August 31, 2018

Actual evil

Is there such a thing as a plain and simple “bad guy” who isn’t a laughable cartoon, in real life or in fiction? (I can already hear someone saying “Donald Trump!” but where does one draw the line between bad guy and cartoon?) Does making a bad guy character more interesting (giving him/her a backstory that explains how she/he came to be the way he/she is) necessitate making that character seem less evil? I’m not sure if WFODers have many thoughts on this topic, since most of our stories don’t seem to involve straight-up bad guys, but the issue has arisen in the planning of Rosedawn, and I think Bren deserves a bad guy who is worth space on the page.

The problem is this: having realized that a “bad guy” I had planned for Rosedawn wasn’t all that interesting, I gave her a personality and backstory, and now I’m writing a side story for just that character and deciding I kind of like her—which is rough because Bren was supposed to kill her.

Now I’m not even sure I want to kill her.

Don’t get me wrong; she does evil stuff, but one lesson I’ve learned is that a character (or person) can do evil stuff and still not deserve death.

I’m plotting a sneaky workaround, but now I’m pondering the question: Did I make a mistake trying to build up this character? Maybe I could have gotten away with “just plain evil.” What constitutes just plain evil in real life? Should Bren do battle with Hitler?

*~Fiction is hard~*

Join the conversation! 17 Comments

  1. By the way, has anybody noticed how Sarah expertly knows how to stir our nest?

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  2. The intro to the TV comedy-drama “Castle” used to open with the main character saying, ““There are two kinds of folks who sit around thinking about how to kill people: psychopaths and mystery writers. I’m the that pays better.”

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    • A great show. But still, IIRC, most of the killers they caught on Castle weren’t really psychopaths—they were just chunkheads who for one reason or another wanted another person dead. Hey, we’ve all been there.

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  3. Unless there were far more Germans than I can recall in Cambodia, Rwanda, China, Georgia and Mississippi (and I know I’m leaving out many other worthy contestants), Germany is one in a long line, extending back to the old testament, forward to infinity.. Horror is the province of those with a motive, means and opportunity.
    The Einsatzgruppen was composed largely of troops too old or infirm to be front line troops. Initially many refused to kill prisoners. Many who did became violently ill, depressed, developed what sounds like PTSD. In time, though, most conformed, pressed by “duty” and pulled by group cohesion. The people who set them in motion largely maintained a lordly distance from the abattoir.
    Dave Goldberg, a retired Army LtC and psychologist has written extensively ( “On Combat,” “On Killing,”) that soldiers who kill those they see up close often develop psych issues, while artillerymen, mortarmen and pilots seldom do. One group can deny the reality of what they did, while the other can not. Many complicit in mass murder can say they never realized what was happening; some even believe it.
    I believe it was Dollard and Miller who observed that all behavior is motivated… thus the statement, “He had his reasons, I bet,” in defense of outrageous behavior is, at a stroke, absolutely true and utterly pointless. We all have our reasons, serving some “higher good.”
    Intelligent psychopaths can be utterly charming, be kind to dogs, tell jokes, wax philosophical, care deeply about someone right up to the point where they start cutting throats. I think they make great characters in a book, right up to the point where the author cuts their throats.

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    • Now that you mention it, there have been some interesting intelligent psychopaths in fiction. Mainly Hannibal Lecter comes to mind. (I don’t think he ever did get his throat cut.)

      You make very interesting points about atrocities committed from a distance, by people who are thus able to deny that they’re doing wrong. That’s relevant to Rosedawn, if not to the villain under immediate contemplation. And it’s easy to understand—in the internet age, we hear on a daily basis about terrible things being done to others, in our own country or elsewhere, and while objectively we know these things are terrible, they’re so far away and easily forgotten that we *knowingly* let horrible things happen daily without protest. It’s not hard to slip from there into the mindset of some authority figure who can justify giving orders that cause harm to others in the name of some great cause—detached from the reality of what they’re doing. That’s UFP’s brand of evil.

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      • In the spirit of pointless cross-references, John’s response reminded me of the MASH episode where lead character Hawkeye encounters a slightly injured bomber pilot who flies sorties out of Japan and spends most of his time in Tokyo bars and brothels, and thinks the Korean War is the funnest thing this side of the county fair. And so Hawkeye purposely leads this pilot into the OR to see the severely injured children whose village he likely just bombed, introducing the pilot for the first time to the consequences of his actions. I recall in a subsequent interview that like many of the sub-plots in MASH, this story arose from a real, similar incident shared by the show’s veteran advisers.

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      • It seems to me that political entities often (certainly not always) do evil not for its own sake but in pursuit of some ideological goal, however misguided the means.

        I guess it’s the difference between shooting someone to get his wallet/girlfriend/art collection, and shooting him “just to watch him die.”

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  4. Thinking more about badguys:

    Object examples – two Harrys (both mostly from film but both films related to books – one a novelization of his photoplay by Graham Greene). Harry Powell from Night of the Hunter is just a greedy, amoral, hypocritical bastard. He’s fascinating, but as a study in “pure evil” for its own sake. And of course he loses in the end to a Jesus loving little old lady (who happens to be toting a shotgun).

    And Harry Lime, from The Third Man. We know his backstory from Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) his longtime, boyhood pal. And we get who he’s become (as a result of exposure to and having been ground down a bit by the amorality post-WWII Vienna) from his own mouth (the “cuckoo clock speech). And even more interesting is that Harry doesn’t even show up until nearly halfway through the movie. (and it’s his feet that show up first, in gloriously un-Wellesian fashion).

    Both of these Harrys are fascinating powerful characters, and they both contribute enormously to the narrative values of their stories. Neither story would be as powerful if the bad guy were any more (or less) well-drawn with a soul and a backstory and everything.

    I recommend, BTW (once again, and again, and again) both of these films as among the absolute best of movies made anywhere, ever. DQ

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  5. I think this also depends largely on what kind of evil you have in mind. In the real world, I used to think the mustache-twirling, maniacally laughing villain was a trope that didn’t actually represent anything. I realized I was probably wrong, however: adulthood has opened my eyes up to lots and lots of people who almost seem addicted to the “thrill” of doing outright evil things. First example I can think of were a series of emails exposed by the media years ago that showed investors bragging about ripping off their clients. Some of them even laughed about destroying other peoples’ lives. I’ve also personally encountered people (usually in pubs) who have spoken frankly about what I can only call “evil deeds.” I used to think everyone say themselves as the central “good guy” in their own lives, but I’ve also met plenty of people who see themselves in a far harsher, more negative light.

    Does this mean our antagonists should go full two-dimensional supervillain? Well, no — I don’t think the petty bankers and pub lowlifes I’ve encountered were anywhere near interesting enough for me to make a central villain. I am interested in one day exploring the realization that some people really do have no qualms about being blatantly unscrupulous, but that doesn’t mean they “fit” every (or even most) works of fiction.

    In Bren’s case, I think it sounds like you’ve found an antagonist who is interesting to write — and therefore interesting to read. Perhaps fleshing them out further works even better. That doesn’t mean she’s the only villain in Bren’s path, either. You might have others who are more expendable, but in my own personal experience, the less expendable the villain, the better.

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    • I have no trouble believing that there are just plain cruel people in the world. Sociopathy is of course a real thing, but (as you say, and as I also said to my sister last night when discussing this subject) plain vanilla sociopaths just don’t make interesting villains. They lack empathy; that’s all. And while I think this villain of mine does lack empathy, it’s not just because her brain is wired that way.

      She’s certainly interesting to write, and I think well suited to Bren, because with more negative influences in her life Bren might have turned out similarly. She’s definitely not the only “bad guy” Bren will meet; she’s just the only one so far whose story has demanded that she be developed somewhat. There is another big one lurking about, whom I dread the possibility of also having to develop. T_T

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  6. What a great question! In the mid-1990s, then-PhD student Daniel Goldhagen published his dissertation, and it became a world hit — “Hitler’s Willing Executioners.” It was about the Holocaust, and without getting in to the messy details, his conclusion was that the Holocaust happened because, well, that’s just what Germans do. He delved into historic German anti-Semitism, and finding lots of violence, he saw the Holocaust as a natural and inevitable out-growth of that German history. The Holocaust was, for Goldhagen, a very German crime. But other historians challenged Goldhagen. He hadn’t compared Germany’s anti-Semitic history with that of other European peoples and countries, for instance. If he had, he would have seen that several other European countries, Spain and France in particular, actually have far more violent histories of anti-Semitism than the Germans. No European country comes out looking good with their treatment of minorities like Jews, but Germany certainly doesn’t come out as the worst — at least before the Holocaust.

    Why is this important? Well, if Goldhagen is right, then all the rest of us need to do to ensure something like the Holocaust never happens again is keep Germany down and weak. Mission accomplished! Modern Germany is mostly pacifist and has a tiny military. Even Poland isn’t afraid of modern Germany. World saved.

    But what is Goldhagen is wrong, and the other historians are right? What if there really isn’t anything specific to Germany that led to the Holocaust? What that means is that Germans aren’t vicious, killer automatons, but…human beings. And *that* then raises the question — well, why did Germans behave the way so many did in 1939-1945? It forces us to look closer at Germans to try to understand what drove one of Europe’s quite frankly better-behaved peoples prior to 1939 to commit such gross atrocities. It means we have to look for the seeds of the Holocaust in humans — which implies those seeds may be in all of us. That’s a scary thought, and it has driven a lot — most? — of the post-war historical studies on the rise of Hitler, the Nazis, and their crimes. It also sends shivers up spines when you see some of the same impulses of the 1930s manifesting here, now.

    Sorry for the history lecture, but it goes to the heart of our question: what is the nature of evil? Regardless of whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, evil I think needs its due: it needs to be explained in some way — not definitively, because human motives and behaviors are always a hodge-podge of different rational and irrational impulses — but it has to be at least explored. In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Judas is portrayed as driven by doubt, a sense that Jesus has lost his way. Judas sees his betrayal as necessary, as a necessary evil. He is even portrayed as angrily denouncing the “blood money” reward. In the latest incarnation of the Superman story, General Zod gives an epic bad guy speech (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cvvze5m5juE).

    Maybe these kinds of bad guys (or gals) are a modern thing. In earlier stories, as Dean mentions Moriarty, Ming the Merciless and Fu Manchu were all 2-dimensional bad guys, who just played their role. They existed because you can’t have a hero without a bad guy. (By the way, I saw an interview with Tom Felton once, the kid who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, and he said that in the earlier films, even on set, a lot of people avoided him. He played his role so well that he was instinctively disliked by other actors. Later, as the lead actors aged and matured, that broke down a bit, but you could feel the sting in his voice.) So after all this, to more directly answer your question, let me ask you: does Bren just need some paper Hitlers to blast away, some red shirts to vanquish to establish her own credentials as the hero — or would Bren still pull the trigger on her enemy, even if absolutely necessary (i.e., kill or be killed, or kill her to save the world, etc.), if she has some awareness of the “evil” character’s own humanity, frailties, and backstory?

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    • As a person of German heritage, I must say I’m inclined to reject Goldhagen’s theory, even if it does mean all humans are potentially capable of unspeakable evil—which I believe anyway.

      Yes, we should explore the nature of what we call evil, and fiction is of course a major tool for exploring ALL aspects of human nature. What’s confounding is actually digging into such a complex social and psychological question, because just beneath the surface, black and white “evil vs. not evil” fades into ambiguity—like Judas, “bad guys” demonstrate their own motives that make sense to them and they aren’t just out to stab puppies with ice picks. Even when bad guys simply lack empathy (as my current bad gal does), from the perspective of their worldview informed by their experiences, that lack of empathy can make sense. Then there’s the subject of justice—if such a person harms others because of a lack of empathy, does she “deserve” to die? Should she die anyway?

      Bren is not the kind of person who kills people for the hell of it—that’s part of why this villain concerns me. If Bren is to kill her, it has to feel to her, and me, and readers as if it was the right thing to do. Yes, I think she would kill this bad gal if she knew why she’s bad (I don’t know that she ever will, but I will), and there ARE good reasons to do it. Those reasons just have to seem paramount, and therein lies a writing challenge. But yes, I think Bren deserves more than redshirts.

      (The Tom Felton thing does not surprise me. Kids are judgemental little cusses even when not wrestling with fantasy vs. reality.)

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      • Still meditating on this. The scene from the 1990s Tombstone film (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaoK_CIAr0k) wanders into this territory — why do bad guys do what they do? And the Johnny Ringo character is like Bren’s opponent, in that he just feels the need to kill people. I don’t recall in the film that he enjoyed it, but rather just felt compelled to do it.

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  7. That’s a toughie alright. Would we admire Doyle’s work more if Moriarty had more dimension on the page and more explanation behind his acts? Ming the Merciless or Fu Manchu? Maybe.

    Simenon was a great one for making his bad guys people with hearts and souls. If anything it made Maigret a more attractive character.

    I think you’ve already solved this for yourself – “Bren deserves a bad guy worth the space on the page.” So do readers, in my opinion. You can get by with archetypes, stereotypes, cartoons, cardboard cutouts, or shadow puppets, and still tell a ripping yarn. I think you want to do more than that, and bravo for it. It makes it harder for Bren, of course, and thus you. But it makes it more rewarding for you (and us your readers).

    DQ

    >

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    • I used to be deep into Sherlock Holmes, and I remember other authors making valiant efforts to flesh out Moriarty as a character. Sadly none of them were all that good at it, but it was an interesting effort to observe, and I think demonstrate that several fans did want to see more of what made Moriarty “evil.” (Probably not the Victorian fans, though.)

      Yeah, in truth I do want to do more than cartoon bad guys. Have for some time, and I think I’ve been avoiding the problem because a strong bad guy seems to require the same level of work as a strong good guy—possibly even more, because writing a convincing bad guy requires some accessing of one’s own “evil” side. Maybe that contributes to the body of two-dimensional bad guys that usually pop up in fiction. Still, my hope is that it will be worth the effort.

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About ecsnorway

31, desktop publishing professional, lover of animals. I draw, and I write science fiction and fantasy.

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Writing, (noun & verb)