Writing advice, life advice

Semi-articulate midnight musings:

Anne Lamott's excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird, was lying around the house, so I picked it up the other day intending to put it away, but ended up re-reading some bits of it. I liked this:

Only in the comics and formula movies do we get any pleasure from destroying totally evil and sinister villains, because in those cases they've been systematically depersonalized. They commit only acts of atrocity and sociopathology, and they say terribly evil things, and then we get to ritually kill them. There can be, at the end of the [story], the relief that comes with justice.

[But] you can't write down your intellectual understanding of a hero or villain and expect us to be engaged. You probably have got to find these characters within the community of people who live in your heart.

Or, to put it another way, if you want to write really compelling villains, try to empathize with them. Which might not be a bad idea for the villains of real life as well—regardless of which humans you happen to consider villains.

I suppose an eminent philosopher once said something similar: "Love your enemy." (Another eminent philosopher once said "We have met the enemy, and he is us." I leave it as an exercise to the reader to reconcile these remarks.)

12 Responses to “Writing advice, life advice”

  1. Jacob

    1) I adore Anne Lamott. In anticipation of our baby my wife and I have been re-reading “Operating Instructions”, her journal of her son’s first year.

    2) I’m having trouble thinking of some good examples of compelling villains. I agree that being able to empathize is key — Saruman is a more compelling villain than Sauron, for example. Favorite villains, anyone?

    3) Re: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” If I recall correctly, the eminent philosopher is Walt Kelly, no? Not that I disagree with that characterization.

    Interesting, though — I realized that I’ve always read that not as meaning “Our enemies are actually just people like us” but as meaning “We are the ones who get in our own way — there are no external enemies”. Kind of works both ways.

  2. David Moles

    Steerpike in Gormenghast. (Especially as portrayed by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.) Aside from his near-total lack of empathy and the fact that he kills half a dozen people just to advance his own position, you can’t help but think he’s basically doing the right thing.

  3. Benjamin Rosenbaum

    Shakespeare writes the best villains. Iago, Lady M, Lear’s elder daughters… they are without any pansy-ass modern-style “redeeming qualities”, they are thoroughly evil and often revel in it, but we emphathize with them because of their grandeur and the clarity with which they are revealed to us. Indeed, we see that, as Pogo says, they are us — our own greed, impatience, rage, jealousy, and ambition writ large. We cannot fail to love them on the stage, the more so as we would fear and hate them in real life — they are malevolent pieces of ourselves, set free.

  4. Celia

    I have a problem thinking of this–it’s come up before on a mailing list, and that’s when i noticed that most things that I read have no real villian. I’m thinking back on my recent readings, and the only one who comes to mind is the guy in Galveston. And he wasn’t evil. He was just not good.

    I also think this is the sort of thing that begining writers don’t always get. That everyone is a shade of grey–there is no black-and-white in real life, and the better stories reflect that. And bad guys who are bad for good reasons are really fabulously complicated, and hard to hate. Or maybe I’m just overly empathic.

  5. Vardibidian

    Hmmm. I’m a Dickens man, myself. Bumble, Uriah Heep, John Carker, Jonas Chuzzlewit, Blandois, Tulkinghorn, Fagin and Bill Sikes, and of course Ralph Nickleby, Wackford Squeers, Sir Mulberry Hawk and Arthur Gride. Really compelling villains. I have no idea whether Dickens empathized with them or not.

    So perhaps meant comics, formula movies and Dickens. Of course, I like formula movies; I think that Darth Vader was a more compelling character than Annikin Skywalker.

    Redintegro Iraq,

  6. metasilk

    “Love your enemy.” (Another eminent philosopher once said “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” I leave it as an exercise to the reader to reconcile these remarks.)

    “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” (whatever the old style pronouns are…)

    As for villains:

    Yes, Steerpike, and Iago; not so plausible to me were the Dickens’ ones. Also several portrayed by Dorothy Sayers –thinking of The unpleasantness at the Bellona club, mostly. Wish I had a more robust biomemory and had more at my mental fingertips. Oh well.

  7. Shannon

    I think some of the best villians that come immediately to mind are on TV.

    Lost in space.

    Babylon 5

    – villians whose motives and stories are as interesting, if not more so, than the hero(es)’s arcs.

  8. Jed

    Okay, I should have qualified Lamott’s comments by noting that any highly genred world is likely to have Villains Of Pure Unspeakable Evil. For example, as soon as you know the villains are Nazis—like in the movie Rocketeer (I don’t care what everyone else thinks, I enjoyed it, despite the Worst Blue-Screening Ever) (I don’t remember enough details of the comic to know if this was true there as well), or in Raiders of the Lost Ark—then you know that you can root against them with impunity. You don’t have to worry about them possibly having any redeeming features; when they die horribly you can be thoroughly satisfied, without having to think about what it would be like to watch a real human die that way.

    And I’m not saying that’s bad; there are plenty of heavily genred worlds that I love, and sometimes VOPUEs are a lot of fun, especially if they’re megalomaniacal. But in more nuanced fiction, stuff with more subtlety and more shades of gray, I tend to prefer villains who are real people. And that’s even true in heavily genred worlds, sometimes; I far prefer the Magneto of the Claremont/Byrne run to the generic evil-supervillain Magneto of the early X-Men days.

    There’s sort of another category, too: VOPUEs who are nonetheless incredibly charismatic. As a friend of mine put it about the bad guy in Mulan: “He’s scary! …I’d follow him.” I think that, too, is (even though it’s sometimes over-the-top) a kind of realism; it lets you know that the hordes of faceless henchmen have a good reason for following the bad guy. And it gives the bad guy a little more character, too; perhaps makes him or her two and a half dimensional instead of completely flat.

  9. Jed

    Oh, but I would also note that flaws writ large (Lady Macbeth’s overweening ambition, Shylock’s greed, etc) are not the same as Pure Evil for its own sake. Trying to advance your own agenda is a human motivation; doing evil for no particular reason is a caricature. And even Shakespeare’s villains have their empathetic moments: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” (Answers one web page: “Not With QuikClot Handy!” But I digress.)

  10. Celia

    Yeah, I think this is one reason why propaganda is so blatant. You can’t say “This is Hans. He has two children and a mother depending on him. Hitler promised him a better life for all of them if he helps rid the world of the impure.” You have to say “This is an EVIL, FACELESS Nazi drone who’s only mission in life is destroying you and all you value.” It’s the same-though-reverse way that the starving children ads are supposed to work. You can ignore thousands of miserable starving children, but you can’t ignore poor little Mary on a dirty street.

    I usually prefer bad guys who aren’t cardboard, but there are times, I suppose, that a more cardboard villian is as useful as a carefully detailed one. Even then, though, I think the careful application of 3-D elements can add a lot to a villian and a story. But I’ll sur up, cause I’m probably preaching to the converted here.

  11. MCAH

    Hey, I like Sauron! It’s pretty safe to hate with vitriol a GIANT FLAMING EYE, right? 😉

    Isn’t that, at some point, the point? To occasionally give feelings of anger and hatred a safe target? Life is gray, so sometimes resting your eyes on black and white is just that: rest.

  12. Hannah

    I think this is where I always want to point to George R.R. Martin’s monster series. It’s been a neat progression for the characters of that one; they started out fairly black and white, fairly bad-guy-good-guy, but as the series progresses, they’ve ended up more and more, “Geez, they’re all awfully screwed up, aren’t they?”

    I somehow doubt it’s a coincidence that I’m much more attached to the characters now than I was when I read the first book. (Though sometimes it’s a “He’s icky…but I feel bad for him anyway,” attachment.)

    And the Rocketeer? Is cool.


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