Writing Essentials: Characters Part One: Villains that Aren't Completely Evil Pt. 3

>> Thursday, January 28, 2010

Again, I have to pause, this time for the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger on this day in 1986. Seven died in that mishap 73 seconds after launch: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnik. Lack of safety oversight, wishful interpretation of ominous data, schedule and budget pressure were all cited as causes - and sadly sighted as causes again for the Columbia accident seventeen years later almost to the day. This is a bad week for NASA in terms of accidents. May we never look at another accident to find it could have been prevented if we'd but learned from the past tragedies.

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.

So, I've tried to demonstrate the kind of antagonist I mean, one that isn't evil (to the definition I provided yesterday) and yet who can do terrible, evil, even heinous thing because his (or her) paradigm demands it.

These fall into at least two basic groups. One type involves the people who are convinced by a charismatic leader to aid and abet nefarious plans, either because they are gullible, because the leader capitalized and rationalized horrific actions based on their existing paradigm, or through fear of the alternatives. This could also apply to those who turn a blind eye while these things are happening. Nazi Germany is almost a textbook example of brainwashing, control through fear, hysteria, promotion of horror through blame. Clearly, there were some masterminds behind this; the German people were not inherently monsters nor was wholesale genocide part of their existing paradigm. However, those masterminds were able to take advantage of existing antisemitism and nationalism to further their own considerably more extreme agendas.

The problem with this kind of antagonist, the dupe, the tool, the follower, is that such individuals are only a piece of the problem. They may be conflicted, but not enough to stay their hands, and, frequently, they may become fanatics to overbear any lingering twinges of guilt, edging them toward true evil. But they are pawns and, in my opinion, a pawn makes for dull and uninteresting antagonist. For such an antagonist, their motivations and inner turmoil is almost unimportant because they're not acting on their own initiative but being manipulated by someone else. Take them out or convert them, and the problem remains. Pawns are easily replaced. It's the mastermind you want (and masterminds are different type of villain that I will - eventually - get to). Those that do nothing, the apathetic, are not doing less evil, per se, but they are so passive that it's hard to make them an effective villain. There are times when the lack of action is so pronounced, though, that it effectively becomes an act.

That doesn't mean pawn types are useless however. Pawn type villains can be readily used two ways. First, build up enough of them, and you magnify the power of your mastermind. Secondly, however, they can provide a front, can give the appearance of the mastermind only to later be revealed as a dupe. This is particularly useful in extended series of novels or serials where one might think XX is the bad guy only to find out in episode 94 that YY is the woman pulling the strings. I can and have used them (and will use them again this way) but never as my end-all be-all. They make, in my opinion, poor ultimate villains.

Much better, in my opinion, is the second kind of non-evil villain, the one working on his own recognizance, consciously making choices that can do great harm, but doing so out of what they consider necessity based on the paradigm they live in. It might be a scorched earth policy that eradicates 1/5 of the arable land. It might be dropping the big one on a civilian target. It might be setting a village to the torch to protect one's own clan.

They must be acting independently, perhaps influenced by the ideas and notions of someone else, but applying their assumptions to the world as they see it and reacting in a rational way within that paradigm. That is very important. The assumptions themselves can seem completely nonsensical. They don't even have to be popularly accepted; they can be one specific to the individual antagonist. But, he has to be acting logically within the realm of that underlying assumption or he steps into the realm of the insane. And that is another post as well.

Bear in mind that the motives are not necessarily selfish. A man who drowns his daughter because he truly believes his family will starve to death otherwise does so because he believes it is true, that he will not be able to feed all of his children. He will feed himself not out of selfish reasons because he believes (quite possibly truthfully) that his existence is key to the survival of the remainder of his house. If he truly believes this, his action is not insane, just tragic. People can give up their lives, forgo their fortunes, destroy wantonly based on a flawed premise taken to a logical conclusion.

If it's one lonely fanatic doing so, that can make an effective story, perhaps more sympathetically than the evil genius, but such a story can severely limit a message. If, however, our villain is working under a paradigm, however, twisted, that is part and parcel of existing society (even it's taken to an extreme), it is more than a struggle between protagonists and an antagonist, but more a commentary about aspects of society - even the one we have now. That's a very powerful possibility that makes this a very compelling type of villain.

Now, one can take that non-evil antagonist and make him so extreme the rationality goes away, the logic left behind. There can still be compelling and still reflect on society, but it's less powerful...unless you get clever with it. I really admired, when I was reading Michener's Hawaii, the contrast between John Whipple and Abner Hale. Both, in theory, were there for the same thing, both with similar (presumably) beliefs, but with Abner's preoccupation with sin, his paradigm was immune to all data and became immune to logic, becoming so extreme it tottered toward madness. Whipple, on the other hand, had a more open mind and his paradigm shifted over time as he challenged many of the notions he began with, becoming a better person as a result.

There are, of course, hybrids of these two types and many a rational believer can become an frothing fanatic if driven too far. Which is where I'll go next. And pawns can become independent, the kind rationally acting from belief if the chain of command is broken or they are on their own too long.

The choice of villain, what they represent and how they got there can do wonders for giving depth and meaning to even a simple story. They can add interest and challenge notions, by personifying them. In my opinion, the non-evil but misguided villain is one of the most interesting type of villain out there, with tremendous potential.

Next, gray area villains like those that are insane.


  • Jeff King

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Jeff King

    Yea I believe it is vital to any story to understand and if possible like the Antagonist. At the bare minimum relate to them somehow. So you see them as real person, acting under a belief system, reacting to their environment, struggling with choices they are force to make.
    The more we love to hate the antagonist, the more we tie ourselves to the protagonist in the story. This leads to the reader turning pages with batted breath.
    Fail to connect your reader to the villain and your story will suffer because of it.
    Thx, for you time and effort.

  • Project Savior

    The pawn's POV can be very interesting if they are being used as a pawn for both the "good" guy and the "evil" guy. They can personalize the struggle.

  • Stephanie B

    Thank you, Jeff.

    Project Savior, that's an interesting thought and something that never occurred to me. I could see how that could be very effective, but I don't know if I could do it. Part of my disinterest in pawns is a personal distaste and, I have to admit, contempt. But the idea is intriguing. Perhaps I should expand my horizons.

    Thanks for the idea.

  • The Mother

    Isn't it interesting how often "religion" shows up in that paradigm that makes people do bad things?

    There are some fascinating studies of the psychology of Nazi Germany--how apparently sane and normal people could be so hideously cruel. While much of it was entrenched antisemitism (largely fostered by the fifteen hundred years of the Church), there was a deeper, darker part. People, apparently, really like being allowed to be cruel. When society says it's okay, people can and do turn into monsters. (SOME people. Let us all remember that there were lots of people in Europe who actively bestowed kindness in many, many ways through that horrid time.)

  • Stephanie B

    The fact that horrors committed by people get so much press, I think, often skews the perception. But, for all the good folks who refused to get their hands dirty, it couldn't have happened if many hadn't been willing to do bad things. And many others willing to look the other way.

    I wonder though, if the recent exposure to horrors in WWI was a factor. Trench warfare is pretty horrible (I presume for the Germans as well as those on the other side) and I wonder if those experiences warped many of those in the Army who happened to be in a position to rise to power when Hitler stepped in.

    I'm not a psychologist, but sadism and cruelty in a serial killer can often be traced to abuse as a child (not always, but a high percentage of the time). It makes sense to me that it left many German officers in a position where they were particularly responsive to the notion of doing horrific things.

    Speculation on my part, of course, but thought provoking.

  • The Mother

    Actually, in terms of sexual sadism, there is NO correlation with traumatic or abusive childhoods. It seems that it's just a normal deviation.

    There is vanishingly little data on the other kind of sadist, naturally.

    If you want to discuss psychopaths, however (those guys who just don't seem to understand that society has rules of conduct and that there is indeed a cosmic right and wrong): this runs in families, so it's probably genetic. It's also LOTS more common than you think. In "normal" people. Guys in business suits. In fact, they tend to be the bosses in the business suits. Wonder why.

  • Stephanie B

    In terms of sexual sadism, I'll have to bow to you. I'm only cognizant of stats on serial killers which make up a small portion of that ugly breed (and many serial killers are sexual sadists).

    Psychopaths (or sociopaths), however, I agree, are far more common that most people think. I'm under the impression that the ones that follow rules do so because of what's in it for them.

    I don't understand their thinking, but I do have a few of that ilk in my writing. I should be getting to them in the next few paths.

  • The Mother

    I highly recommend "Snakes in Suits." Very instructive.

    The inheritedness of psychopathy is one of the best pieces of evidence for "hard-wired" ethics. If you can turn it off with a gene, that means there are genes that make it run.

  • Relax Max

    And February 1st will be yet another time for "mishap" remembrance. As an American, Columbia and Challenger still make my blood boil, but I suppose you are not the person to be complaining to; I blame ALL of those charged with "safety" for these things. Complacency, even arrogance. A feeling of being bullet-proof and others having to pay the price for that complacency and feeling invincible. But the laws of physics are pretty unforgiving.

    Some of us simpler folk still see Challenger as something deeper than an O-ring reacting to cold; we think someone should have thought about it before it happened, and, more importantly, checked it out even if it meant losing the launch window. Some of us simpler folk still wonder why our people in charge of safety didn't remember why Mercury, Gemini and Apollo had heat shields on their capsules, and why Columbia had tiles on her belly. But why bother to check them? - why not just play the odds and bring her home? After all, those odds-players are not going to die.

    Space travel is an almost impossibly complex event; the number of things that can go wrong boggle the mind; how we have come this far, I am still amazed. And yet we sometimes still don't do the obvious things that true prudence dictates.

    My dictionary defines mishap as an unfortunate accident, and gives as an example a pancake sticking to the ceiling.

  • Relax Max

    Every time we successfully venture into space and return safely, we have many people, especially Safety, to thank for that. Every single flight would be a disaster without them. I know that. I must not let my anger boil over so that I sound unreasonable. But I still grieve when I remember.

  • Relax Max

    I am far behind you on understanding even the terms used in fiction. Protagonist is the good guy, right? Antagonist is his nemesis. Ok. Well, not always: the dictionary says a protagonist is simply the main character in the story (not good or evil). If the dictionary is right, then the protagonist could be evil or an evil one's dupe. And good guys that opposed him, even if small and nameless, would be his antagonist in that case. Do I have that right? I mean, do I have it right that protagonist is only "main character" and nothing to do with good or evil?

  • Relax Max

    I would argue against your "Paradigm of Evil" assertion. I believe a paradigm is logically congruent in all cases, and any "paradigm" which makes pedophilia, for example, seem the right thing to do is not a valid paradigm at all but merely insanity.

    A "mad scientist" does not follow a valid paradigm. My opinion. You seem to be making excuses for evil and making it seem logical and valid in certain circumstances like Nazi Germany.

  • Relax Max

    You move from fiction character development into the realm of the philosophy of good and evil again. You begin using real-life examples like the Civil War and Nazi Germany. Why so much hair-splitting on defining what an evil or quasi-evil fictional character consists of? I LOVE talking about the philosophy of good and evil in real life, but you are confusing me by talking about that when you say you are talking about defining characters in a novel. If the guy is bad, then he's a bad dude. Are you not over analyzing this just a bit? Do you instead want to discuss Nazi Germany? I'm game if you are. No wonder I don't write fiction - It's like an actor trying to find his motivation. Me? I would just say, "The bastard conked Stephanie over the head with a monkey wrench and croaked her. He was evil."

  • Stephanie B

    Lots of comments, here Relax Max. Let me get to them in order. But your first one (two) demands a comment of its own.

    On the space "accidents," I'm entirely with you. I agree completely and, with Columbia, I will go to my grave wondering if I could have done more, if I could have been louder, if I might have changed things if I'd fought harder. I'll never know and those people are on my conscience. I weep every year.

    I cut myself slack on Apollo 1 (before I was born) and Challenger (freshman year of college), but I was the EVA Safety Flight Lead for STS-107. I knew those people on that flight, trained with them, was in meetings with them. I went into Mission Control every day and checked with the safety console (even though there were no scheduled EVAs and they should have called me if an unscheduled or contingency EVA were called for) to see how things were going. No one EVER said anything about any problems. There were no panics, no issues about TPS (Thermal Protection System) written on the "funny" board, no apparent concern. No one mentioned even the possibility of an EVA, but I checked in to make sure every day.

    Five years previously, I had fought, tooth and nail, for changes to the TPS to protect better against orbital debris (which might have helped here). I fought so hard, I almost lost my job over it. I was moved into a different area of safety (EVA) and let myself be silenced.

    For four years, I had nightmares about the Shuttle breaking to pieces on the way in. And, on February 1, I watched my dream come to be. Exactly as I had imagined (except I hadn't dreamed my husband would get up early and call me in to see).

    Is safety responsible? Am I responsible? You're damn right I'm responsible. Those people trusted me and I failed. I didn't fight hard enough, I let worrying about my job shut my ass up. They paid the price with their LIVES.

    The safety organization I used to work for told me it wasn't my fault, wasn't their fault. They had done nothing wrong. I don't agree. Which I why I don't work there any more.

    My sister says I love to argue. I don't. She IS wrong.

    But I will never be silent again.

  • Stephanie B

    I have a lot here on characters, but I can explain why.

    You're not wrong, Relax Max, and the way I describe things is likely confusing. My protagonists are always "pro" - mostly good (not all good or we'd be yawning). If I read a book where the "hero" of our tale, our main character is really a rapists or likes to torture people for entertainment, I can't shut the book fast enough.

    But you make my point on antagonist. Someone being on the other side of a war can be an antagonist but not necessarily evil. If both of you are fighting for survival, are either evil? Antagonists don't have to be true villains, don't have to be evil to be effective and I was pointing some possibilities. I think it is important for the writer to understand their characters and their motivations, even the "bad" guys. The better the audience can relate to all the characters, the more real they are, the more effective the story becomes.

    "Good" guys that were not so good have become more common, I think, where the line between the good and bad isn't so clear. It makes things more thought provoking, more believable. In real life it's often so,

    I don't disagree on the mad scientist thing nor can I explain Nazi Germany with all I have here. I can only explain the peons on the bottom and, in the next post, the guards who got into it. But the masterminds of Nazi Germany, the people who orchestrated the horrors, I can't see them as anything but evil which I'll go ahead and talk about today. But mad scientists and Josef Mengele don't fit into the not-quite-evil category. More villains to come.

    I bring up reality a great deal because, to have an effective character, you shouldn't be breaking believable ground. If someone's done what you have the bad guy doing in reality, it makes no sense for someone to describe it as unbelievable or non-credible. Of course it's credible, it happened. It's one reason I'm so fascinated by history, trying to understand why people did what they did and why they made the choices they did.

    I've spent a lot of time on characters (and I'll spend more) because characters are what is most important to me in fiction. I don't know if I'll even feel driven to more than a single post on plot which is why I encourage people to join in with their own favorite writing essentials.

Post a Comment


Blog Makeover by LadyJava Creations