January 22nd, 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.


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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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