Sequins: more and badder villains
While Dave is moving, here’s another piece of his really good advice from the archives, this one from September 2016:
A friend put up a meme about the inherent logical conflict any really good book causes: you don’t want it to end – but you want to keep reading to the end.
His comment was ‘make sure there are lots of sequels.’
Ah. Eyes that see what they want to see. I read that as ‘make sure there are lots of SEQUINS’: an excellent maxim, which promptly sent my male heterosexual mind back a back a good many years to a fine sequence of sequins.
I was rather disappointed to discover, on a second take, that all the sexy, shiny, sparkly shimmer had gone like yesteryear, and I was left with “you, author write more books. Now.” The truth is, sequels often fail to sustain that magic, and I wonder if good advice for authors might be ‘quit while you’re ahead’.
But then I never met good advice I couldn’t ignore. I’m talented like that, if I say it myself. And perhaps a sequin is the fifth sequel.
Of course one of the major problems with a sequel (or five) is that so often in a well-constructed novel, two things have usually happened – Firstly: the lead character/s have grown, quite possibly doing away with that very flaw which gave the author such a handy lever to get them into trouble (see Changeling’s Island (Baen). Secondly: in a spirit of tidiness many an author has effectively dispatched and disposed of the villain-in-chief – who was often the nastiest villain on the scene (See TOM where I was twice as efficient – maybe four times what I am in real life, and had killed off not only one really nasty villain, but two.) Of course the really smart author who pre-planned the sequel usually wisely merely sent the villain to jail or lurk in their lair pondering terrible revenge, wherefrom, as all villains are recidivists, they can emerge again, bigger and worse. Sadly this ‘clever’ often ends in the book being less than satisfying, and no-one wanting the sequel.
For the less-clever – like me — facing the point when readers start yelling “sequel, sequel, sequel!!” in a rising chorus (with just that hint of pitch-forks and torches in the background) the author probably says something meaningful like: “Mutter mutter mutter. Stupid jackass earlier self shoulda thought of this. Hmph. Wonder if I can re-animate…”
The truth is, you quite possibly can’t, especially if you killed them properly the first time. And trust me on this, if you hadn’t done a good job of it they wouldn’t be chanting ‘sequel! SEQUEL! SEQUEL!!’ outside.
So you need a fresh flaw, and a new villain. And, here’s the bad news. They’ve got to be a biggerer and worserer villain. You can just go and buy another generic bad guy off the shelf at Villains-R-US – because your heroes have proved they can beat those. And please, please don’t dream-sequence the prior victory and have it that Vladimary the Indeterminate is still sacrificing babies to the evil god Hilump after all (Yes, I really have read that plot-line. And seen it on TV). I’ve lost track of the number of sequels where the other alternative to this: Valdimary now being dead, turns into having been the mere cats-paw for Hilump… who never got mentioned in the first book. It can be done well, but very rarely is.
In modern-paint-by-numbers-generic-fiction, the villain is usually established nice and early on with a suitably gory rape/murder/child-rape which is not any way sickly voyeuristic (cough) and would happily have you leave your young daughter in the care of the author. I guess there is a reason why I’m never going to really bind to Game of Thrones, or be a vast success, because I struggle to write those sort of scenes. I sketched out what I wanted of the nasty Elizabeth Bartoldy and Bianca Casarini in the Heirs books and left that scrap to my co-authors ( Best reason yet for having them). I did enjoy writing the comeuppance scenes though.
Still – one is left with ‘what’s worse’ when looking for that next layer of villainy? Two murders/rapes instead of one? Three in book three… Both? And a bit of pillage or racism for the third. Book four has the new villain with all of those AND sexism. And book five, the new villain has all of that AND (insert suitable scary music here) homophobia. If there a book six you’re left with all of that and Donald Trump’s hair…
It doesn’t work very well, does it? Even for ardent seekers after social justice… A murderer is murderer, a thief a thief, a rapist a rapist. Yes, you can take it to murdering sweet little old ladies for fun, as opposed to whoever you wrote in that first villain… but sequel villains are hard.
I struggled somewhat with this. I eventually came up with a short list of possibilities – most of which have a common thread.
There’s nature itself – and what that brings out in people. The aftermath of a hurricane or tsunami or nuclear disaster is a fairly horrific sequel, because it almost certainly means destroying a large part of what you wrought in the first book.
Then I came up with ‘calumny’. “What the Hades is that?” I hear you say, as you roll your eyes at my folly.
Well: It’s a gumbo closely related to vegetarian chili.
Ahem. That’s an illustration of a base calumny about gumbo. Calumny has kind of fallen out of fashion as a dastardly deed, and you may well understand why by the time I’ve finished. To my mind it can be a worse deed than any of the above sins. Ancient Jewish law (from which much of our Western modern morals and law are derived) I feel was wrong about calumny. They only considered an equal sin to what the calumny was about, and punished it accordingly. I think it worse than the crime or sin.
Calumny is false witness – where the person committing calumny knowingly and maliciously lies in testifying that an innocent person did something that they did not do. So: the witness that says Fred committed the murder, while knowing that Fred was actually not even in the state – but he doesn’t like Fred. Or the woman who claims that she was raped by Fred, when actually she was an eager participant, but later thought her boyfriend would break up with her. The mattress-on-her-head girl, the plump comedienne Lena Whatsit… these are people who committed calumny.
And when you think about this, you can see why this is somewhat worse than the evil deed itself. Firstly the person who will be punished is innocent. Secondly, the victim has to live with that. Their reputation, even if innocence is eventually established, is tarnished forever. They’ll wear the psychological damage within too. But, vile though that is, in a way it is a lesser ill than they do to their society – especially to future REAL victims. The accusation loses credibility, and that shelters the true perps in future.
As story material for a sequel, it’s hard to beat. Your hero can go from hero to zero in 10 seconds flat, and the damage it will do is good material for an author, although hell for the character. Being an innocent individual – especially if the presumption of guilt rests hard on you, and is accepted by others – is a hellish predicament, a dreadful thing to do to someone. One can quite understand why the historical penalty for false witness was same as the penalty for the crime would have been. I feel – especially considering the collateral damage – that’s quite light.
Of course, part of the reason this isn’t something that the villains of many a story suffer from is that it has passed, somehow, into being acceptable – especially in politics. Both sides of the spectrum do it – but it’s of course easier when you’re a protected class. So Irene Gallo can cheerfully utter calumny about the sad puppies being bad writers, racists, sexists, homophobes etc. knowing she lies in her teeth, with the clear intent to damage the reputations and hurt careers, but safe in ‘oh you’re sexist misogynists’ if called on it. Hillary Clinton takes this a step further, with her ‘basket of deplorable racists etc.’ of her political foes – which is somewhat more vicious in that she adds the ‘some of’. That is interesting from someone with a legal background, as it places the burden of establishing innocence on the victims – as Irene did with her eventually forced not-apology.
You end up with ‘everyone I disagree with is Hitler’ – which seriously degrades the accusations. One day there may be a real ‘Hitler’ or real a sexist, and a real victim/s… and the term will be meaningless.
If you want a real social justice issue to write about, calumny and indeed false witness are much neglected ones. It was a substantial part of the villainy in A Mankind Witch (Heirs of Alexandria Book 2). I kind of like the concept, once again in my admittedly limited understanding of ancient Jewish law, that a man who remained silent when his testimony could have established innocence or guilt was just as guilty. But that has gone out of fashion, these days.
There are two other levels of nasty villainy I came up with in thinking about this. I’ve used both particularly in the HEIRS OF ALEXANDRA books, but also in Cuttlefish by Dave Freer (2012-07-24) and STEAM MOLE. Treachery and treason often go hand in hand, and although treason is out of PC fashion it’s a betrayal of the trust of one’s own people – and potentially the key to things like genocide and enslavement – step ups in the ‘nasty villain’ stakes.
Of course there is one other interesting possibility of a worse villain – and the hardest of all. And that is the hero themselves, especially when dealing things like trust and fear. When you take the psychological mess that being a hero can leave people in – PTSD for just one example – you can have one hell of a book. I’ve done that too, but not well enough for publication.
But failing all that you can always write about sequins.
Oh I’m punting my mailing list again. I need another 21 subscribers to get that vast number – a century, at which I threatened to send out my first test noose-letter and a copy of the short story I wrote in RATS, BATS AND VATS Universe, intended as a seed for the final Harmony and Reason book, and as a commemoration of sorts of the 100th year anniversary of Anzac Day. There’s not a lot about the inflatable rattess business in it.