Stop Fondling Evil
To write, you have to — to an extent — understand evil. You don’t have to fondle, pet it, or call it George.
When I was a very young writer, knee high to a novella, I read the stuff about giving your villains a motive.
This is good advice up to a point. The point is that at which, instead of giving your villains a motivation, you give them a justification, then you make them into tragic victims, then you feel sorry for them, then you are no longer sure who is the villain and who the good guy. And then next thing you know, your characters are running around in a grey and uninteresting fog and the reader feels like he’s trudging through soup. Amoral soup. (Shut up, it’s my soup, it can totally have morals or lack thereof if I so choose.)
Yes, in case you wonder, there speaks bitter experience.
Sure you can write a complex character that reaches for redemption, particularly if you’re doing a longer series, but there are limits to redemption, and there is also foreshadowing redemption, the point at which the character breaks. There is also — let us not fall into grey goo and deliver us from catatonic readers — the reader knowing who he wants to win, and who he wants to lose.
Yes, everyone has a reason. Having a reason doesn’t make what they do justified, only understandable (sometimes.) Being “a victim of society” and more sinned against than sinning is also a thing, but remember that balance, once you sin more than you’re sinned against no more mercy. And there is always — always — a point of no return, both for fictional characters and real life.
So let’s take this from the top, and let’s choose the worst villain possible. So, let’s take the ultimate historical villain: Adolf Hitler.
Was he someone with a tragic past? Sure. Failed artist, caught up in the mess of World War One, maybe gassed (his medical history is a confusing thing, because different authors claim different things. (This is not unusual. The stuff I got on the Red Baron was just as crazy.)
Anyway, it sure justifies everything he did and makes you feel warmandfuzzy towards little Adolf, right?
Not only no, but hell no.
Look, to the point where he came up with a horrible theory, he could be redeemed. To the point where he became the leader of aggressive mobs, he might be redeemed. Once he invaded Poland and started with his eugenic culling? No.
Keep in mind he was already evil when he came up with his horrible theory. Sane people on the side of light don’t write the kind of crazy rant Mein Kampf is. But choosing poorly could be justified to that point, given his issues and history and if he recanted completely and paid some price. Once the brown shirts started breaking heads… it would take some spectacular redemption scene, and the character (if he were a character) would probably have to die undoing what he did.
Once he started killing people in batch lots? Oh, hell no. That character is a villain and only death will solve the problem and expiate his crimes. Frankly if this were a novel and Hitler a character, he’d need to die at the hand of the hero and in a much worse way than a bullet to the head.
“But Sarah,” you say “You’re imposing morality on fiction. Fiction shouldn’t have morality.”
Bah. Fiction has to have morality because fiction has to make sense. Real life doesn’t. We have our fill of formless grey goo in real life. We routinely see villains go around unpunished, and people who deserve all good things suffer in silence.
The human mind, to the extent it is anything, is a machine for extracting sense from reality. And fiction — last I checked — was designed to entertain humans. As such, fiction has to make sense. It has to have a ‘moral’ good and bad arrow.
Sure, you can have stories where no one is good and no one is clean. Given enough tits and blood sometimes they even sell. But after a while they pall. We’re humans. We want “good” to win. You can stretch it to anti-heroes and such, but the reader still has to believe this person deserves to “win”. Unless they’re reading hoping he dies a horrible death. It’s when you want THEM ALL to die a horrible death that you’re in real trouble. And honestly I’ve come across this all too often in recent years.
Making your villain and hero moral equivalents doesn’t really do much, unless you’re writing for an audience of literature professors. Whether you believe that everyone is dirty or everyone is immaculately clean, if your reader knows it’s going to end in everyone dying senseless deaths or everyone kissing and making up there is no point in reading on.
We read to ride along in that which real life rarely provides: a sense of victory and of restoring order to the world.
Sure, some people read to feel guilty, to be brow beaten, or to have their politics gratified. I suspect they’re a minority. At any rate, they’re not who I write for. I write for the emotion, and to share that emotion with my readers.
The clear line of emotion, providing the real “high” passes through knowing who the villain is, and that he went too far and will get his comeupance. Whether that’s losing the girl or his empire and life, it’s proportional to how far he went.
And if it’s deserved, the reader might just sit back satisfied for a minute or two, before ordering your next book from Kindle.