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

>> Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reposted from Rocket Scientist

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.


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