Good Bad Guys

I love a good villain.

No, really…a proper villain, whether in print or on the screen, is a thing of beauty.  It is also, unfortunately, a thing generally under-appreciated.  And far too often, a thing woefully shortchanged by its creator.

47149118-7742-46A0-811C-75B1ECFD5531Think about it.  Would the original Star Wars trilogy have been as memorable without Darth Vader?  He touched a nerve with his initial presentation as faceless, anonymous evil.*  After the inane bullshit of the prequels, and the more recent “final three”, there is a definite reason why my fellow geeks and I completely nerded out at Vader’s scenes at the end of Rogue One.  It wasn’t just the return of that voice, it was the return of, well, iconic evil.  The perfect villain.

*James Earl Jones’ magic freaking voice didn’t hurt, either.

It goes beyond that, however.  Bad guys — truly memorable, truly powerful villains — have to have a depth and pathos to them beyond even that of the hero.  Ask yourself, then, how often does that happen?

Not often.  Or, at least, not often enough.

And, no, just putting a different accent on a supposed villain — British, German, Russian, Arabic, etc… — doesn’t do the trick.  That’s not clever writing or directing, that’s just a cheap shortcut that does nothing but put the bad writing up in the freaking neon lights.  “Oh look honey, he’s Arabic, he must be the bad guy!”

That’s right up there with, “He’s Indian, he must be a software guy!”

Harrumph!*

*”Harrumph” is, if you’re wondering, Latin for “motherfuckingstupidassbullshit”

1D0B7C5E-362E-48DB-9D1C-690D7F18CFD1That’s why most, if not all, Bond villains are so pointlessly forgettable.  Each and every one has been nothing more memorable than a bad accent, a fake scar and an over-the-top performance that borders on freaking camp.  Liberace would have been a more memorable villain than Blofeld, for God’s sake!

What most writers — and editors, directors, actors, fill-in-your-own-blank-here — tend to forget is that villains can’t be just…well…bad guys.  Truly memorable, effective villains can’t just be evil for the sake of being evil, they have to have their own motivations and backstory.  They have to have an end goal, and a reason for that goal.

0063B53B-9048-4C27-83DA-3997BA8099AEA NO, extorting a government for one million dollars* isn’t a legit end goal.  Something has to be driving that person to be a ruthless asshole, or the whole house of cards that is any story’s plot and character development falls down.  The truly great movies and books explore that motivation.  The best, even, blur the line between good and bad.  Can we all say “Michael Corleone” here and just acknowledge that character as the Holy Grail of blurred lines and gray areas (not to mention an epic fall from grace…)?

*And, yes, Dr Evil IS on my list of “good” villains, primarily as a wonderful parody of crappy, mundane, bad ones…

It’s idiosyncratic as hell, but one thing that also really resonates with me is dissonance in villains.  One example comes immediately to mind here, mainly because the actor just died: Wilford Brimley.

11156713-A904-45AC-8343-DAEC61E099F6The man was most kindly, grandfatherly archetype you can imagine.  He looked like freaking Santa Claus, for heaven’s sake, but when he played a bad guy…  When he played a bad guy, it resonated because it was so dissonant with who he appeared to be.  It was the functional equivalent of Mr Rogers running a meth lab in his basement.

And, yes, before you ask, that whole “dissonance thing” has significant history in the real world, too.  Some of the most memorable — and most evil — psychos in history are embodiments of that very thing.  Just to name the few that come immediately to mind: John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, and the grandfather of them all, Adolf Eichmann.

How, then, do we make villains worth the name?

Give ‘em love.

No, seriously — give them the same love, the same effort and focus, that you give to your protagonist.  If your villain — if any villain — is not at least as fleshed out as the hero, that story is going to be a forgotten one-and-done read (or watch).  If that villain is a plastic, two-dimensional, over-the-type caricature, your work may not even make it to the “and-done” part of that phrase.

There is a reason, after all, why we still read stuff like Paradise Lost.  How can we flawed and broken humans not identity with motivation like “it’s better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven”?

Make your readers, then, see a little of themselves — or, at least, of who they could be — in your villains.  Make your villains real.  Make them memorable, and you’ll find that they’re even more fun to write than the “good guys.”

P.S.

I want freaking bonus point for managing to put pictures of Darth Vader and Liberace in the same post, dammit!

Panic at the…Err…Story!

So, I was working on a scene this morning. I was working on a scene and I screwed myself…I screwed myself because, while I was writing, I wasn’t thinking. The particulars of the scene in question aren’t important, not nearly so important as what I failed to think about when I was writing: panic.

With all due deference to love and hate, panic — pure, blind, incapacitating panic — is pretty much the strongest emotion we humans have. As someone who has seen and done things that many folks simply read about, I can honestly say that panic has killed far more people than stupidity and hate combined.

When someone is flailing and thrashing in the water, it is not the lack of skill at swimming that drowns them, it is the panic — they waste all their strength and energy, not to mention whatever opportunities for salvation may come, in that panic. When folks get lost in the backwoods, it is not the unfamiliarity that kills them, it is the panic — they wander and run, they make bad decisions and do stupid things, all because of panic.

That list of examples could go on and on, by the way. From the fields of combat to wandering city streets at night, from facing down other humans to dealing with wild predators, the one who stays calm can survive, where the one who panics will die. It has nothing (really) to do with fear — fear is a healthy, natural response to dangerous situations — but has everything to do with control.*

*I once wrote a smaller example of this, in a post about “navigating small.”

Now, the reason I had to think about panic while writing is that, for all my planning and envisioning of the scene in question, I had left no room for that particular failing. And it needed to be there.

Oh boy, did it need to be there.

My characters were in a situation where 99% of humanity would suffer at least a bit of panic…a situation both strange and terrifying. As usual, when I finished writing, I did a quick read-through to check what I had come up with. That read-through left me with a sense of wrongness that I just couldn’t shake. Hell, I couldn’t even figure out what was wrong, at first…

4FD5CD32-00DA-4791-84F0-145E8ACDD7B8…until I put myself into the scene. I would’ve panicked, I decided. Shit, I would’ve skipped Go, and gone straight into holy-shit-I’m-fucked blind panic.

Now, look…I’ve faced bears and wolves in the wild. I’ve been lost among hills and valleys with no sign of a trail or another human for fifty miles. I’ve had scuba diving accidents a hundred feet down. I’ve jumped out of airplanes.  And, with everything I’ve seen and done, still I would’ve panicked in the particular situation I was writing about.

But, as the writer, I didn’t think about that. No…instead, my characters all stayed calm. My characters all kept their heads. My characters all did what they were supposed to. And my scene had no urgency or sense of danger. In the end, it had no reality or authenticity.

Even when we plan and build our characters with all the depth in the world, even when we take into account faults and problems and weaknesses to go with their strengths and triumphs, it is FAR too easy to forget that they have to be people first. Confining the “reality” of a character to a good backstory and a set of parameters for personality and skills doesn’t give you a true character, it just gives you words on a page.

No, to move beyond mere words…to move beyond the flat, two-dimensional characters that plague so many stories, you have to get to reality: your characters have to be people. They have to eat and sleep. They have to piss and shit. They have to have bad breath from time to time. When you get right down to it, they have to panic.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back to Square One with my scene…

A Bit of History

I’ve mentioned before that I do naval history on the side. I do some professional work within the area, yes, and more volunteer stuff, but mostly it is a personal passion of mine. Now, I may have mentioned that before, but I’ve never really written a post on anything naval (other than the Memorial Day post, which was inspired by one of my heroes: Earnest Evans — read that post here).

This is — technically — a writing(ish) blog, rather than a history or navy blog, but for me those things are completely and totally intertwined. Just as philosophy and literature and personal experience are wound inextricably through everything I create, so too is history.

The sci-fi universe I currently write within owes a great deal to the British empire…and even more to Britain’s East India Company — and all of the colonialism and shit that goes with that — but there are also echoes of many events and dynamics from the last two centuries. The fantasy stories fluttering around inside my head have even more history at their heart. From English nobles to Japanese samurai to Chinese bureaucrats, all come into play…

But I’m not a plot guy, I’m a character guy. Even more important to my writing is the inspiration that comes from the exceptional people history throws at you. Folks like William Marshall, or Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Tokugawa Ieyasu…the list goes on and on.

Okay, so why did I put together that (long) intro? Because two of the core elements of my “world” came together this morning when I was thinking about what to post: naval history, and the characters who can be (and are) inspired from it.

BD6E7E7C-24CD-4A16-AB0E-0396A8D878A3I’m not going to talk about the characters, however. No, I want to talk about, and celebrate, one of those extraordinary inspirations: Rear Admiral Alene Duerk.

The headline has already been written with Admiral Duerk’s position as the US Navy’s first female flag officer (here is the article that got me thinking). But as so often happens, that headline hides so much more…

Admiral Duerk started her professional life as a young nurse in WWII, including a long stint forward deployed in the Pacific. From sailors and Marines wounded on Okinawa, to US prisoners repatriated after the end of the war, she spent a great deal of time and strength and emotion amidst the chaos and suffering that comes from any war…and especially from the Pacific campaign of WWII.

But she wasn’t done.  No, she went on to train and teach others to do the same, to care for the wounded and dying of the Korean War.

And she kept serving.

Now, for some folks, that last line may mean little, but for me it means everything. Alene Duerk was a strong and capable woman who spent a lifetime in service to her patients, and to her country. To those who still resent the presence of women in the US armed forces, and especially in the navy (whether ashore or afloat), I have this to say: Admiral Duerk was not a woman “allowed into” the Navy. No, she was a talented and smart officer who earned every step of her journey.  Admiral Duerk was one of those quiet heroes most folks never get to hear about.

IMG_0720Fair winds and following seas, Admiral. There’s a drink on the bar for you…

Characters With Something to Say

I have to admit, I didn’t pay much attention to the rescue of the Thai kids from that cave. Now, I may be the only person in the US to basically ignore that whole thing, but…well…hell, let’s be honest about this: The whole constant, 24-hour coverage was about nothing more than the same motivation that drives a lot of interest in auto-racing: the prospect of disaster. You know what I mean, the whole “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy.

“Impending Disaster!”

“Doom!”

“The End of the World/Civilization/Mankind!”

It’s all emotion-based coverage designed to elicit sympathy while simultaneously titillating that dark curiosity that makes folks slow down to stare at car accidents…all leavened by a frisson of fear. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my news to be intelligent, well-written/presented, and focused the basics of things likes facts and events. Emotions are for stories, not the news.

All that being said, I read a column today that used that whole cave-rescue drama to make a point that resonated with the needs and truth of storytelling (vice covering the news). That point, to put it succinctly, was a reminder that in order for something to have impact, it must be personalized.

I don’t mean that something must be customized in order to “work,” I mean rather that an issue or event must have a face and an identity in order to truly resonate. And, yes, that concept is, in fact, why reporters and politicians always resort to anecdotes and storytelling, rather than focusing on facts and policies. A bad law or policy doesn’t make much of an impression, but a child who is the victim of that bad law does.

So what the hell does any of that mean to writing and storytelling?

It’s all about characters.

Look, all writers — well, most of us, anyway — have something to say in our stories that goes beyond the story itself. As I’ve said in posts before, a story is not, and does not have to be, about what it is truly about. Does anyone really think Waiting for Godot is actually about waiting?!

But you, as the creator, have to put a face and an identity onto the issues and problems that you are putting into your story. If you want to encompass a message about homelessness, for instance, you have to have a meaningful character to whom homelessness is an impactful reality. Just think about a story that wanted to be about that particular problem, but was focused solely on the feelings and activities of someone who had only ever read about homelessness…

It just doesn’t work.

As the author of the piece I just read asked, why did the Thai boys resonate and become real to us, while the thousands of Rohingya kids suffering and dying are nothing more than numbers and barely-remembered words in a handful of articles? Because the Thai boys had names and faces, they became more real to us, and thus more meaningful and impactful.

Now, in all honesty, I don’t really like or encourage “message stories.” You know the ones I mean, those stories that are personal or political or social “crusades” first, and stories second. But I do like and encourage stories and writers to have something to say. And stories are a great way to do that…through the lens of your characters.

To put it another way — a lot of folks condemned the book and show 13 Reasons Why for “glorying” or “encouraging” teen suicide. I’m not even going to get into just how stupid and short-sighted and plain ignorant are those objections, but instead I will say this: there is absolutely no way to tell a story about the reality of suicide, and what leads up to it, without writing about a suicidal character. That’s it, that’s reality. That particular story works precisely because it is about Hannah, albeit through Clay’s eyes. It works because we care for her, and we understand her…and we feel the pain and devastation of her death.

That, in the end, is what storytelling is all about: emotionally connecting your reader (or listener or watcher) to your characters. That is how you say what it is you want to say. That is how make a story about more than it is about.