I’m excited and honored to be the guest of a successful author such as James Hatch and on a site with one of the sexiest names in the blogosphere. I don’t know if I can live up to the sizzle, but I’m going to give it a try. So onward to a discussion of something every fictional good guy and/or gal needs—a bad guy and/or gal.
The Trouble With Villains
Be clear: There are plenty of fine books without black-hat characters. A great example in my most recently experience is Denis “They-screwed-him-out-of-a-Pulitzer” Johnson’s Train Dreams. (Click on http://bit.ly/Qz1w8v for my rant on this subject.) Wendell Berry pens tale after tale without introducing an archetypal antagonist I can recall. There’s plenty of trouble, naturally, in these books—no trouble, no story, after all. For others of us, however, the villain is our artistic bread and butter, and creating personified evil isn’t all that easy. Here’s hoping I can clarify some of the choices and put forth a principle or two.
Vast forests have been clear-cut parsing the motives of nasty literary characters from Iago and Richard III to Anton Chiguire of No Country For Old Men. But consider this: Maybe these people/characters are bad for one reason: They’re bad.
In Medieval morality plays, which tradition informed Shakespeare’s writing, the devil wore a horned red mask, and the audience knew right away he was up to no good. Thus, for Elizabethan audiences, Iago, though he doesn’t wear the mask, didn’t need a psychological reason to mess with Othello. He needed to be clever and formidable and have the power to assume a pleasing shape, but motive, shmotive. And Cormac McCarthy’s Chiguire doesn’t need a reason (money is involved, but I’d argue it’s secondary) for popping people with his “captive bolt pistol.” He’s just bent that way. Like the serpent says to the lady in the song: “You knew I was a snake before you let me in.” Thus, from early on through McCarthy and nearly every paranormal story, writers give us villains who are villains who are villains.
Many bad guys are more complex, of course. In my The Second Vendetta, Michael Yellow Squirrel has a legitimate beef. The Army forced his Arapaho people onto a reservation in his childhood—the old story of broken U.S. promises. Because his father kidnapped a mother and child and tried to use them as leverage to gain more land, Yellow Squirrel’s family was particularly targeted. That was in 1864. It’s now 1910. Everyone else has moved on, but Yellow Squirrel still wants to wipe out the pioneer family of the kidnap victims because he thinks the mission to rescue them led to all the other depredations. So, what started as a true grievance became misdirected fury against descendants who had nothing to do with the original incident.
More complex than Michael Yellow Squirrel are the malefactors in Melissa Foster’s Chasing Amanda. I won’t give too much away and spoil your reading of this terrific book, but suffice it to say that good people with fine intentions perform an act of mercy that over time becomes, almost inadvertently, an act of wickedness.
These few examples don’t exhaust the catalogue of creations, let alone of infinite future possibilities. However, I think that we can extrapolate from them a few cardinal rules.
First, your villain must feel real and be powerful. If you paint a sneer on a cardboard figure, then have your protagonist kick it over, you’ve created boredom with a capital “B.” Batman’s Joker and Penguin aren’t just cartoonish incarnations of evil (though they are that), they’re formidable opponents with brains, resources, and the capability of taking down Gotham and our superhero entirely. They outsmart and outmuscle the forces of good over and over before they finally succumb. If your antagonists don’t have that prowess, your readers won’t give your protagonist many points for defeating them.
Second, don’t be afraid to make your bad person likeable and sympathetic, or at least admirable and fascinating. Would we care so much about Batman’s victory over the joker in The Dark Knight if Heath Ledger hadn’t made him such a compelling character? Would we care so much about whether Ron Rash’s supremely evil Serena rose or fell if she weren’t such an awesome force of nature?
Third, make sure your villain grows out of the soil of your story. Don’t bring her marching in and commence smashing the china because you, the author, need conflict to feed the action. Protagonist Molly Tanner’s involvement in the Chasing Amanda dilemma grows out of her psychological needs as well as out of events in her recent past. Without those elements, she’d have likely been as oblivious to the story’s surrounding events as everyone else in town, and the underground mystery would never have been uncovered. Similarly, Serena lands in the middle of the battle to create Smoky Mountains National Park because of her character, not just because Ron Rash decided it would be interesting to put her there.
Finally, don’t let your villains out of your readers’ sight. They’re the main source of your story’s dramatic tension, and even in the middle of a heroine’s love scene on a balmy summer’s day, a threat needs to lurk offstage, even if your protagonist is totally unaware. That doesn’t mean we need to hear the wolf growling and slobbering in the woods as in a grade C horror flick. It does mean that we need reminders, hints, that something evil this way comes. Or will soon. Or at least might.
Many have said that the devil is the most interesting character in Milton’s Paradise Lost. So must your villain be—whatever category to which he/she belongs—or you have a Disney story in which nothing truly bad ever happens to anyone. In other words, no story at all.
The Second Vendetta Synopsis:
It’s taken Andy Maxwell two summers—1908-1910—to help his family recover from the effects of the murderous attack on them and their Sierra Nevada Ranch. That vendetta nearly killed his mother, severely damaged barn, house, and livestock, and exhumed some long-buried family secrets—including the fact that his father was black. He’s had to alter his whole notion of who he is and where he came from. But now that he’s Shanghaied the vendetta’s perpetrator, nursed his mother back to health, and got the ranch operating again, he thinks he can return to grad school and pursue his history doctorate in peace.
First of all, it turns out they don’t want a miscegenated mongrel in the University of California doctorate program. Just when he’s enlisted the eminent San Francisco journalist, Ambrose Bierce, to help him attack that problem, it turns out that the murderer’s Shanghai arrangement didn't stick. Michael Yellow Squirrel has returned for another try at eliminating every last Maxwell on earth. So much for school. Andy’s back to defending himself and his family against a savage and formidable enemy.
And then there’s the election.
Hiram Johnson is running as a reformer for California governor against the railroad barons and needs a Republican Assembly candidate from Andy’s district to replace the recently-deceased incumbent. Time is short. Andy’s a prominent rancher with name recognition among the local voters, and Johnson wants him on the ticket, but why would Andy make himself an easy target for his nemesis? The answer? The promise of a post-election appointment to the university board of regents where he could influence the policy that bars him from his dream of a place among the academics.
And then there are the women.
Andy’s just revived the relationship with the love of his life, the debutante daughter of a prominent, if corrupt, state senator, and that’s going pretty well. But an Arapaho princess he thought he’d left behind two years ago suddenly returns to threaten the new version of his old love.
So, Andy Maxwell, how are you going to deal with all these quandaries? My historical thriller, The Second Vendetta answers that question and many more with a tale-telling style that pulls readers into the book and doesn’t let them go till they’ve turned the last page, wishing there were more yet to turn.
Biography—Carl R. Brush
Carl Brush has been writing since he could write, which is quite a long time now.
His historical thriller, The Second Vendetta has just been released by Solstice publishing, and a prequel, The Maxwell Vendetta is scheduled for release by Solstice in early 2013.
Journals in which his work has appeared include The Summerset Review, Right Hand Pointing, Blazevox, Storyglossia, Feathertale, and The Kiss Machine. He has participated in the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Tin House Writers’ Workshop.
Carl lives with his wife in Oakland, California, where he enjoys the blessings of nearby children and grandchildren.
Solstice Publishing: http://bit.ly/P31bYQ
BARNES AND NOBLE http://bit.ly/VyrvgU