Writing Essentials: Characters Part One: Villains that Aren't Completely Evil Pt. 2

>> Wednesday, January 27, 2010

First, I have to pause for a moment to remember the Apollo 1 fire. Three men died on this day in 1967: Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. Dire lessons were learned about slipshod work, not looking at the big picture, and putting men needlessly in harm's way. May we honor that sacrifice by remembering those painful lessons.

On to the writing...

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

Ok, on to "villains" who aren't really evil - in my mind. And that brings up a valid point. What is evil? Well, it depends on who you ask. Different people have different ideas on what things and people are evil, what are regrettable but necessary, what are, in fact, heroic and admirable. And a particular act or person could be any of the three depending on who you ask and how you put it.

But, this isn't everyone's blog. It's mine, so I'll just tell you what I consider evil. To me, people are evil who go out of their way to hurt/humiliate/kill/rape for their own gratification or to serve their own (and no one else's interests). [Ed. Update - when I say serve your own interests, I do not include self-defense. It's not admirable, but it's not evil either IMO.] Kill your wife to get her insurance money? Evil. Rape anybody (feel free to try to convince me that rape can be done for any reason than serving one's own interests - good luck with that)? Evil. Running over the man who stumbles out of his car after running down children deliberately at a crosswalk for 20 minutes? Not evil. Killing a spy in cold blood who could endanger fifty of your fellow soldiers. Not evil. I think torture is evil, but I don't think you have to personally be evil to perform it. It depends on what you think you're doing it for. If I had my daughter's kidnapper in hand and I wanted to know where she was, would I torture the bastard for it? Damn straight.

And that's a key item, too. There's a term kicked around quite a bit, one of those words I generally despise because it's a management buzzword, but it's a good one for this situation: paradigm. In this instance, I think of it as describing "the world as we see it" - what we believe to be absolutely and fundamentally true. It doesn't matter if it is true, we only have to believe it is true to act on it. The fundamental belief that people who weren't Catholic faced an eternity of torment if they didn't return to the "true faith" allowed people to torture and torment Jews and "heretics" with clean consciences. The fundamental beliefs that indigenous people, or people imported from Africa and Asia were of lesser value, were subhuman and just barely above domesticated animals, allowed them to be enslaved, misused, put in harm's way and, yes, even slaughtered out of hand. They were called heathens, their gods defiled and their culture discarded. That these cultures were sometimes more advanced than the dirty illiterate armies that ousted them is not a factor. It only matters what the invaders and importers believed.

Let me give you an example. Say a man becomes the leader of a country during a time of bitter partisanship and conflict, even pockets of violence. Because of the perception of this leader's loyalty, a portion of the country declares independence. The revolutionaries provide little that benefits the rest of the nation, no vital resources, poor overall standing financially - little/no industry, transportation, etc. They also are clinging to a social model that is increasingly seen as outdated and economically disastrous.

The leader believes that if he doesn't bring the nation back together, the entire country will be destroyed. The reasons why he believes so aren't obvious, but he feels so strongly, he attacks in force with the hopes of crushing the rebellion at the outset. Instead, despite advantages in wealth, logistics, industry, materials, population and legality, the attempted crushing fails miserably. In fact, as the battle turns into a real war, this becomes a recurrent pattern. The rebels have the advantage in military expertise and doing the bulk of the fighting on home soil (where it could be expected that people will fight most viciously), though this only further impacts the finances and viability of the rebellious areas. The war drags with unspeakable losses and staggering costs.

More people are killed than in all the fighting before (and even since). Tensions and hatreds become even more polarized, with the loyalists resentful for fighting a war they don't have much stake in and furious at the fanatical rebels they fight. The rebels feeling as they though fight for their very identities. As the tides turn to favor the advantages of the loyalists after several years of bitter bitter battles, the word comes from the leader to his generals to burn and destroy the civilian landscape and infrastructure of the rebel states. When the end finally comes, the rebel forces are decimated, their youth all but destroyed, their lands left ownerless, bankrupt and destitute, and governed by an angry faction of loyalists determined to exact revenge for their own losses. It takes decades to recover and, more than a century later, resentment and differences remain.

All for no more reason than because the leader (and remaining loyalist government) was convinced that being separate would destroy the remaining nation as well as the rebellious section, that accepting the independence of the rebels was not a viable option. The man was Abraham Lincoln.

Now, many (including myself) would say that Abraham Lincoln was a good man. However, it isn't impossible to have a character making decisions based on a premise that one's protagonists don't have be a very sympathetic (and even not so sympathetic) antagonist.

It's amazing to me how quickly these posts grow. I have more to say on this subject, but it will have to wait for part 3.


  • Jeff King

    Great points, your opinion marks mine so well I can't disagree with you once again. One of these times I will blow you away and disagree with you.

    But so far, your judgments and opinions, likes and dislikes are almost exactly like mine... so it is slim odds.

  • Project Savior

    Reading this I was reminded of a comment Malcolm McDowell made on why he plays the bad guy so often, "Because the Bad Guys are the interesting ones."

  • Stephanie B

    Thank you, Jeff.

    Project Savior, I think that's a very apt comment. I suspect that's why many heroes in classics and novels today tend to be less black and white than the hero on the white horse. Superman is so pure as the driven snow that he's boring for many. Batman has issues and a dark side and is, therefore, more interesting.

    But it's also why I'm spending so much time on this topic because a bad guy who's nothing but evil, has no motivation but his own gratification, isn't really all that interesting either. Often, such monsters also work alone. However, get an ideology involved, and followers makes sense. One can also give the protagonists a real challenge to face.

  • The Mother

    Let us remember that Lincoln himself was haunted by his decisions, massively depressed and often suicidal. Hard choices are the lot of those in charge, but the truly good characters neither relish them nor deal well with the consequences.

    On "paradigm"--not being in management, I can't attest to its use as a buzzword. But in science, it refers to the philosophical view that one particular way of looking at science is viewed as correct, and it takes a revolutionary jolt to change that (it was, indeed, coined by Thomas Kuhn in his "Structure of Scientific Revolutions"). As such, your use of it here is perfect as it extends to the wider, not scientific scope.

    Often, in science, as Planck pointed out, it takes a generation--the old geezers who cling to the old paradigm have to die.

  • Stephanie B

    I frequently play with themes where my heroes are people who instinctively question the paradigms around them. Often, the conflicts are not so much against people as much as they are against ideologies or limitations imposed by their current society.

    I find that notion, of examining what you believe to be true, questioning it, to be a big factor in what I like to convey with my work.

    Now, I have evil villains, but they are often just a piece of the puzzle, a portion of a much more complicated tapestry. Not-really-evil villains in such a situation can bring those challenges and conflicts to the fore. They're often not even villains so much as they are obstacles and challenges.

  • Relax Max

    Your post is 3 different subjects and I know you don't want three comments from me. :) The first subject is about characters in a novel, and how the bad guys are not necessarily evil. Then you segue into a philosophical treatise on what evil means. Finally, you discuss a real-life event, though you frequently lapse back into fiction as you discuss it. All in all, I found this to be an interesting post, whose 3 sections seemed somehow related, in a surreal Stephanie-mind sort of way. Kidding.

    I'm really ill-equipped to comment on the first part, about villains in a fictional work, since I don't write fiction (or think I don't) and don't really know the "rules" of fiction. Being ill-equipped probably won't stop me from venturing an opinion, though, because I want to learn and like to read these discussions about what makes good fiction, or even "classic" fiction.

    As to a character in a novel being "evil," or "a villain but not really truly evil" I would venture a guess that that would come from the writer's mind, since all the characters in the novel, including the bad guy, take whatever form they have from the author's own imagination. Does that mean the author has to also be evil in order to write a truly evil character? - for are we not ourselves evil if we think evil thoughts? Or do we have to act on those thoughts to be evil?

    I know better than try to comment on the philosophy of good and evil and also throw in the American Civil War for good measure. Even I am not loquacious enough to pull that off in a comment.

  • Stephanie B

    That might be a factor, Max. I don't understand the kind of evil I described, Max. I don't understand people who prey on children or take pleasure in the pain of others. I've studied it, because it's easier to protect yourself and your family if you do, but I can't wrap my mind around it.

    I have a smattering of those kinds of villains - more to come, you know - but since I can't get behind them, I have to fake it. I suspect that makes them seem less real. Perhaps I prefer this kind of antagonist because I can identify with him and not the other kinds.

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