Tag Archives: characters

Villains and Villainy

10 Mar
"Villainc" by Caricature by J.J., Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Villainc” by Caricature by J.J., Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter is probably my favorite villain of all time. I am, of course, referring to Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal in the film, Silence of the Lambs. You can see a ‘bad guy’ done perfectly here. His motives are understandable – if repugnant – and his actions have the weight of inevitability. The way he manipulates other characters is amazing – reaching two or three connections out from the people he touches – and if you deconstruct the story, you see that there is no other way it could have gone. And for all his power and gravity, Dr. Lecter is only on screen for a few minutes. He doesn’t get in the way of the story, but the story could not exist without him.

By contrast, Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Walter White, in Breaking Bad, was all character study. It was exquisite, yes (even Anthony Hopkins was awed by it), but in so many ways, Walter White is part of the problem with villains and villainy. Every action and forward movement in his story comes at a high cost of humanity and goodness. And while it is the theme of the story to show how very bad things can go, there is nothing left in the end. Walter White is unlikeable, but the series is constructed so that you sympathize while he brings everything around him into Hell. It is sleight of hand – a trick. The entire story is held together with spit and the promise of resolution, somewhere down the line.

I’m sure much more has been written, by smarter, more attractive people than myself, on this subject. I cannot leave it alone. So much of my life revolves around understanding how and why stories work. And at the core of much of it lies conflict, overcoming obstacles, and the clash between characters. I can’t just sit back and enjoy Star Wars, without taking apart Darth Vader. Is this the story of the ‘Black Knight’? Is it redemption? Or is that just the background, and it’s really about the two different ways of wielding power?

( ( Oh, and by the way: this is why Episodes 1, 2, and 3 were terrible. Who cares about Anakin Skywalker? Huh? He grows up to be a bad guy – a very important bad guy – but that don’t make him interesting. Ya dig? Now, Obi-Wan on the other hand… ) )

Sometimes, this is how writing feels - other times, it's no fun at all

Sometimes, this is how writing feels – other times, it’s no fun at all

Okay, this is how I get all turned around. I avoid conflict in my real life. Arguments, fights – all the normal please-don’t-hit-me kind of stuff. I’m not pathological about it, but I think I’m a considerate, conscientious person. And when I’m hip deep in a story, when the body count is rising, when the good guys and the bad guys are getting ready to rumble… I sabotage myself. It is easy for me to come up with ways for the conflict to get put aside, for the characters to find common ground. After all, in real life that is what I would do. It takes an act of will for me to push those people into the fight. Sometimes, this is exactly what throws me from my groove.

But if all my characters are set up – if my villain and all the little obstacles are right – then the conflict writes itself. I don’t have to justify their actions, or even spell them out for the reader. It can be a simple, beguiling tale, that draws the reader inevitably towards the conclusion. And it doesn’t have to be heavy handed. No one wants to watch Bad Guy Presents: Bad Guy, in Story Title – starring Bad Guy. I mean, maybe that’s what some people want. But to go back to Silence of the Lambs for a moment: this is a story about Clarice Starling, and the way she deals with the evil she comes into contact with. It is beautifully done.

I am still studying my craft, working on it every day. And this problem – villains, antagonists, foes – is what is on my desk right now. The next big project I am making notes on relies on who the ‘bad guy’ is, and what different characters want. Like everything else, it feels like a puzzle that doesn’t have a definitive solution – just workable measures. Maybe there is a lesson in that as well?


Names, Power

8 May


names carved into the Great Wall

names carved into the Great Wall

Of all the things a writer must decide on when putting together a story, nothing is quite as important as names. Place names are fairly important, of course, if you’re in the process of world-building. But the names of your main characters are so essential to get right. Assemble this part of your story the wrong way and it will sound a sour note in the reader’s mind – it can actually throw me out of the story. Get it right, however, and you may just change the reference point for that name, for all time.

Of course, none of this is new – if you’ve ever had the honor of naming a child, you surely understand gravity of such a responsibility. People have been struggling with names ever since the concept was written down. And just like real life heroes and villains, the characters for books, stories, and movies feed on and inform that cycle. The name Adolph can’t be separated from its negative associations, just as Clark is usually followed by Kent in my mind. The very idea of names taking up this huge, public space is a big deal. Just think about the fact that so many names in current usage come straight out of the bible. It’s kind of hard to imagine a bunch of folks running around the Middle East named Joseph, Mary, Thomas, Peter, and Paul.

On the surface, it is simple. Names are used to identify things, individually or by class or category. They can be casual, or formal. They can be precise and scientific, or sloppy and irregular. I have given a lot of thought to this – maybe too much. But wait – there’s a real cool video that talks about ‘things’ that have weird names:

Suffice it to say, names have power. It is more significant than the power of language. It gives ownership in some respect to the person who gives the name. What if that space under your nose was called something else? How does the name for the back of your elbow change the way you think about it? If it sounds pretty, or useful, will we use it more? And does that usage change the actual importance of the object? And how about this classic mind-twister:

The brain named itself.

How cool is that? It reminds me of a joke: “I used to think my brain was the most important organ in my body. But then I realized who was telling me that.”

So, the naming process has power. Discover a new land and that place could carry your fingerprints – forever. The same with a new animal, or new disease, or (I assume) new planet filled with hives of flying, horse-sized spider/scorpions. Yeah. That would be an important time to brand those things correctly. Now, fortunately, there are naming conventions to be observed in most of our world. And – to bring it back to relevant territory – these rules can even apply to fiction.

There are so-called naming tropes you can refer to. You can push against them, by mixing up expectations and genders. You can slide into cliche and the familiar, or push them into new territory. It is a tough passage to negotiate, and the more important the character (or place, or robot-monkey ship) the harder it is to chose wisely. You can’t throw caution to the wind and just throw a dart at a board, but it is definitely best to play with the ideas.

I have found great tools and tricks, but I have never found the one, perfect way to get it done. It is a process that I have to reinvent, every time I start a new project. Sometimes, it is simple and other times… Well, honestly, other times I just give up. Thanks to the miracle of find/replace, all names are changeable. I found a story I had written years ago, but the main character’s name was too close to one of my friends – someone I hadn’t even met when I wrote the first draft.

I guess that’s my takeaway for today. Nothing is carved in stone, everything is subject to revision – right up until it goes to press. And in our increasingly digital world, even then there are always options. For now, my characters named John, Ruth, or Gabe will remain. Perhaps, when I have gone through a few rounds of rewrites, they will become more clear, better defined. I long for the clarity and direction that the right name brings though. Like the perfect turn of phrase, or the deus ex machina at the end of the movie, I wait for that person to arrive, sort out all my trouble, and carry my tale to a happy ending.

Is that too much to ask for? Probably, but I’ll keep writing, and hoping, and waiting.