Writing Essentials: Characters Part One: Villains that Aren't Completely Evil Pt. 1

>> Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reposted from Rocket Scientist

Someone suggested I write a series of posts on writing elements. One might object to my doing so since I'm completely unqualified to do so - I don't and never have taught English or writing and I'm not even a "published" author except under the loosest possible definitions. But I want to do so anyway, and not just because I'm always trying to humor Relax Max. I have some very definite opinions about what I think about when I write and what I look for when I read.

So, let me start with this disclaimer on this series: 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.

The most important critical element for me, when it comes to reading, movies, writing, in fact, stories of any kind, are the characters. Over the years, I think, literature has become more and more cognizant of the non-black-and-white nature of people, that people aren't "all good" as a general rule and protagonists have taken on more dark sides or gray areas as a result, which adds depth and interest (but can make a reader uncomfortable). I will go into protagonists, of course, but, today, I want to focus on villains. In fact, I'm going to focus on villains for at least a couple of posts because I often think they get too little attention. I've been guilty of it myself.

Ironically, one of the things I have seen more frequently in the past hundred years or so of writing are pure black (no gray) villains. At least, that's how I've seen it. I'm unsure if that's because of visual media that tends to polarize things or because of some of the over-the-top and very visible villains are well-known as examples, not just the Hitlers, Stalins and Mengeles, but also the Paul Bernardos (and his accomplice, Karla Homolka), Peter Sutcliffes, and Ted Bundys that have been splashed over newspapers and news programs and documentaries and more. Completely evil psycopaths, cleverly concocting their next moves for some nefarious end are great movie/novel fodder, but, in real life, they're not that common.

I'm not saying not to use them - I've got a few myself, and I'll talk about this kind in a later post. However, there is a whole host of other potential "villains," ones that aren't evil per se, though many might be quick to call them so, people who are honestly doing the best they can, following their moral imperatives only to end up doing terrible things. Sometimes, they pursue these horrible acts with willing gusto. Sometimes, they act with supreme reluctance. Both, however, are driven by the same overwhelming imperative:

Necessity exists.

So what, someone might ask. Why would it matter? Well, there are a few reasons. Not the least of which is that far more harm is done world-wide by people who feel they are doing the right thing than by people who either actively thrive on harm or those who really don't care one way or the other. The wide ranging effects of psychopaths in power would come to little or naught without their followers and those that look the other way no matter what happens. These antagonists and enablers are real, usually to a much higher degree than those mad scientists and creative and clever people who live off evil that lurk in so many works of fiction.

Another reason is that a story is more powerful if one can understand and appreciate the motivations of all characters, even the antagonists. The story is more real with a person on both sides of the conflict rather than a hero facing off against a personification of true evil.

Another reason is that misguided antagonists can often highlight a societal issue, trend, or aspect, whereas a wildcard psycho doesn't really represent anything but him/herself. People can be motivated by zenophobia or homophobia or love for the fatherland or religious fanatacism or ecoterrorism, etc., and reveal not only the dangers of any ideology taken too damn far, but also (often by contrast) its value when used with moderation.

A writer can also include aspects and history that enable the reader to understand when and what drove someone beyond a good person doing questionable things to a demented fanatic blind to the horrible things he or she does in the name of his or her necessity.

Intent matters. It matters in matters of the law. It matters to observers and jurors. It matters to readers.

If a man with a gun kills stranger on sight, I think most would think that's pretty evil behavior. Snipers rarely get a happy rap on college campuses and the like. If, however, both shooter and shootee are wearing different uniforms and in a battle venue, few would assume that the shooter was inherently evil (even if they think war is). The soldiers - on both sides - are fulfilling what they consider a moral imperative, trusting their leaders to send them in only when necessary to kill and face death.

Someone who walks by a child dying of disease is unlikely to win a humanitarian award. But someone who advocates health care except not for illegal aliens (or any other group), even if children die as a result, is not inherently evil in my opinion. Some would say that's just practical. Others, myself included, consider it misguided and tragic. The negligence can be evil, but one doesn't have to be evil to accept it as "necessary" in my opinion.

If someone tortures another for his own gratification, that's pretty twisted and evil. If someone tortures a terrorist to get information he thinks might save lives, is he evil? Even if the notion is completely wrong, is the individual who does it evil? Or is he likely convinced that this is the only option open to him? Necessity exists.

There is a difference between shooting an intruder and shooting your neighbor preemptively because you don't like how he looked at your daughter and shooting your neighbor who never did anything because you want to send the message that you're a ruthless badass. Many people, I think, understand the necessity in the first scenario, recognize the signs of mental illness in the actions of the second one, and would find the last the sign of a scumbag.

Finding sympathy with the antagonist makes for a more interesting story in many ways, less black and white; however, it makes things more challenging for your protagonists if he can't just ride through with his rocket launcher and take him out. It makes it complicated. It reflects to some extent on your protagonists, how they deal with a deluded or misguided, but dangerous, antagonist. Sometimes, there are no easy answers, just choicse between miserable options. Sometimes the happier options are there, but the antagonist can no longer see them. Sometimes, it means the good guys have to face choices that are equally bad. However, it also leaves open the option of alternative ways of dealing with our antagonists than extermination or humiliation or whatever.

No matter what kind of antagonist you favor, know why he or she is motivated to do what he or she does.

It matters.

That's what I think. What do you think?

Tomorrow, I will continue on misguided antagonists with some examples and the way I explain it.


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