Thursday, January 21, 2010

An end to villainy

This is not a new year's resolution, because I was working on it in 2009 too, but something I've committed to in my fiction is to try never to write villains. Why? Because villains aren't people. Well, no character in fiction is an actual person, much as I like to relate to them. Better explanation: villains are not characters that act like real people--they exist purely to thwart other characters, for reasons of plot, not emotion, context, or necessity. When they are done kicking the babies, chopping down the old-growth forest and eating the last cookie, they go into the cupboard and shut themselves down until the author needs them to go cause more havoc. That's a reference to Vicki, the human-like robot on Small Wonder). When the family wasn't interacting with her, she was in a cupboard, switched off, mindless and inert. Like Vicki, villains have little motivation or inner life; they aren't really characters, because they exist only to act out the designs or wishes of others. When Vicki is not being seen by others, her own consciousness stops--she has no opinions of herself until she is flicked back to life for a new interaction.

Which is, of course, fine in certain sorts of writing--often in genre stuff, children's stuff--who wants to know what the black-hatted cowboy or Gargamel should be so industriously evil?

But that's not the sort of stories I'm interested in writing--I really am trying to mimic how real people actually are (sometimes I have less interest in real settings or plot elements--witness stories about urban flying lessons and cheerleaders from other planets). And I guess this is a personal assumption, but I don't think people, even assholes, generally perceive themselves to be assholes. I mean, some people just *are* but I don't think *they* think they are. Like the lady who shoves me out of the way to be first in line at the newly opened cashier at Metro--an unqualified loser move, but I very much doubt that her interior monologue says, "Ok, time for an unqualified loser move!" She thinks about her kids waiting at home for her, or maybe I cut her off somewhere else in the store and she's getting revenge, or maybe she's so absorbed in her thoughts of her next manicure that she doesn't even see me.

I don't actually care--I'm just annoyed for a moment and then I get distracted by a recipe magazine in the checkout stand and that's the end of it. And I don't have to care, being just a human, but as a writer I think I would--have to give any character occupying my stage a reasonable point of view, because nobody actually hops out of bed in the morning thinking, "Bwa, I'm a bitch." Everyone thinks they've got their reasons. I think many of them are *wrong* in their reasons, but they still have them.

Anyhow, that's how I see the world, so it bugs me when I read about characters that don't seem to have a real moral compass. I don't at all mind characters that are immoral or amoral (lots of people are) but I need a writer to either show me how that works internally, or at least strongly imply that there is a way it works. Maybe it's been too many novels about vengeful ex-wives cutting the power supply and crazy employers extending work hours, but these villainous type characters often seem like a shortcut to manufacturing tension in a plot where none really exists.

I've definitely wrestled with this in my own work--sometimes I don't know why a minor character did some jerky thing and I don't really care, and then I realize that the whole section reads really false--manufactured plot. So I go back and think through the backstory and often have to change things, because no one except the truly deranged would spend that amount of time and energy trying to mess with someone for no apparent gain. So I write it differently--sometimes I take the villain out of the story, sometimes they get a little nicer, sometimes they remain total jerks but they get some logical motivations for their jerkiness. Once I wound up flipping the whole story to write it from the "mean" person's POV. Some of these villains are pretty interesting, when you get to know them.



August said...

Great post. Unlike yours (you wrote about it in a post that I meant to comment on way back), my fiction has a pretty heavy autobiographical streak in it (though I've managed to avoid the fiction-as-journal nonsense), and not writing 'villains' when I'm adapting circumstances from my own life is something I struggle with a great deal, though I've never put a name to it.

In 2005 I went through an extremely messy breakup; I'd been in the relationships seven years, and it honestly felt like a divorce. About a year later, I realized that, through all the troubled times and nonsense, I hadn't written a word in nearly three years. I had to break out of that, I mean, HAD TO, but there was so much emotional baggage floating around in my psyche it was bleeding into everything I wanted to do, and making me into a kind of writer that I really don't want to be. I figured what I would have to do was get it all out on the page before I could move on to the projects I really wanted to do.

You may wonder what all this has to do with not wanting to write villains. Well, that relationship ended because I learned my partner was engaged to marry somebody else, and the story I wrote was about a man cheating on his wife. Given what was going on in my life at the time, it was so, so tempting to turn that into a story of good guys and bad guys. But you're right, that doesn't make for good fiction, and given my autobiographical bent, that's not fair to my former partner, or to me, because things don't get bad just because of one person, right? Or rarely, anyway.

My solution was to write from the perspective of the adulterer. I looked at myself, at my former partner, and at our behaviours and personalities, and I made a conscious effort to give my adulterer many of the qualities I like and respect in both myself and my former partner, and transfer just as many weaknesses, my own in particular, to the character who was "the good guy" or "the victim".

I think it was a pretty effective strategy, and the story is my longest, and probably best to date, and I found myself feeling tremendous sympathy for the adulterer as I was writing it (in fact, though she's now married to somebody entirely different than the man she was engaged to at the time, my ex and I are now close friends again, something I wouldn't have been capable of if I hadn't gained that sympathy). Of course the story still sits in first draft form, untouched since the day I finished transcribing it, because I'm a little bit afraid of it.

The point of this big long hijacking of your, is that of course, you're right. Even in a piece where one person does tremendous harm to another, there are always reasons, and seldom villains. Almost nobody is genuinely evil. I think it's great to hear you articulate that.

I think the best genre fiction reflects that as well. Guy Gavriel Kay's better works, like Tigana, have "villains" in a sense, but they are complex people with complex motivations. And Philips K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle", while brilliant for dozens of reasons, is especially so for making the Imperial Japanese and Nazi conquerors of America as interesting and vulnerable as the oppressed Yankess--often even more so, actually. It might be the finest work of genre fiction ever, and it's got no real villains either.

Anyway, I'll shut up now. Loved the post. :)

Mark Sampson said...

Nice post, RR. It reminded me so much about why I loved, for example, the novel Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt so much - precisely because of the way she handles villainy in it.

The novel is partly about this woman Frederica who is stalked by her abusive husband Nigel, whom she has run away from. Nigel goes to great lengths to track her down, to the point of assaulting a number of her loved ones, including her elderly father.

And yet Byatt resists the urge to cast Nigel's character in the kind of terms you describe here. Instead, she gives him such dimension and provides the reader with a tremendous window into his twisted mind, his twisted logic. We never sympathize with Nigel but we do *understand* his motivations, as awful as they are. Not only does this lend that all-important fullness to his character, but it also makes his heinous acts that much more terrifying when they come.

Writers who tend to take shortcuts with their "villains", who cast them as cardboard cutouts or straw dogs, can learn a lot from Byatt's accomplishment, and from your awesome post. Good job!

Kerry said...

I recently read Burmese Lessons, a non-fiction book by Karen Connelly, about her experiences in Burma. And as a fiction writer, she was struggling to view the world as you put it here- she didn't want to see the members of the junta as "other", for example. Thought this was too easy, too narrow. But yet, the Burmese people she encountered were't having any of this. Her conclusion is that there *is* evil in the world, and there's no use trying to understand it, because humans are random and cruel in their tendencies. Which does seem to be the case in a country like Burma. Anyway, I liked your post, but Connelly's revelation was a good counterpoint.

Rebecca Rosenblum said...

August, I think I agree that the hardest times characters to "unvillain" are the ones with inspiration in reality, where our own feelings are involved. But yet, that can be some of the most stirring work if we get it right, because we (ok, you, I can't write that way) know those people so well and have so much insight into them.

But I do have a lot of emotions about even the fictional characters I create, and I invest a lot in seeing them certain angles--it can be shocking to see them in a different light, to go inside and imagine their justifications. Not always fun, usually worth doing. And Mark's right too, that this deprives us of straw targets, which aren't really that exciting to know down

Kerry, having neither read *Burmese Lessons* nor met anyone even close to that realm, I should probably shut up, but I wonder if there aren't two issues at play, whether evil people have internal justifications for what they do, and whether the non-evil among us (that sounds a bit smug, but...) can ever understand them. I am ready to believe in evil, but somehow I don't think evil believes in itself--I really don't know how anyone could wake up in the morning and think, "I am very evil. I do things for which there is no reason or excuse."

Which is perhaps naive and definitely moral philosophy and not literary musings. Also definitely not going to get solved in blog comments.

Thanks, all, for being fascinating (Mark, please please don't talk me into reading *Babel Tower*. I am far to suseptible to such suggestions from you, but I don't have that kind of time!)

August said...

OMG read Babel Tower. Do eeeeet. But read the other two books first; it's third in a series of four. The Virgin in the Garden is brilliant and cerebral, and Still Life is the only work of literature other than Othello to actually move me to tears.

Kerry said...

PS I also liked Babel Tower.

AMT said...

while this is obviously a terrific post: people who say there are no real villains in the world have not spent enough time in academia. WE HAVE VILLAINS. they are all too real in my world, and as we speak they are stroking their comical black pointy beards trying decide how to ruin my publication life next.

... ahem.

Nenil Tenebraeus said...

There truly are Villains, though in truth the label "Villain" has only been applied by those in power to force conformity on the rest. Villains are liberators, free thinkers, and hardworking agents of change.

Great post, keep writing,