Thursday, October 29, 2015

Villains and Victims

I talk a lot about the way good and evil are portrayed in fiction, in particular dealing with the attitudes toward good guys and bad guys in current popular culture. There's that idea that good guys are boring and bad guys are more fascinating, which I think often comes down to the attitudes of the writers. If you think good people are boring and bad people are interesting, you're going to write boring good people and interesting bad people.

There was a horrible crime in this area recently that had an even more horrible aftermath -- a guy who may possibly be mentally ill decided he wanted to kill someone and hacked a random jogger to death, and then not long after that, the victim's widow committed suicide. She couldn't imagine a life without her husband. There's a lot that's been written in the wake of these events, but this article about it gets into some things about villains and victims that fit some of my thoughts about why the "fascinating" villain is a false premise.

The writer, a veteran crime reporter, talks about the disconnect he had with editors who only really wanted the killers' stories when he was trying to sell true-crime books. Here's what he had to say about that:

Crooks have less going on upstairs, not more, than honest people. Crooks are basically smash-and-grabbers. See what they want, grab it. Money, sex, power, vengeance. Not into long-range planning. They divorce themselves from empathy. They have less, not more, to think about.

The effect their crimes have on survivors, on the other hand, is immensely complex and almost infinitely profound. As regular, decent people battle their way through the challenges of a normal life, their ability to deal with catastrophe, after all, is not infinite.

And that, right there, sums up why I'm far more interested in the good guys. I don't see anything all that interesting about someone who's out for himself, takes what he wants, and doesn't care what that does to anyone else. I don't care about his sad childhood, career failures or romantic disappointment. I'm more interested in the people who've gone through bad things and rise above them, who don't use their own troubles as an excuse to victimize others.

I'm even more interested in the good people who have to deal with the villains, whose normal lives are disrupted and who have to find their way back from that, or who have been permanently changed by their experiences. That change may be for the good, in that "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger" way, but even that process is more fascinating to me than the process of what makes a person become a villain.

I remember when the first Star Wars came out, and so many people (including my baby brother) were fascinated with Darth Vader. He was considered very cool, with Luke being derided as bland. But to me, with Darth Vader, there was no "there" there. He was a faceless (literally) thug. He had no strong personal motivations -- he was mostly just following orders. He didn't have a particularly interesting backstory (in the original trilogy) aside from the mention that he was a promising pupil who turned bad. He didn't have any struggles or complexity. He was just a black mask doing bad things because people he could crush with a thought wanted him to do them, and it didn't seem to bother him one bit. Even fleshing out his backstory in the prequels didn't make him more interesting to me. That just made him look even more shallow and selfish. On the other side of the equation, we had a guy who had his entire life turned upside down, who lost everything, including his image of himself, who got what he thought he wanted and realized it might be more than he could handle, and who had to transform himself -- fast -- not only to ensure his own survival but to ensure the survival of everything he believed in. He was yanked abruptly out of his comfort zone and thrust into a broader world than he could have ever imagined. That's way more interesting to me. Even anti-hero Han Solo (the other character it was cool to like) wasn't quite as interesting -- he just went from cynical and selfish to joining a cause, but there wasn't much else to his characterization other than witty one-liners. He was tough and glib, but there wasn't a lot of depth there.

Or in the Harry Potter world, sometimes I think Harry himself was the least popular character. Draco Malfoy was the one who got swooned over -- the spoiled rich kid bully who believed he was part of a master race who had every right to rule over the lesser races. But he had a sad childhood because his father was abusive, so he couldn't help being evil (and, of course, he could be healed by the love of a good woman, if only any of the girls in the books could have seen beneath his tough shell, the way the fanfic writers would, of course). Never mind that Harry had just as abusive and far less privileged a childhood and didn't turn out to be evil. 

I'm not going to say never, but so far I haven't written from the perspective of a villain, and I don't really intend to. I'd rather look at the world through the eyes of someone trying to stand up against villainy. It's like the way every time someone commits a horrid crime, there's a huge social media campaign to not mention the names of the criminals, but rather to focus on the victims and heroes. Maybe if we did the same thing in fiction, there'd be less interest in villains in real life. I'm not saying that fiction makes people become evil, but if the prevailing view is that villains are cool and heroes are boring, that has to sink into the psyche, and the thought can take root and rot in the minds of some people, so that if they want to be noticed, it seems obvious to them that they have to be villains. If they do good or save lives, they'll be ignored or even criticized as hypocrites if they're less than perfect, but they'll get attention and even sympathy if they take lives.

Incidentally, I somewhat disagree with this writer's premise on the article as a whole. It wasn't that the wife's suicide itself was harder on us, it was that it was the topper to an already horrific crime, it was shock on top of shock, so her death wasn't just the shock of a suicide, but was the shock of a suicide that stemmed from a shocking murder. It amplified the initial crime.

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