Villains!

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There’s nothing quite like a good villain. What would Silence of the Lambs be without Hannibal Lector? It wasn’t Clarice Starling who got the spin-off series. Where would George Smiley be without Karla? And as for Bond… the stories we all remember are the ones with the proper megalomaniac antagonist.

A good villain also makes writing tremendous fun. To get inside the skin of evil is a wicked delight. To inhabit that warped mindset brings a smile to the face – which, if you think about it, isn’t entirely healthy.

There are categories of villains, all of whom present different challenges to create and make real. I’ve been thinking about this. The difference between good and evil is a small one. Almost everyone is the hero in their own story; the difference is merely one of perspective.

Think of a sliding scale of interest. At one end is ‘self’: characters on this end of the chart are purely invested in themselves alone. A lot of pretty thugs – henchpeople – fall into this category. But so do psycho- and sociopaths: people like the aforementioned Hannibal Lector and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. It’s a rare novel that has a hero with this (limited) amount of world perspective.

After self comes family. Here we see someone acting not simply for themselves but for ‘their own’. Mafia stories are pitched at this level: the Godfather is concerned not simply for his own advancement but for those around them. ‘Protecting their own’ is the primary concern; we can add in the warped concerns of racists, anti-immigration parties and the like in here.

And this is where we can also start to see an opportunity for anti-heroes and more genuinely ‘good’ characters here. A Mafioso is a bad guy fighting for her own interests against rivals. A heroic small-businesswoman fighting against an evil corporation bent on destroying his local community is not a million miles away. The difference simply is the structure you build around them. Atticus Finch, one of the best-loved of all fictional heroes, isn’t trying to save the world: his family is his small town.

In a way all the global conflicts – inter-state, inter-nation, inter-species – are all just extensions of the family: it’s all about what we consider ‘ours’.

At the top of the Scale of Evil are the ideologically-driven villains; the world-changes, universe-hammerers, nation-reforgers. These people agonise over the damage they’re doing but truly believe they’re saving mankind. They may be prepared to sacrifice 90% (or more) of the population to do it, but they’re convinced by their vision. It is, they say, the only chance for the species. Are they heroes or villains? In their own minds they’re saints. The James Bond’s of their novels are the real villains. Similarly, in Le Carre’s novels, the Russian spymaster Karla is a hero. George Smiley, who we follow and will on to win, is his villain and villain to the Soviet people.

Sidebar: I’ve always had a thing about the Support-Network of Evil. Where did all these villain’s minions come from? Who answers the phone? Who builds their bases, maintains the reactor? Either the crew lies in blissful ignorance, a mere wage-monkey, or they’ve been convinced by the villain’s vision. To inspire people willing to die for a cause indicates either their malleability (implausible for such a large number) or they’ve been genuinely convinced by the Man with the Plan. They’re heroes too. The ones at the sharp end, the ones the protagonist cuts down without a thought.

evil-firing

Sidebar sidebar: Who hires all these people? Is there a Human Resources Department of Evil? Or is it all outsourced? Is there a special agency that specialises in placing henchpeople with the right villain for them? ‘Great career advancement possibilities, a wonderful pension scheme, funeral expenses included – oh, but you have to pay for your own ammunition… And there’s a strict ‘no nunchucks’ policy.’

Villains who are interested in only ‘the self’ – nothing more than their immediate circle – can make great antagonists. It’s clear-cut, small-scale and intimate. But I’m fascinated by the improvers, people who can see further than the rest of us. People who genuinely believe that the only way to save homo sapiens is to waste a continent in the afterwash of rocket-fuel needed to propel humanity to a new future. And I’ve read enough books to see that all we’re looking at here is a difference in perspective.

Points of view

You all know the rules of point-of-view. You all know that 1st person gives intimacy and an emotional connection with the reader, but can be limiting and doesn’t let you escape your protagonist’s head. 3rd person is great for giving differing perspectives but risks shallowness and, if carelessly handled, can confuse the reader. There’s also the danger of giving the reader all the info, and thus killing suspense and surprise. And 2nd person is never used outside short stories because no-one likes to be told how to behave.

I’ve spent three years in the depths of 1st person. I actually chose to write my Australis trilogy this way for a specific plot-purpose and not for some deep ideological reason. I found it difficult, ‘tis true; and hardest were the times when my protagonist wasn’t really doing anything or couldn’t think how to proceed. How to not bore the reader? It wasn’t always easy, and there’s still a lot of work to do to iron out said issues.

But it had its advantages too. As long as you’re aware that other characters are still acting around your protagonist, there’s great potential for the unexpected and for conflict. It’s all a question of working out how to reveal information that your hero was not privy to at the time it occurred. This can be a wonderful tool, especially if an antagonist is actively working against the POV character. Their surprise is the reader’s, and that’s a very nice trick to have up your sleeve.

I’ve gone back to 3rd person for my new project, and I’ve done this for two reasons. Firstly because I’m sick of being stuck in one head, and secondly because I’m writing an ensemble piece and this is what’s demanded by the story. I’ve also broken my long-held and religiously-adhered-to commandment and changed POV within a scene. May any God or Gods listening please have mercy upon my soul. It was necessary, I assure you.

3rd person brings with it a wholly different set of challenges. Most obviously, you’re letting the reader into the private thoughts of a bigger cast and you have to make every POV character distinct, well-rounded and, above all, interesting: not necessarily nice or sympathetic, but interesting. Now I just need to work out when and from whose eyes we see each scene.

It’s the equivalent of not knowing what to do with yourself in 1st person, I suppose. In 3rd you have to select your protagonist for the scene, work out who’s best to tell the next step of the story – and yet still be aware of what everyone else is doing ‘off-stage’. So far I have seven different POVs in about 25,000 words. This may be too many; simplification may occur. But for now, for every scene I write I have to make that choice. Who’s going to tell this chunk of the narrative? Who’s where, doing what, with who? Complicated. And don’t forget that this is essentially seven ‘introductions’ – we’ve got to get used to these characters, get to know and taste their distinctive odours.

I may have got some of this wrong. I’ve got a scene introducing teenager Jazz’s home-life as she gets ready for a night out. It feels like it may need to go earlier in the novel than it currently does. We’ll see.

But the advantages are plentiful, not least in the way you can build up ‘mosaic’ scenes from a variety of perspectives. Set up a situation from one viewpoint; do the groundwork and build to a climax (or keep up the tension with short, snappy images from several characters, back and forth – but not too much and not too confusing) and then switch to view the same scene from a different angle, taking over from where Character One left off.

This can be very effective. It’s also great fun. It’s like directing a movie, picking your camera angles, presenting the same information in different ways. One character will see someone in one way, another will see it differently. Avoiding repetition is important, but it’s easier to dodge info-dumps when you see things through many eyes.

There’s never a right way or a wrong way to approach POV. For me it has always been about the best way to present a plot. It’s also about enjoying the process and surprising yourself, not just your readers. I don’t write for money (there isn’t any) but because I like to tell stories. The process is endlessly astonishing; it makes me smile, makes me angry, builds me up and dumps me down.

It ain’t never dull, though. And hopefully that means I won’t write dullness either.