Writing Essentials: Characters Part Three: Scum

>> Saturday, January 30, 2010

Yes, I know it should be a quote-a-thon. I just hate to break up a series.

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.

Relax Max, on two posts back, mentioned that a protagonist didn't have to be a "good" guy. I agree. When I write, however, my protagonists generally are "good", to my definition. I've had protagonists that could fit into the "not quite evil villain" category (though generally not because those people give me headaches. I hate when people can't think critically, so my protagonists rarely fit in there), but I don't like centering a book on a character I don't like (which I described here). And there are some things I will not accept except in an antagonist, the characteristics that, for me, make one truly and irredeemably evil. My list, of course, may not match yours. But, it's my blog, so I'll tell you.

True sadist. This is the sort of person who kills/torments for nothing more profound than self gratification and pleasure. I'm not fond of people who take pleasure in the agony of others. If you do, I don't even care if you're crazy. You're evil as far as I'm concerned. Albert Fish was a twisted horrific serial killer (fond of children and cannibalism and many other unsavory things). He was caught when he sent a letter to the parents of the ten year old girl he killed (and ate) describing in detail what he did. Ick.

Rapists of pretty much any flavor. I've never found any justification trotted out for this effective. To me, there's nothing at all redeemable in someone who would force another for whatever rationale they have. Send 'em after children, and you can't kill this character off too quickly (or too painfully) for my tastes.

People who manipulate others to do violence. You can be the poor grunt wielding the hot tongs without necessarily being a horrible person. If you're Joseph Mengele coming up with new ways to torment people, you are horrible. If you're the sort promoting violence or brain-washing others to do horrific things, you are scum.

People who would do "anything" for money or power. Yeah, yeah, greed is often in and I'm not talking about prostituting yourself so much as I am lying, cheating, stealing, killing, leaning on, etc. If you're willing to let someone else suffer the consequences for your own greed, you are not a good person. Could you be redeemed? Someone else might give you the benefit of the doubt. Me, I'd never probably trust you. Prostituting yourself is different from prostituting the people that trust you against their will.

People who thrive on hatred. Perhaps they were once decent people, but now everyone is just someone to betray, someone to teach a lesson. These individuals look at the world as something to hate and the only thing that gives them joy is sticking it to someone else.

Sociopaths/Psychopaths. What I mean by that are people so self-involved they couldn't care less about the impact to others of their actions. They may only not be a serial killer because they hate to get their shoes dirty. The rest of the world is so insignificant to them, that they can do horrific callous things and be genuinely surprised it would bother anyone else. Not that they would care.

If you notice some overlap, I'm not surprised. many of the characteristics that make one evil in one way carry over into other ways. You don't see some of the "take over the world" types because I feel that greed or sociopath covers it. Ditto for "mad scientist." You don't have to be Joseph Stalin to be evil. Evil can go on in little ways and only affect one or two. I do have some of these in my writing, though I go with the darker villains as often as these, if not more so. There's plenty of these in existence so a villain like this is certainly plausible. But he (or she) is generally so self-absorbed, they don't stand for anything. Oh, they might spout some doctrine or another, but it is likely a means to an end, a tool used for controlling others.

And, while you might see them lurking in one of my works, they often have bit parts. I prefer my big villains to have something the reader can identify with. And they never get the title role, at least not in my stuff.

Getting tired of bad guys? Starting Tuesday, I'll be heading on into protagonists. Woot!


  • Jeff King

    I love it all, can't have good without the bad.

    I have the same thoughts-well just not as evolved as yours are...

    Looking forward to the protagonist stage

  • Project Savior

    Your series on villains got me thinking of the one villain who was a true villain in every sense of the word, O'Brien from Orwell's 1984.
    He willfully carried out the violence for violence sake, power for power's sake, because he felt that Hitler, Stalin ect. had the failing that somewhere within them they were doing good, whereas Big Brother, and by extension him, would not make that mistake.
    Of course Orwell was a great writer and could make a evil man who was proud of his evil interesting.

  • Stephanie B

    It can be done, of course, but these sorts of villains are often so cliche, so hackneyed, that they come off like comic book villains. Or so demented and whacked that what their motivations seem confusing.

    It takes a clever hand to pull of a book a whole book on focusing on one of these. They're not for everyone or every occasion. I tend to, when I use one of these, to make them a secondary character that is often quickly disposed of. Not always though. They have their uses.

  • Descartes

    One of the standard models for fiction with Bad Guys is to not show them very often. Moby Dick doesn't show up till the next to last page in Moby Dick, for example, though it can be argued that Captain Ahab is the villain here and not the white whale.

    Your list of vile and evil people reminds me of a chapter from 6 Great Ideas by Mortimer J. Adler in which he argues that we need an afterlife so that the evil bastards of the world can be properly punished.

    I am always amazed at the people who stand outside the prison gates as some bit of scum is about to be executed and wail and moan at his/her death. Mothers are especially good at forgiving all and seeing only the good.

    I really hated the ending to The Lovely Bones, if you want to see an example of How Not To Handle a Villain in fiction.

  • Stephanie B

    I guess I hold to that model. I usually show them before the end, but I don't spend much time with them. I'm more likely to show the effects of what they do than them.

    One of the advantages of Sword and Sorcery or other venues where natural laws have sway is that I don't have to be gentle with the scumbags. In those venues, justice is often harsh. Which makes me smile. One of my hard and fast rules, for instance, is that rapists never live to the end of the book.

  • flit

    rapists are lucky to live to the end of the chapter, I think ...at least in what I've read.

    and dang... now I'm going to have to go find my copy of The Lovely Bones - I don't remember anything much of it, certainly not the ending

  • The Mother

    Us non-psychopaths don't understand the workings of the minds of the guys who do evil but don't seem to have underlying reasons/purposes.

    But that doesn't mean that they don't.

    Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot probably did believe, somewhere, that they were doing the right thing. Just because we cannot imagine what that reasoning entailed does not make it go away.

    I find these characters fascinating.

  • Stephanie B

    You're probably right, The Mother. I don't think anyone thinks of themselves as really "evil;" there's always a rationale, even if regular people can't fathom it.

    I mean, how do you justify locking your own teenage daughter in your basement for decades and using her as a sex toy? Letting your children with her die? Convincing your wife to adopt your children born to the daughter you're raping? Did he have a rationale that worked for him? I don't doubt he did.

    That does not mean he isn't evil. Why?

    Because you have to draw the line somewhere. That's one of the places I draw it.

  • The Mother

    Evil? Sure, they're still evil. But so are the other guys with the "rationale."

    I guess my point is it's really, really hard to draw that line between rational, irrational, evil and misguided. I don't think it's a line. I think it's a spectrum that we sane folks will never truly understand.

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