Writing Essentials: Characters Part Two: A Darker Villain

>> Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reposted from Rocket Scientist

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.

I've talked about the deluded villains, those that aren't so much evil as severely misguided, trapped within their own beliefs into doing evil things. But there are some people who go beyond that step, venturing into that gray-to-black area beyond an honest mistake and into either insanity or at least taking things to such extremes that results aren't rational even within the paradigm. Many times, what they do and how they act's so heinous, it seems impossible they can't be evil (and even the most generous would have to say they're skirting the line at least), but many are mentally ill, driven beyond their limits or completely in the thrall of someone knowingly evil. These are people who might have been decent but their feet stumbled on the path, yet they are often too far gone to be retrievable. They are not masterminds. There is no method to their madness. They are lost but they defy sympathy since they take out their insanity with violence on the blameless.

Here's a (non-exhaustive) list of examples:

Fanatics: People who believe something, but have let loose of any sane way of addressing it. Instead of thinking of regrettable steps they feel they must take in pursuit of their perception of necessity, they begin to see all destruction as a means to whatever end they originally had. It's the difference between a suicide bomber taking out an army barrack (which makes a certain kind of brutal sense) and taking out a marketplace of civilians of their own nationality (which no longer means anything). It can mean blind faith in any task set by a manipulative but trusted leader and unquestioning loyalty. It can mean that original beliefs become the rationale for striking out in every direction.

Timebombs: Sullen people who have labored for a long time under a sense of martyrdom but haven't done anything about it only to explode in the end in a spree of senseless violence. Like shooting children in an Amish school, or the Columbine massacre, or drowning all your children one after another. Something snaps and the target of the violence often has little or nothing to do with the original cause of pain. The acts can be planned or impromptu, but the end result is frequently a large number of innocents killed with no way of understanding what drove someone to do so (suicide frequently punctuates these kinds of sprees).

Compounders: Individuals who do a little transgression and are either so emboldened by not getting caught that they keep pushing their new limits or are so paranoid about someone finding out that they compound the original mistake with more and worse crimes. Gambling becomes embezzling becomes framing someone else becomes murder. In the end, what they do is so horrible that the original concern seems completely trivial. Their perspective is shot as they become, often in surprisingly little time, monsters by degrees without ever realizing they've slipped from rational behavior.

Dark Depths: People who are pushed into doing something violent, for example, through circumstance, only to find they've a taste for it. Soldiers gone wrong, for example. Taught to be a sniper for a purpose, perhaps one can find himself with a taste for it above and beyond a satisfaction in a job well done or the comfort of believing what one does is for the greater good. People like this may have started out with innocent intentions, but, as they find pleasure in their evil-doings, they begin to manufacture excuses for more, manipulate the situation to give them opportunities. Over time, the excuses become flimsier, they targets less justifiable until one is just a madman taking out random subjects.

(On that last one, I've often wondered about the assertion that serial killing is a modern disease. It occurs to me that if one were into sadism, torture, mayhem or murder, in early days there were plenty of opportunities to indulge it in professions. One could become an executioner [many punishments, capital and otherwise, were horrifically painful] or a mercenary and do your worst on a Crusade or as a Conquistador. It's only as we've become less tolerant of sanctioned horrors that they've had to strike out on their own. The career choices aren't what they used to be.)

Insanity and mental illness often play a part in these and we've given some credence to that in the legal profession. But how far does it go before insanity isn't a viable excuse any more, before we say we slid past crazy and into evil? I don't think the answer's easy and I don't think everyone has the same line. I write a great deal of sword and sorcery and my protagonists have quite a few bodies in their wake, but they never do anything I consider evil. Yet I can read another book where someone torments a child and feel they are evil to the core.

I probably have more of these types of villains, these skirting around the black, than I have of the full-blown psychopaths. Or, one of my villains can start here where there's still a potential for sympathy only to end up completely gone over to the dark side in the end.

I think what's interesting about the villains I've talked about the past four posts is that there might be some hope of redemption in them. They could learn. They could grow. You might even be able to wrangle one into a protagonist or an anti-hero, more so the misguided ones of the last three posts than the ones that are so far gone here. Still, even here there could still be hope. Tomorrow (or maybe Monday), I delve into what makes someone an irredeemable villain to me, what I see as evil.


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