Sunday, July 27, 2014

Writing: Give your villain a reason for being bad

If you paid attention during your high school English literature classes, you'll remember the concept of the tragic flaw: This is an innate weakness that compels a basically decent person to make bad decisions. 

Shakespeare is full of examples: Macbeth's overpowering ambition, Othello's jealousy. 

I recently read Dan Brown's Inferno. This book is full of villains, but the most interesting one is Bertrand Zobrist, a brilliant, fabulously wealthy geneticist. There is much about Zobrist that the reader can admire: his brains, his achievements--but Zobrist has a fatal flaw that turns him into one of the book's chief antagonists.

Zobrist is obsessed with a neo-Malthusian theory of overpopulation. He believes that humanity is on the verge of breeding itself into extinction. So Zobrist decides to remedy the situation:  Using his skills as a geneticist, he invents a plague that will wipe out over half of the world's population.

Of course, there is nothing admirable about a man who would kill millions of innocent people. But Zobrist believes that he is working for a higher good--that the ends justify the means. 

This makes Zobrist sympathetic to readers: Don't we all struggle with ends-justifies-the-means conundrums in daily life? Don't we all have obsessive ideas that occasionally override our better judgment? These might be ideas about politics, religion--or maybe an old jealousy or personal slight that we simply can't relinquish. 

This is only one example--and probably not the best one--taken from a recently popular novel. Crime writer Michael Connelly is also skilled at crafting sympathetic villains. Michael Connelly's villains are often driven by motivations that seem--within a highly specific context, at least--to be semi-rational. This is part of what makes Michael Connelly such a successful writer: Readers love his recurring main character, LAPD detective Harry Bosch; but they are also fascinated by his memorable villains.

Stephen Hunter is another crime novelist who knows how to write compelling, human villains. The best example is his novel Dirty White Boys. This novel contains a flawed hero and three villains who--while thoroughly evil--are almost as engaging as the novel's protagonist.

The opposite of the sympathetic villain is the cardboard cutout villain in a black hat. For me, this caricature has always been symbolized by the Snidely Whiplash character in the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. 

This is the sort of villain who closes each scene with a sinister but cartoonish bwah-hah-hah!

The cardboard villain in the black hat can also be found in a lot of fiction, much of it entertaining but ultimately forgettable. Clive Cussler's villains commonly fall into this mold: Dirk Pitt (an unrealistic hero to begin with) does battle against one villain after another who is both supremely evil and completely devoid of any characteristics that make him human. If you've read a lot of Cussler's fiction, you may occasionally suspect that Cussler is simply renaming the same villain for each novel, and changing superficial attributes like nationality. You wouldn't be too far from the truth. (Don't get me wrong: I enjoy Clive Cussler's books from time to time, but as literature--even genre literature--they leave much to be desired.)

Since I've written a number of novels and short stories myself, you might fairly ask me if I practice what I preach. My answer is: I try. My favorite villain has always been the sort of villain who reacts badly to a less-than-perfect situation. 

Eleven Miles of Night is a horror novel. The main plot concerns a young filmmaker's trek down a haunted stretch of rural Ohio roadway--the so-called Shaman's Highway. Jason Kelley is the main protagonist of the novel. During his walk down the Shaman's Highway (as part of a paid contract job for a cable TV series, Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose) Jason encounters numerous supernatural phenomena.

But he also encounters various humans--both good and bad. The main human villain of Eleven Miles of Night is Terrence Coyne. We first meet Terrence Coyne in Chapter 8 of the book:

While Jason Kelley was pondering the wildlife along Route 68, Terrence Coyne was finishing his second can of Miller Light. His wife, Bridgette, regarded him with what he perceived to be an accusatory stare. He glared at her and she quickly looked away.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said. He opened his refrigerator—their refrigerator, technically speaking—and saw that there were no more beers left. The one in his hand was the last one.
“I’m not looking at you,” she said.
“You were.”
“It’s just that you got drunk last night again. And this is already your second beer tonight.”
“I thought you said that you were taking no notice,” he retorted sharply. He knew that this was not exactly what Bridgette had said; but never mind that. His wife’s holier-than-thou attitude about his drinking never failed to infuriate him. All day he had to endure the tedium of working in his father’s feed store in Wagosh. Wasn't he entitled to a little bit of compensatory drinking? Wasn't he entitled to little bit of fun, for Chrissakes?
He heard his son begin to squall from the far end of their rented house and he felt his anger rise. “Can’t you keep that kid quiet?” he said, in a voice that was a fraction below a shout. He noticed that while there was no beer in the refrigerator, there was plenty of baby formula, and all the healthy crap that his wife liked: low fat milk and cottage cheese. Yogurt and lean ham. Bridgette was responsible for the grocery shopping and she knew that he liked to kick back with a few beers of an evening. Would it kill her to pick up a twelve-pack of Miller Light?
“I’m sorry,” Bridgette said, going out of her way to be conciliatory even though they both knew that he was being an asshole. This was just another part of Bridgette’s holier-than-thou act. It was a stratagem that she employed when he was in an obviously bad mood: She went out of her way to be nice so that he would not have an immediate excuse to vent and lose his temper. Then when he finally did lose his temper, he would feel like even more of an asshole because she had given him no just cause. “I’ll go check on Jeremy.”
He swallowed the last mouthful of beer and watched her walk past. Eighteen months after delivering the baby—their son, he reminded himself—she had lost the last traces of her post-pregnancy weight, and he had to admit that she looked not half bad. Of course, noticing her in that way was the thing that had gotten him into trouble to begin with, if you wanted to get technical about it, and thereby trace the circumstances that had brought about the ruination of his young life. Bridgette Coyne might be holier-than-thou about her husband’s drinking; but she had not been too holy to have sex with him back when she was Bridgette Mackey, a girlfriend whom he had seen as a temporary if enjoyable source of amusement. This side of Carey County wasn't known for its nightlife or its abundance of single young women. And Bridgette Mackey, then barely nineteen years old, had been one of the prettiest of those available. She had been young and sweet and ripe—oh, so ripe.
So Terrence had dallied and he had had his fun. All the while, Bridgette had seemed to be very impressed with him. And why shouldn't she have been? After all, he had been something of a sensation during his days as a running back on the Wagosh High School varsity football team, still less than ten years ago. He was also a scion of the moderately prosperous Coyne family of Carey County.
Then a positive pregnancy test had changed everything. Now he was twenty-six, and trapped with a wife who no longer interested him so much. His son was cute enough in certain moments; but he mostly ate and shat and cried a lot.
He was too young for all this. Wives and children and their associated responsibilities were for some men, he supposed—but not him. Not yet, at least.
Terrence’s days were spent in the tedium of his father’s feed store. Hour upon hour of checking store inventories and waiting on customers. Then balancing the store’s books, sweeping the floors, and setting up new displays. Pretending that a stupid question from a customer wasn't stupid, but the most important thing in the world.
And another thirty years of that were all that was waiting for him, thank you very much.
It was all because of Bridgette. Bridgette and her faulty birth control. When Terrence had met her, she had claimed that she was preparing for college. She had said that she wanted to attend the University of Dayton or Ohio State. A girl like that, Terrence had believed, would take pains to assure that she never got pregnant. Until the day she had informed him that the proverbial rabbit had died.
Bridgette came back into the kitchen. Her displeasure was written on her face. Not displeasure at the baby, of course. She cooed and fussed over Jeremy as if he were an angel descended from heaven. (Terrence wondered, for perhaps the thousandth time, if Bridgette had allowed herself to get pregnant in order to entrap him.) No, Bridgette was upset because he wasn't acting like Father of the Year and Mr. Happy Husband. He wasn't joining the party. Well, it was a party that he had never wanted to attend.
“I’m going to have a few beers with Glenn tonight,” he announced. “We made plans.” This was, in fact, a lie: A night of drinking with his buddy Glenn was a spur-of-moment decision, a reaction to the unexpected depletion of the house’s beer reserves. That and the sudden weight of his domestic claustrophobia. He knew that Glenn would be available. Glenn was always up for a few beers at the Parrot Inn.
“You mean Glenn Rutledge?” she asked.
“No, I mean Glenn Frey, the guy who played guitar with The Eagles. Ol’ Glenn wants to talk with me about his next solo album project. Of course I mean Glenn Rutledge. How many Glenns are there between Wagosh and John’s Mistake?”
“I was just asking,” she said sullenly.
“Well, it was a stupid question for you to be just asking.” He noticed that she recoiled from this rebuke as if his words had physically stung her. Good. That would repay her in part for what she had done to him. He could tell that she was thinking about talking back but thought better of it. She didn't want a repeat of what had happened to her one night last April. Truth be told, neither did he: His father had given him hell about that—and her parents, also. A county sheriff’s deputy had questioned him. “Domestic violence,” the uniformed prick had called it. Only his father’s clout in the county, and a promise to never, ever, ever strike his wife again—no matter what—had kept him out of jail.
“It’s already well past ten,” she said, as if he needed a town crier.
“Well, I won’t be gone late. I’ll be home around midnight,” he said.
Bridgette sighed, resigned. “Okay, Terrence. Have it your way.”
“I ought to get to have somethin’ my way,” he said. Before she could respond to him, he turned on his heels and headed out of the kitchen, through the living room and towards the front door. The main door was already open to let in the fresh air and the smells of the rural summertime. A screen door kept out the mosquitoes and the gnats.
Terrence pushed open the screen door, making a bit of a show of tossing the door back against its hinges. He let the door fall back against the doorframe with a loud slap of wood against metal. The air outside was warm and mildly humid. A trio of moths were fluttering around the front porch light.
It’s a good night for having a draft beer with a buddy. A damned good night for beer. He thought about how good it would be to see the familiar crowd at the Parrot Inn; and then he thought about their new waitress—a hot little number named Tina, or Riley, or something.
These thoughts were still in his mind as he climbed behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Camaro. It was a 2001 model. His car was more than ten years old. He had purchased it only last summer, using the little he had managed to save from his paycheck at the feed store, plus a supplementary loan from his father. A loan that both he and the old man knew would never be paid back.
From the driver’s seat of the Camaro, he surveyed the farmhouse in which he, Bridgette, and Jeremy lived. The rent was eight hundred per month—for space in a house built sometime around World War II, a house that stood too close to Route 68, a house built just a few years after a group of WPA workers had supposedly found ancient human remains while paving the roadway for automobile traffic.
He glanced upward, at the full moon that shone through the branches of the many trees that surrounded the house. The house was practically enveloped by woods. There had once been a farm here—many years ago—but the backyard now gave way to undergrowth a stone’s throw beyond the rear porch. There were a few long-fallow fields in the back that had been taken over by weeds, scrub bushes, and maple saplings—and serious woods beyond that. Almost any spot in Carey County was “country” by Cincinnati or Columbus standards; but this part of Route 68 was really out in the country.
Like practically every resident of the area, Terrence knew all about the Shaman’s Highway and its many legends. He had heard about the demonic witch that supposedly haunted the covered bridge farther down the road; he had heard about the hellhounds and the ghostly voices that were said to emanate from the woods late at night.
“And I ain’t never seen or heard a damned thing,” he said to himself, dismissively. The Shaman’s Highway caused him no fear whatsoever. His friend Glenn had once admitted that the highway creeped him out sometimes, and Terrence had badgered him about it mercilessly. The Shaman’s Highway was a campfire tale for children and imbeciles. No real man would be afraid of anything out here—unless he was a pussy, he had reminded Glenn.
Speaking of his drinking buddy: Before he started the Camaro’s engine, Terrence removed his cell phone from his pocket and typed out a brief message to Glenn Rutledge: “Meet me at the PI. 15 minutes.”
He started the Camaro, backed it up into the yard rather than the gravel turnaround, and then pointed the car at Route 68. He was about to pull onto the main road when his cell phone chimed with a new text message.
“See you there,” Glenn had responded.
Terrence smiled as he gunned the accelerator and the Camaro pulled out onto the Shaman’s Highway. As he had expected, Glenn was up for a beer. Glenn was always up for a beer. 

*        *        *

As you can discern from the above, Terrence is not exactly what most of us would describe as a nice person. He doesn't appreciate his wife and son. In fact, it's apparent that he's even a bit abusive.

However, it's also apparent that Terrence is a supremely unhappy individual: He feels trapped--in an unwanted marriage, and by economic dependence on his father...A job that he hates but must neverthless endure.

As a reader, you certainly won't approve of the way in which Terrence reacts to his situation. I certainly didn't while writing the book. But you can probably relate to Terrence's feelings of being "trapped" by life's circumstances. Most of us feel trapped at one time or another--if not by an unwanted relationship, then by the lack of a relationship that we do want.

Readers (I hope) will find Terrance to be a sympathetic, human villain, because he isn't a cardboard caricature in a black hat, bellowing bwah-hah-hah while he plots the downfall of civilization. Terrence is a human character who reacts badly to a bad situation. He has an alibi for the bad decisions he makes in Eleven Miles of Night. But the reader knows (or at least believes) that he or she would have made better decisions if placed in Terrence's shoes.

The sympathetic villain who is corrupted by a fatal flaw is a cousin of Shakespeare's tragic hero. There are other kinds of villains, too. For example, there is room for the thoroughly evil, unredeemable character, so long as that character has human touches that make him believable. 

I'll explore this in a subsequent post.