Phew, blech, and cor blimey. Is it just me, or has it been a bit of a rough month, between the freezing temperatures and the sabre-rattling in Crimea and just, generally, people being pretty much bastards?
People being mean. It is the worst, am I right? The subject is on my mind at the moment because Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church died today- Fred Phelps who somehow went from being a dedicated civil rights attorney to the hate-preaching, child-beating patriarch of a clan which has spent the last few decades attacking everyone from gay teenagers to Swedish politicians.
If you didn’t hear, Mr. Phelps was apparently excommunicated from his own church back in August of last year because of an internal power struggle (conflict between people whose entire creed was the hatred of others, imagine that) and spent the last few months of his life dying alone in a hospice. Probably in pain. I’m glad that I haven’t heard too much viciousness in our community over the news of the death, because seems to me it’s a tragedy all along the line. Mr. Phelps wasn’t always this way. Time was, before he was consumed by picketing funerals and abusing his sons, he worked hard to improve schools for black children. That could have been his legacy. Instead, we’re left with the aftermath of a life that went twisted, and so are all of the children who grew up breathing that poisoned air.
For me, it exemplifies evil as a hollowness, an absence, instead of some malign force.
As I say, tragic. How to turn things around? I don’t know about you, but I have a two-point plan that involves buying some tasty sammiches for some hungry people, and then watching cartoons. I am also offering free lesbo-rific hugs to anyone who grew up in a coercive environment where they were taught to hate and fear others, and who are now cautiously tip-toeing out into the sunlight. Don’t be shy, come join us out here! It’s nice; we have ice cream and magic markers!
All of which brings to mind the business of writing evil characters in fiction. (Yes, you see, this is a fiction-related blog post after all. Don’t you feel bad for doubting me?)
Back when I was in high school, all of my stories were crammed full of villains who were deranged evil geniuses, and they did things like attack the White House with botanical hallucinogens or throw rivals off a dirigible just…sort of…because. Then my best friend and writing partner Julia, who always was a couple of decades more emotionally mature than I, sat me down and suggested very gently that I try to invent a baddie who was also a human being. Then she fed me fries and gravy, so I was powerless to resist her siren call of suggestion.
I worked at it. I got better, I think. When I write these days, I spent an enormous amount of time trying to create villains who have their feet on the ground, who drive conflict that’s both gripping and believable. And when I do it, I still refer to a mental checklist that I came up with back in my fries-and-gravy-with-Julia days.
“Reason” doesn’t necessarily mean a good reason. A “reason” may not be an excuse. Every day, people do appalling things to each other because they’re selfish, or short-sighted, or power-hungry, or greedy. But for a villain to be more than a cardboard cutout with Dracula teeth, we the audience still need to know why they are what they are.
2.) It’s not good enough to say, “He’s evil because he’s crazy.”
It really sets my teeth on edge when I read a story in which the villain is some generic “homicidal maniac.” Really, really gets me steaming. The idea of raving violent lunatics belongs back in the nineteenth century. For one thing, people with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than anyone else, and for another, they are far, far more likely to be the targets of violence and abuse than to dish it out.
“Psychopaths” are becoming more popular as a villain template, but not all psychopaths are the same. The mere label “psycho” doesn’t tell the audience what motivates or drives the character.
3.) Evil for one purpose does not mean evil for all purposes.
People who do horrible things can love their grandchildren. People who do horrible things can rescue kittens. The elements of humanity in a villain may not redeem them, but a villain whose every action is the Worst Thing Possible is never going to have more than two dimensions. Even a villain with no apparent redeeming qualities isn’t going to commit the full spectrum of human sin. Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t torture his victims. Charles Manson didn’t kill on his own.
4.) Consider self-preservation.
It’s always tempting to have the villain lurch out of nowhere just when the heroine thinks she’s safe. But it always, always runs the risk of shooting any lingering sense of realism right in the foot. So Baroness Evilshorts escaped execution at the very last second- why did she decide to limp back to the heavily guarded castle in which the princess was sleeping, instead of stealing a horse and dashing off in the other direction?
A villain’s drive to do harm might be stronger than his or her self-preservation- but if so, this should be consistent with the villain’s other actions, and we ought to know why.
It’s not an exhaustive checklist, but I find it useful for my purposes. And even in the real world, it helps me to remember that people never stop being people, no matter how much ruckus they’re trying to cause at a funeral.
Now, how was your month?