pious. Children usually follow a hereditary trade, but if a child shows talent for something, it is possible to apprentice to another family. In essence, it is an open caste system. In Tahvo's case, his family has 'many sagas', and is important. He is popular among his peers, and is unfortunately a bit temperamental. This temper pushes him to commit a faux pas of considerable size, which is forgiven largely because he is still a boy, but the Jarl of his clan decides to apprentice him to the local cursebreaker, Crez. He believes it will teach the boy discipline, and though Crez is feared and often avoided, everyone respects the need for his skills. In Tahvo's heavily animist culture, the presence of a witch doctor is reassuring and necessary. This mixed blessing and penalty satisfies the honor of both families involved in the dispute.

Tahvo does indeed learn discipline, but as he learns, he also begins to hear about the great problem of his people; colonists from overseas have built a couple of forts on the shore, and they don't appear to be particularly friendly. Tahvo's people are debating just what is to be done about it all, and as the story progresses, he comes to realize that the interlopers have begun a divide in his own people. He also comes to understand that the interlopers themselves are not evil; they simply don't understand his people, and are not willing to. Much of Tahvo's conflict comes from making his own decision about how to best serve his people and protect them from not just the threat of the colonists, but from internal strife.

So, how does Tahvo become a Bad Guy from here? Telling that -will- spoil the story, but you can easily see that Tahvo's start is very similar to how a hero might emerge. Outside adversaries, the need for a common leader, the proverbial rock-and-hard-place; these things are all present. One place to look at the curious dichotomy of hero/villain in similar circumstances is in the case of Vlad Tepes, who committed horrible atrocities on vast scales, but who is regarded even today as a hero for fighting against the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire. One can easily envision a band of stalwart Muslims setting out to kill the Impaler and allow a lawless land to know enlightenment and peace... and one can just as easily envision a struggling nobleman who is forced to resort to tactics of fear and horror to withstand the invasion of an enemy vastly superior in numbers. Was Vlad a villain? To the Ottomans, most certainly, and his actions generated a great deal of fear and loathing from even other enemies of the Ottomans.

We'll never know precisely what his motivations were for the atrocities, of course. Did he do them because they were his only hope for winning, or did he use his desperate circumstances as an excuse to perform something he'd normally never be able to get away with? This is another thin line between hero and villain. The reasons why someone really does something can help define good or bad. Of course, you can take a simpler tack, too. A friend of mine once put it this way: 'If you have to explain why it isn't evil, it's probably evil'.

'With Iron' is all about explaining why it IS.

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At April 20, 2009 11:29 AM, Blogger Montgomery Mullen said...

There's also the situation of having a choice between doing something awful for the greater good and simply not doing it... with no other options available. It's a very tough spot, and one of those classic pivots for a moral quandary. I expect I'll be visiting the concept heavily in 'With Iron'.

By the way, none of the three villains are surgeons, but one is definitely a doctor of sorts. I couldn't bring myself to write about a lawyer, but a doctor? That I can do.


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