Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Evil Characters and Real Life - Reflection on Writing

Villains. That delicious plot generating bad boy that you love to hate. Or… feel mediocre dislike for. Or, I dunno, like the hero or something and so the hero should win. And stuff.

One thing that has been supremely off-putting for me, especially when it comes to superhero movies, and even more in fantasy writing, is a cheese-sauce bad because it’s so good to be bad, villain. And, when I was a kid, I saw a cheesy sequel to a Don Bluth film called All Dogs Go to Heaven 2. And there is, a terrible mid-show villain song that sometimes runs through my head when I encounter over the top villains, so here:
(Listen to 1:04 forward about 20 seconds if you want just the main gist)

Bad to the bone because badness is just so fun, right? RIGHT?

Well, in a way, yes. I am going to reveal to you a bit of a nerdy side, but most everyone knows who he is:

Yes. The joker. The foil for batman. The man who wants to watch things burn because he’s attracted to the chaos. That wily, crazy, put you in desperate situations, odd comic flair and understanding of the human psyche, that lets him get his way in the most obscene manners. That’s great fun, right? That’s the stuff of villain legend, right?


Maybe. Maybe if your protagonist is meant to be taken more or less seriously reliving his PTSD by going about the city in a bat outfit and stopping crimes. And you know, other people normally do that (enter catwoman and the like). And, you know, the cops summon you with a big ole bat-light in the sky.

But, there is, in my opinion, a reason why joker is easy to draw as a comic book villain, harder to play in movies, and harder still to simply write about. Something with the way that we are used to engaging with the visual medium that doesn’t fully transfer over to the act of reading, that is more immersive and relies harder on the reader’s experience and understanding.

And besides that, if you are seeking a creative flare, how many jokers are needed in this world?

I am far more engaged in tangling with evil that feels real. Even if the setting is something that is fantasy, with a unicorn over there, and a dragon back there, if the characteristics of my protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) don’t feel grounded enough I can relate to them, I slowly become detached from the story and my immersion deteriorates and fades out. While the joker may be fun to watch, it is a lot harder to enjoy getting inside his head.

Not only that, it brings a hollowness to the story. Crazy is a force of its own, and often exits the realm of the graspable. It brings a shrug of the shoulders, well, I couldn’t stop X from happening because I couldn’t help his crazy. Sorry. Meh. We all deal with crazy at some point, it isn’t totally out of our consciousness to face it, but it is one of those things that by its very nature is transcended from grappling with too deeply; it has an automatic exit ticket from moralism because it falls in the realm of “can’t be helped in a meaningful way” too often.

So, my philosophy is this: Why not have your characters grapple with evil that is far more real, and in my opinion, far more pernicious?

When I ask students if stuff that happens with the Joker is real, they like to bring up Hitler as a perfect example of a crazy man that just liked murder. They get pretty uncomfortable when we start talking about relationships that Hitler had, about good things that he did, that his vision (ostensibly) was born of a time when Germany was suffering, and he was trying to make it a better place for true Germans to be. I’m not defending the man, but I am saying that there were qualities within him that were every day, and certainly qualities that were good. People in Germany didn’t wake up one day and decide, hey, the first guy that tells us to commit Genocide is totally the guy we are going to elect as leader. He was charismatic, he was visionary, and he preached to them about a way to make their lives better.

A quick google search will take about the “banal” qualities that many of those leading Nazis had… going to court not looking like the joker, or even Lex Luthor, but like harrassed bank tellers.
Banality is a wonderful term… a state of being boring or everyday. And your villains, if you want me to believe they are interesting, need to have some measure of it, and a little streak of good worth redeeming. Otherwise… they just aren’t people to me.

Besides, really, if you want me to engage with that villain, if you want him to be worth conquering, that little streak of light is of tremendous value. That little crack of redeemability makes it that much more painful, and therefore that much more enraging when that person fails his light and embraces his inner darkness.

It’s the same sort of thing as giving heroes a dark edge, some areas in which if someone were to really test them… they might legitimately fall off the pedestal of light into the depths of darkness, perhaps never to be recovered. It gives emotional stakes, moments where the reader reads with breath abated, not even aware that they cared so much, or that a situation could scare them so thoroughly until you’ve got them in the grip of this situation that you created with your words.

Let the pressure between good and evil, cold and hot, push and pull flourish within your characters, your world, your plot.

I often think that one of the major problems with new writers writing about good and evil is that they don’t really have a grasp of real world evil. Sure, there’s some really obvious stuff… murder, rape, theft, adultery, blah blah blah basic stuff, that is evil. And sure, your villain can do those things. However, if that is what you used as the landmarks to point the reader in the direction of “that guy is ebil,” you aren’t really getting to the point. You aren’t pulling them down into the immersion, and you aren’t inspiring the fear that they could drown when the stakes are up.

Real world evil comes out of good people. To provide some tangible examples, I am going to now draw on some songs, starting with some heavy handed and obvious stuff, and working toward the punch.

Some highlights from this song “How bad can I be? I am just doing what comes naturally.” and “Well, there’s a principle in nature, that every creature knows, called survival of the fittest. And this is how it goes: The animal that wins gotta scratch and fight and claw and bite and punch. And the animal that doesn't, well the animal that doesn't winds up someone else's lunch… I’m just sayin’.”

It’s a fairly straight forward, nature conservative villain, but enough for us to discuss here because it’s so easily grasped. The villain justifies what he is doing because he needs profits (I am just growing the economy). He justifies what he is doing because in the great big world out there, it’s kill or be killed. So you don’t have time for empathy or sympathy. This argument, doesn’t just show up as the justification for why corporations are bad. It also shows up in a variety of other arguments, such as gun control. Bad people are out there that will hurt you, you have to be able to protect yourself from these predators. It’s an argument with different levels of merits (and demerits), but it is intentionally raising that “kill or be killed’ instinct within people that we inherited from presumably violent masters of nature ancestors. It can be used as the platform to go after terrorists, “If we don’t stop them, they will get us. It is natural that we should defend ourselves.” It's a rhetoric that feels easy to get behind, can be used for good, and can be fairly delicious in the hands of evil in a well-written story. (Not that Lorax is particularly well-written mind you.)

In fact, any rhetoric that can easily justify a darker edge of humanity can be sumptuous in a story if employed correctly on either side. Things like:

  • I will do anything to protect my family/country/organization/etc.
  • I will do anything to prevent ____ from getting hurt.
  • The ends justify the means.
  • I will make people see the truth.
  • I will protect what I believe.
  • I will change ____ for the better.
  • Because people will not understand, I will take care of it myself.
On the surface, these statements are ubiquitous (fancy word for everywhere), but surely they are ambivalent (state of being unclear) at best, and not really evil, are they?

But think of it, ku klux klan trying to protect beliefs about hierarchy, justified in religion, by taking the law into their own hands and committing murders.

Think of parents, who overprotect their children, shielding them from consequences, until the kid believes they can do no wrong (like Grendel’s mom in Beowulf.)

Accomplishing good things, changing things for the better, seeing the truth - all sounds like great stuff, until you have someone invading your country and waving a sword at you and slaying your people in droves to enforce the change or the truth. In the hands of evil, all of these are very compelling arguments that, because of the virtue of protection, truth, betterment, will make your readers squirm inside. I know I have certainly shielded people from the truth a time or two to spare their feelings… among other things. *gasp*

Time to step up, a more insidious sort of evil. So, next song:

Some highlighted lyrics:
“People writing songs, that voices never share, and no one dared disturb the sound of silence. ‘Fools,’ said I, ‘you do not know silence like a cancer grows, hear my words that I might teach you, take my arms that I might reach you!’ But my words like silent raindrops fell, and echoed in the wells of silence…”

This should also be combined with this quote:

I am speaking of that evil instinct within all of us to look the other way when we see something that discomforts us. That realization that someone you know of is getting bullied, but walking by, not speaking, and allowing it to continue to happen. This also strays into the territory of evil ignorance.

Post-apocalyptic and dark futuristic novels use this technique well, an apparent apathy in the face of horrors, or even celebrating things we find horrific as an accomplishment. Try The Giver by Lois Lowry, if you want a quick read on this topic.

But now, songs aside, the real easy and realistic way to write evil into your world…

Evil loves perfection and order. Uniformity is its face, cohesion is its desire.

It shows its face in isms - racism, sexism.

It shows its face in hierarchies and dichotomies: men over women, human over animal.

It shows its face in choices where to send the sunlight… and where not to. “I do not care that _______ exists, but I will refuse to acknowledge/support it.”

It manipulates information because it cannot handle contradiction or diversity which fights its order. It’s enemy is change, growth, and chaos. It seeks monotony, routine, and safety. And it is within all of us. And with it, your villain can build an empire, entice followers, or simply go on a misguided power trip when combined with any of the edgy thought patterns as he or she tries to accomplish their goals.

So go forth. And do evil right.

Feel welcomed to comment below. I’d love to see
    What do you think about evil?
          What are some of your favorite villains?
                 Other topics you want an English teacher’s take on

                            Errors that the English teacher made (nyah-nyah)

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