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

>> Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reposted from Rocket Science

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.


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