Friday, February 17, 2006

The Shadow Knows


In capitulation to the incestuous nature of blogs, this post is really an extension of a topic raised by Tanya.

How to treat your evil people.
Where to get your villains.

In accordance with one of those pop psychology memes that infiltrate, simplistically, the common understanding, writers are urged to explore their "Dark Side."
Everyone has one, or so the claim goes.
Well, no.
Everyone doesn't. Not really.
Oh sure, under certain conditions, in certain circumstances everyone has the capacity to be brutal, cruel and vicious.
In a post-apocalyptic world, for example, one would certainly kill to protect one's children, one's self, one's group.
And if one had one's hands, without interruption, in any world, on someone who attacked and molested a child, the results might be revealing.
And certainly, if one is reasonably introspective, one can possibly point to a time in one's past that if things had turned a different way, one might have developed into a rather poisonous human being.

The idea is, I suppose, that, irrespective of the fact that much evil is banal and some evil people are essentially walking stereotypes, to create a horrifying villain, a writer should include chararacteristics that are generally associated with "good" - that they are fond of dogs, for example. This juxtaposition of normal with the abnormal can be truly horrifying.
It's the thought of evil underlying a normal facade that horrifies and sets our imagination gibbering.
We never think of the many very nice, uncomplicated people who for some reason don't like dogs and are not serial killers.

Also it affects our terror complex when we see a character, driven and caught by circumstances, to act in way contrary to his perceived basic nature - the malign fate sort of thing.
Sneaking sympathy for a villain is a sure-fire interest-catcher. Grace of God, etc. Particularly useful in a psychological, noir novel.

Or the conflict within a character where dark and light are truly balanced.
To mis-quote Scott, he describes Roderick Dhu in The Lady of the Lake thus:
"So brightly did his virtues gleam,
They made his passions darker seem."

But I tend to think the dark side claim is no more an absolute than the suspicious application of standard rules of conduct to a non-standard situation.
In certain situations, I would gut you without a qualm.
I just don't happen to think that reveals a "dark side."
Of course, we writers like to think of ourselves driven by dark and secret passions.
Some of us are, of course, and those passions can and should be mined and exploited for the development of rounded characters and interesting plots.
The non-standard situation is particularly prevalent in fiction.
Time travellers can face an entirely different set of mores, as do explorers in different worlds, heroines in shiek's tents, etc.
I'll just have to focus on the good guys and leave my villains as stereotypes, because I think that a dark obsession, a fanatical faith can strip a character of many of the mitigating, human qualities and make him so.
I'm shallow that way.

And no, Ric, I don't stay up late writing the next day's post.

Avering: A boy's begging naked to arouse compassion; cant; late 17th-early 18th c.
Awkward: pregnant; euphemistic; late 19th c.>.
Tread the shoe awry: to fall from virtue; 16th-20th c.; colloquial; from 18th c., standard english.

35 comments:

Sela Carsen said...

My favorite piece of advice for making villains more than two-dimensional set dressing is "Remember that the villain is the hero of his own story." They are motivated by things that make sense to them.

Tsavo Leone said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Sela's statement. It's a staple of wrestling psychology that the heel (bad guy) really should feel justified in their actions, thereby lending their character more 'reality'.

A villain needs direction, even if it's a non-sentient villain (e.g. Jaws, Alien). Their wordview is as important to the story as that of the hero/ine's. That's why I find a character like Francis Dolarhyde (Thomas Harris, Red Dragon) is so tragic.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Sela; milor' Tsavo. You've expressed more clearly the concept I was nibbling around the edges of.
Many villains don't glory in evil because they think it's evil; they are impassioned by their own dedication, survival, rejection and rebellion.

Ric said...

Good comments so far.
I tend to like the truly evil people who are invariably reported in the paper the next day. "Nice guy, kept to himself, good neighbor, never caused any problems."
This usually after the authorities spend all afternoon removing body parts from the garage.
Those are the truly SCARY people.

Bernita said...

Sometimes I think those claims, though usually true,Ric, are partly a justification for our ignorance, we have this idea we should be able to smell out the witches.
And they are later often followed by interviews of people who claim "he looked at them funny, so they're not surprised."
Most of the time, though the fellow is unremarkable, either by deliberate design or because he was so absorbed in his vocation, that his external conduct is entirely mundane.
Very scary.

Savannah Jordan said...

"Evil is as evil does," is boring. I've read many a villian like that; they wer flat. A good bad guy is a rounded as the H/H, just *ahem* more fun to write. :) (had to say it, wouldn't be me if I didn't)

Hey, Tsavo!! I love the new icon. Dark lion...

Erik Ivan James said...

Good comments all. Ric's comment and Bernita's response, speak to what is real world, and as they both said, the truly scary. This is a good example of why I believe the best fiction characters are those that started from the references to real people and are then molded by the author to fit the plot.

Bernita said...

I can think of places for a flat villain - under a steam roller, for one.

Bernita said...

Yes, Erik.
~ reaching for her shelves of serial killers/terrorists, etc.~

Savannah Jordan said...

Please excuse the typos... No tea and no sleep either. Maybe after my sinus infection gets treated, I will type succintly and make more sense. *sigh*

ivan said...

I do believe it's all a play of talent, no matter how scrupulously
you explore the bad guy.
Dostoevsky really does explore Raskolnikoff the axe murderer, but Fyodor had talent, genius, that spoke to later generations.
There is the encyclopedist and the artistic genius, i. e., old Dostoevsky. The artist seems to intuit more than the encyclopedist. However, the encyclopedist contributes too because his is a revolt, in part, against The Spanish and French Inquisitions. He/she is a warrior against superstition and darkness.
But in the last count, it's talent,what used to be called genius. In a word, just plain, good evocative wriing.

On a lighter note, W. C. Fields:
"Anybody who hates kids and dogs can't be all bad."

See what happens when you write for therapy? You go from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Exxes and O's.

Kirsten said...

Most of the time, though the fellow is unremarkable, either by deliberate design or because he was so absorbed in his vocation, that his external conduct is entirely mundane.

In "The Gift of Fear," (subtitle: "and other survival signals that protect us from violence") Gavin de Becker argues that there are almost always clues that a psychopath is "off" somehow, but we are conditioned to dismiss them & and our reaction to them. E.g. we are more concerned that we not judge books by their cover, so we excuse clues that make us uncomfortable.

I often think of this when a reporter interviews the proverbial serial killer's neighbor. "Oh, he was such a nice chap, perfectly normal in every way!" It just doesn't make sense that there are never any warning signs. Once in awhile, sure, but for every single murderer? lol

So what's going on? Part of it may be that most people sense this is the best way to get the reporter to go away. But part of it has to be that, as de Becker proposes, we tend to invest ourselves in believing that there are no signs . . .

Bernita said...

Tsk, Savannah, ...as if none of us make them.

Yes, Ivan, not every book needs to investigate the internal workings of an axe-murderer's or a terrorist's mind.
But that is dealing with what we sometimes think of the ultimate evil - murder of innocents.
Examination or description does have a place in the characterization of the less obvious villain/ess( I think medieval research has permanently screwed my spelling of certain words), the manipulator,the psychic vampire,the self-centered clinger, the controller, etc.

Most often, Kirsten,people just don't have time to scrutinize and analyze the actions of some quiet neighbour down the street,nor should they be expected to discover something in the way he says "hello" when they pass him shovelling his driveway.
Unless the people involved have somewhat less than casual contact with the individual, I don't think this claim of deliberate blindness applies.
Murder, of that type, is not, fortunately, all that common.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I like sela's comment - one thing I find is that I have to look at (as a mystery writer) crimes I can understand on some level. I can understand rape. I certainly don't approve of it, but when you combine the idea of desire with the inability to have something you want, all you need to imagine there is being willing to do whatever it takes to get it. And you have a rapist, or a thief.

I can also understand greed. So I take crimes related to those things and add them to people who have a heightened capacity for greed or lust or whatever. Just play it to the extreme - remove that barrier that holds people back from crossing lines.

Tsavo Leone said...

I think one of the key problems with writing any villain is that, for the most part, it has all been done before.

Exploration of character only goes so far when the reader has already been faced with innumerable horrors over the course of their working day, via newspapers and television (and boy, don't the media just love those kinds of stories - Dahmer, John Allen Muhammed, etc.)., as well as the great literary villains of the last hundred-plus years.

Likewise, ramping up the gross-out factor (since Serial Killers have been mentioned) just leads to desensitisation. It also leads the media (them again) to rally against the work being published in certain instances, providing of course that it sells papers/gets ratings/etc.

For the most part mass murderers are just human beings, like the rest of us. And since I can no more pick out an asthma sufferer on the street than I can a mass murderer why should any other lay person? And if I were arrested for murder tomorrow I can guarantee there would be a dozen or more people, all of whom have known me for years, who would say "I always had a suspicion that..."

However, let this not distract us from the fact that the kinds of villains I refer to here are merely the dark end of the street - there are all manner of flavours and shades of villain to be accounted for before reaching the territory I invariably inhabit. I believe that any good writer should be able to bring their characters to life in such a way that the reader 'buys into' the tale, be the character heroic or diabolical.

The issue of villains does also raise questions concerning an author's apparent 'normality', since a convincing villain who commits atrocious acts could be identified as merely being an avatar for the author... : )

Savannah: Thank you, and likewise. I think I'll be sticking with this face for a while to come.

Ric said...

Sandra,
Your comment threw me for a loop. Rape is something I can't understand. (He said, knowing there are lots of kinky/off the wall/bizarre things he does)
I've never been able to wrap myself around the motivation. While I can handle the victim's reactions and trauma, I simply can't figure out rapists.

Weird. Thanks for messing up my Friday. Making me think about stuff I should leave alone.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Auhh, I halfta' agree with Ric, you gotta' be spending time writing these eloquent meanderings...'cause I can't even think in this much depth...let alone write that way..off the cuff..LOL

Tsavo...what on earth is that face!

I like all the comments for shaping villians, especially Sandra's. I've made a list from this comment thread....thanks Bernita!

I like to give my villian a quality so that people feel sorry for them in the beginning...and then they slowly change!

Bernita said...

That's a good point, Sandra. In fact one can take one's own experience or memory over wanting something quite minor and entirely pure, and escalate it empathically to an extreme.

I suppose some writers do act out their dark fantasies and/or guilt in their writings, Tsavo, as therapy, release, desire, or even extaggerated Byronic conceit.
Readers always wonder about the man or woman behind the printed mask, especially if the prose is raw and gripping and/or realistic.
They find it difficult to attribute said writing solely to imagination.An almost voyeuristic kind of thing, perhaps, they'd like to believe that the erotic writer has an erotic past, that the thriller writer has spy experience, etc.And what about the death of her first husband/grandmother?
Some writers play on this tendency to good effect.
And you're absolutely right about the concern about it "being done before." Awareness that it has can frustrate creativity at times. Of course, having one's wicked fellow compared to another great fictional badman can be a plus.

I think every writer has barriers they cannot cross, even in imagination, Ric, either as victim or as perpetrator.

Yo're welcome, Bonnie, and thank you, and thanks to the rest of you. There's lots of angles on this subject, from all directions.
And no, in an effort to train myself to retire my quill pen, I have been typing straight to the blog each morning.That doesn't mean I haven't thought of the topic the day before though.
Does your villain(s) "change" or is he revealed.

ivan said...

Bernita,
Well, you've certainly extended my point well into the 21st century.At twenty, and in the air force, I thought I met just about every asshole there was to meet, since everybody was from all over.
But into my thirties, I indeed met
"the manipulator, the psychic vampire, the self-centred clinger,the controller" et al.

The psychic vampires are the worst, the energy suckers, usually those vapid just-out-of-group therapy types whom Jung calls Anima Women.
who say "I will give you everything you ever wanted or needed, for I am Isis. The girls straight out of Bob Dylan, "She wears an Egyptian ring, sparkles when she speaks."--Cleopatra, Wallis Simpson (a stone nympho if I can read a face). They look for a King Edward and do they ever make a mess out of him.
They are very often found in creative writing classes. They have perfect diction, have usually been involved in amateur theatre; they become star students in the class because they read so well and are so all-out-beautiful, almost elfin. Jung's Anima Woman (And even stuffy old Gustav succumbed to one and his co-worker, Freud, had a lot of explaing to do, Hippocratic oath and all that).
You don't riff your patients.
The prof shouldn't riff his students.
But we do, oh Lord how we do.
And then, whaddya know? Educating Rita seemed simple when you are the boss, but a Blakeian thing happens. He grows weaker; she grows stronger. "I am a witch," she announces, but by that time, old Jalbert is so screwed in the head
that his students take him for a Shetland pony and start riding around on him.

"Sweet Melinda
the poets call her
goddess of the gloom
She speaks good English
and invites you into her room
And you gotta be kinda careful
not to go to her too soon
Or she'll take your voice
and leave you howlin' at the moon.

I posited this problem to my wife at the time. Animus and Anima.

"Go down to the hospital," she said. "They'll give you an anima."

Maybe it's what I needed.

Tsavo Leone said...

As a quick aside:

Bonnie: It's a lion's head, but in negative.

Bernita said...

Now that's a rather brilliant description, Ivan. Thank you.
The female of the species.
I've always thought of Wallis Simpson ( looks not withstanding) as an avatar of Morgan le faye (Morganeuse, whatever.)
Greater and lesser avatars.
A pivot for events.
Some do harm to nations. Some save them. Some merely affect individuals, societies, regions.
A minor exploratory theme in my book, actually.

Kirsten said...

Most often, Kirsten,people just don't have time to scrutinize and analyze the actions of some quiet neighbour down the street,nor should they be expected to discover something in the way he says "hello" when they pass him shovelling his driveway.

A few well-placed digital video cameras streaming onto your home network server, on the other hand . . .

ha ha ha just kidding

Although I did play around with mounting a camera on a window frame, once, when some neighborhood bozo repeatedly refused to clean up after his/her dog on my front lawn. grrrr

Unless the people involved have somewhat less than casual contact with the individual, I don't think this claim of deliberate blindness applies.

No? I'm not so sure. I wouldn't want to argue that it's "deliberate," exactly, but I do think we've lost touch with certain basic instincts that might make us more likely to notice dangerous individuals.

It's like spotting a liar by noticing "tells." On some level, we probably notice them even if we don't become conscious of them.

To wind all this back to the craft of fiction, the conversation here about a villian's interior life has been wonderful. The cues I'm talking about are useful, I think, as far as revealing a villian's interior life to the reader or to other characters.

My fiction doesn't incorporate villians as personalities, but I do love to weave in subtle clues about characters by noting body language and other "tells."

Bernita said...

I very much enjoy a character who notes and interprets other character's body language - one of the things I like about Lee Child's Jack Reacher.

Survival skills? What may have represented dangerous qualities in a more primitive society do not necessarily apply now.

Many people still have certain instinctive reactions, I think, even if it's only a thought that "this guy's weird" and they avoid him ever after.
That is not going to help you, though, if he breaks into your house some night.
But the point is, one has to come into some reasonable contact with the individual, rather than just notice that guy down the street.
People can always find anomalies in a person's behaviour after the fact, when he is centered out by his act from thousands of other odd-ball but perfectly harmless characters.

Dennie McDonald said...

I always think (and this has been brought up many times in both my writers groups - and not by me, so scary as it seems, someone else thinks like me...) Darth Vader didn't start out evil - and on a whole he was just led astray... if you remember to give your characters, good an bad, depth you'll be ok -

and as an off handed remark (which I think I have shared before) my evil character - ALWAYS starts off w/ my sister-in-law's maiden name before their character name comes to me - how's that for pop-psychology?!?!

archer said...

Bother the theory. You have met the villains. Pull on the rubber gloves, and wreak vengeance.

Bernita said...

Not sure I care for the Darth Vader analogy, though the main point is good.
Because, if you'll remember, in the first movie, he is presented as wholly, arrogantly and classically evil. Only in subsequent movies do we get the back story and the disintegration/seduction to the dark side.
So what if you introduce a character after the transformation has been complete? There's always remorse and regret, I suppose, though some of the villain's acting contrary to what is now a firm ( even devoted) identity sometimes rings just a little false, like an old melodrama.
Way to go, Dennie! That's a practical technique.

Bernita said...

Yes, Archer, I prefer to main and mutilate the bad guys.

Dennie McDonald said...

I see what you're saying in the first movie - BUT - I don't know when they would have had a chance/place to put in contrition ... but again, valid point

Gabriele C. said...

I don't have real villains. Not the mwhuahaha I'm eeeevil type, not even the psychologically motivated truly bad / serial killer guy. I only have characters who get too far in the attempt to reach their aims. Raginamer poisoning king Alaric whom he thinks leads the Goths into destruction. Valerius Messala planning to overthrow the emperor Hadrian because his politics of peace endanger the Roman Empire. Lucius Vinicius trying to kill Alamir out of jealousy. Kazimiera's hatred born of scorned love or Orontes' self-hartred that makes him destroy people around him.

But so do some of my MCs. What about Talorcan's obesssion with revenge that costs his people more lives than the Romans would have taken if not provoked? Him torturing a Roman officer? What about Alastair killing prisoners to show Ranald MacSomhairle just how far he is willing to go if Ranald doesn't free Alastair's brother? Alamir killing Vinicius' father despite his pleas to spare him?

Shades of grey, all of them.

The difference between MCs and baddies may be that the MCs are willing to change and regret, or at least are aware that what they do is wrong. The baddies live more in their world where what they do is right.

Bernita said...

it's not that the advice is wrong, Dennie, just that the example is ambivalent.

But you've made an interesting inference, Gabriele, particularly as it aplies to either historical fiction or to time travel, like mine.
It's one I've tentatively explored and wonder if I should go yet deeper - if I can evade using a 2x4 in doing so.
The fact that was may be considered morally wrong or evil in our era was not always so.
A modern individual faces some conflicts and choices when whipped back in time to a different environment with different standards of behaviour, and these may go against their habitual practise - or it may not.

Gabriele C. said...

Yes, morals were differnt in different times and still are in different cultures.

Torture was an integral part of 5th century AD society, and it's not so much the fact that Talorcan tortures Horatius, but that he in this moment realises for the first time that he acts exactly like the Romans that makes him aware he's acting wrong. (Argh, what a "German" sentence.)

Slaves also were common. But while Ciaran treats his slaves like he treats his horses and hounds, with kindness and firmness, someone like Cassius Salonius (a minor baddie) doesn't care about their welfare, and Orontes downright mistreats them.

Tsavo Leone said...

Getting in line with the historical/time-travel tangent, surely that just makes for good social commentary, particularly from the time-travel perspective. I personally find the idea of a character with 'modern, enlightened' values going against the perceived grain of the time period to be a great opportunity. The potential there for conflict/resolution is enourmous if done well.

Bernita said...

Most definitely, Tsavo.
It's been done humourously.
It's been done badly, with die-away heroines.
It's been done well, too.

I've taken another tack, that my Damie discovers in some cases she is fully in accord with some of the 12th century values, particularly Xtreme defence.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"Sandra,
Your comment threw me for a loop. Rape is something I can't understand. (He said, knowing there are lots of kinky/off the wall/bizarre things he does)
I've never been able to wrap myself around the motivation. While I can handle the victim's reactions and trauma, I simply can't figure out rapists."

Sorry to get back to you so late.

What I mean is, I can understand the motive. Why do people become organized criminals? They're born into it (mobsters) or they like the feeling of power or they're greedy. With rape, there are a few set motivation categories rapists fall under.

So while I certainly don't approve of it, I can comprehend why it happens. What I find more elusive is crimes like munchausen by proxy, or why some people kill animals and grow up to kill people just for sport. Or groups of teens that sworm a teenager and kill her for no apparent reason. I study the psychology of it, but I find it easier to wrap my brain around the things that relate to desires I understand. Everyone has experienced lust. Rape is taking lust, adding in a need for power (in some cases) or validation (in others) and then removing the barrier that tells you not to do it.

So if you go to the root of where it starts in terms of the emotion, that's how I understand it. Maybe I'm completely wrong. I don't know. Having a rapist in the family might be what gives me a different opinion, more of a pragmatic view on it. Which certainly doesn't mean I approve.

And people who rape children (which I can't understand as easily at all) should be castrated, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

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