Hello, all you Awesome Readers! Today, as you might have guessed from the headline, we’re so very pleased to introduce a new feature to Genre Talk here on The Novel Approach Reviews, in the form of a quarterly column from the esteemed DSP Publications author Lloyd A. Meeker, who has graciously agreed join us every few months to talk about various subjects as they relate to writing and genre, and probably a lot of other things. So allow us to step aside and get right to it.
Through My Lens
— Through My Lens is just that – a glimpse of my thoughts, questions and opinions about writing craft issues, conditioned by my idiosyncratic worldview, my opinions, my perspective, my sensibilities. You’re in no way obliged to agree with me. In fact, I’m very interested to hear other perspectives. I welcome any comments that stimulate civil discourse. —
Nuanced Villains and the Problem of Acceptable Collateral Damage
“Drop the gun, Asshole! Drop it or she dies.”
Just from that single line of dialogue, you know instantly what’s going on: We’re almost at the end of the movie. The bad guy has the beautiful and feisty female love interest held tight against his chest, his gun at her temple. He shouts past her ear at the good guy, who was just a little too slow to get the drop on him.
Nine times out of ten, the good guy holds out his gun by the trigger guard, letting it hang useless from a finger. “Okay,” he says in a calm voice. “I’m putting down the gun. Just don’t hurt her.”
What we have in this well-worn scene is a collision of two distinctly different value systems, specifically concerning what constitutes acceptable collateral damage incurred while accomplishing a goal. The bad guy is willing to use the love interest as a human shield. He doesn’t care whether she lives or dies, he just wants whatever he wants.
The good guy, no matter how committed to his mission he’s been up to this point, is stymied. Some amalgam of love and chivalry tells him the death of his love interest is unacceptable collateral damage, regardless of his supremely important mission, regardless of the expectation of losing his own life. She must not die while he is alive.
As the story proceeds, for some reason (perhaps merely raw plot necessity) the bad guy does not immediately shoot the good guy dead. Instead he chortles and gloats, explains how clever he is and what he’s going to do next to achieve his goal.
(Just to complete the formulaic loop, even though it’s not central to this article, you know that while the villain gloats he’s failing as an effective villain. For his failure in true villainy he will soon be vanquished, either by the feisty and ingenious heroine or the wounded and noble hero who digs soul-deep for the strength to mount just one more strike. You in the back row, I saw you yawning! Stop that or the whole room will fall asleep.)
One of the best short-version definitions of a protagonist I’ve come across comes from James N. Frey (How to Write a Damn Good Novel): a character who struggles to overcome increasingly difficult obstacles in pursuit of a goal. Interestingly, that can define a villain, too. So what’s the difference?
Most of our stories focus on the problems the hero encounters, but looking at the struggle of the villain to achieve his goals and the price he is willing to pay (or have others pay) to achieve them can be a powerful and fruitful line of exploration for an author. In fact, if you are at all interested in having a sympathetic villain, then show more of his struggle. According to my research, many readers feel more for those whose struggles they can share.
One compelling, bedrock way to show the difference between hero and villain is to explore what “acceptable collateral damage” means to each of them as they each pursue their opposing goals. This gives you a useful way to flesh out interestingly nuanced villains and imperfect heroes, instead of the psychological equivalent of stereotypical Black Hat/White Hat conflicts.
As an aside, I want to acknowledge that however much collateral damage is acceptable to a character (hero or villain) can change. Or the goal that the character has at the beginning of a story can change. Those changes make possible a redeemable villain or a tragic hero. But back to the issue at hand.
It is impossible for any of us to go through life without causing harm. That’s part of the human condition. If we haven’t already done so (and most of us have, in spades) at some point we will even hurt those we love the most, let alone innocent creatures we share the planet with. This is why we can relate to both heroes and villains. We recognize them both as us.
The key in this particular argument is one not just of degree, but also of awareness. In general, the narrower the scope of awareness a character is able to sustain, the less he sees of the harm he is causing further afield. Myopia makes it easier for him to dismiss the effects of his behavior.
Every choice has consequences. Even the least self-aware person must occasionally face—and take responsibility for—unintended consequences of his actions. That’s life. The hero and the villain show their respective characters by how they respond to facing the consequences of their actions. I’m not just talking about the big choices, either, but also the small choices a character makes over and over.
My argument is that evil flourishes in the dark of deliberate ignorance—when a character chooses to ignore the ripple effects of his choices. In this convenient dishonesty it’s possible for a character to feel immune from any obligation to care about what he chooses to ignore. When Hanna Arendt covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann, she described this insular, carefully protected ignorance as part of what she called the banality of evil. Such a good term.
At the easy and obvious end of the villain spectrum we have the narcissistic sociopath. Even if he’s thought about the impact of his actions at all, which isn’t likely, he doesn’t care who gets hurt as he pursues his goal. It wouldn’t matter if he did look more carefully at the impact of his actions. He’s a sociopath, which means he doesn’t care. Any collateral damage is acceptable, simply because he wants what he wants.
Examples of this kind of villain could be: a businessman who comfortably lies, cheats, betrays and bullies his way to personal wealth; Dorian Gray, in the famous story about his portrait; Tosca’s Scarpia; a politician who is willing to dismember the constitutional foundations of his country to consolidate his power, all while invoking the promise of making his country great again.
Radical ideologues also belong near this end of the spectrum: the Inquisitor who doesn’t count the number of women he’s reverently burned at the stake in order to save their souls, praying for them while they screamed in the fire, or the reparative therapist who believes homosexuality is a disease that can be cured. In their mind they’re doing good work—often, sadly, God’s work.
There’s a long list of stories featuring villains like this. Generally, they may regret—but remain undeterred by—the collateral damage their efforts cause. The reparative therapist regrets the suicide of his young client, but he can still help so many others. These villains feel absolved by the purity and nobility of their cause. The fires of righteous certainty burn like a drug in their veins, justifying whatever calumny they think they need to commit.
Personally, I find these villains unlikely to be gripping characters even though we see them in the news all the time. Martin Shkreli is a despicable but not particularly interesting character. He’s shallow, venal, and, well, small. Too small to be a good villain.
The nuanced villain, however, fascinates me.
Here’s one I made up just for this post—it’s fiction, remember! Consider this decent, socialized villain. He loves his family, he goes to church every week. He’s faithful to his wife, and tries to be fair in all his personal dealings. He’s active in his neighborhood association. He works hard, makes a solid salary, and donates generously to an unimpeachable charity or two. He is a prudent investor, and scrupulously sets aside money for his children’s college education. To maintain this good life, he has chosen to work for a company that specializes in fracking technologies to extract fossil fuels.
He knows exactly what gets pumped into the ground, how far it travels in any given aquifer, and what it might do to generations of human beings and animals living in the affected areas. What makes him a villain is that he carefully chooses—every day when he goes to the office and with every deposited paycheck—to ignore the collateral damage of his work. He can’t afford to think about it—he has too much personal comfort and security at stake. He does all this to take care of his family, and who can argue with that?
But the chemicals his company injects into the ground will never affect the water where he lives, and his children will never be exposed to their toxicity. Like their gated community home, the private school his daughters attend is far from any ecological danger. Even so, he’s installed an elaborate reverse osmosis water purifier in his home, which he has tested by a lab every month. He cares for his family, after all. (Do you see how this little behavior is a “tell” that he really can’t ignore what he’s doing at work? His own behavior undercuts his denial, even though he has a perfectly solid rationalization for having the pure water factory in his home. Delicious villainy!)
Like the tobacco scientists of past decades who testified under oath that no link could be established between smoking and lung cancer, this villain must deny the link between what he does every working day and the damage to countless lives which he helps to cause, simply because otherwise his livelihood and the comfortable life of his family would be jeopardized.
This man, should he be confronted directly with the realities of his behavior, wouldn’t change. The poisoned lives of many hundreds of people—for generations into the future—would constitute regrettable but perfectly acceptable collateral damage as he provides for his wife and children. Here’s the key – if the collateral damage becomes unacceptable, then something has to change. I can tell you this villain does not want change. Life (for him) is good. He loves the status quo.
What happens when the status quo, long supported by unspoken or unexamined choices, is challenged? Therein lies a telling difference between hero and villain. Most likely, the hero shows a conscience. Perhaps he rejects his previous pattern of choices, choosing to grow and change. It’s likely, however, that the villain becomes defensive, even defiant, and more deeply entrenched in his existing position.
In short, when confronted with whatever unacknowledged collateral damage he’s caused, the hero will likely grow as a human being. The villain will harden his heart so he can remain on his preferred course. He will likely justify his behavior, and perhaps even seek to silence the whistleblower by whatever means necessary. The whistleblower might become acceptable collateral damage, too, if your story is a mystery or thriller.
In the fantasy I’ve just finished writing, I’ve contrasted two distinct traditions of magic. One derives its power from what I call the Great Balance of Nature, and practitioners must work within the flow and rhythm of its dictates. My heroine is a practitioner of this magic. The other tradition, by far the dominant one in my story’s culture, the tradition with all the status, wealth and political power, does not take the balance of nature into account at all. Its practice relies only on the willpower, skill and knowledge of the caster. Both the villain and the heroine’s lover are practitioners of this tradition.
My villain considers himself a man of integrity. And in a way he is, because he has carefully reviewed his choices to torture and kill others to attain his goals, and is perfectly at peace with the agony he causes. He specializes in what I called blood magic, that is, using the life essence of someone to force them to behave against their character and will. He’s also quite proud of being impeccable in keeping his word, and fulfilling his side of any bargain he strikes. As is often observed, every villain is a hero in the story he tells himself.
So as you write your nuanced villain, or read one in a story, ask yourself, “What aspect of the collateral damage he causes can this character NOT afford to acknowledge without facing the deeper question as to changing or doubling down? How far down this path is far enough for him?”
Maybe at that critical moment the villain acknowledges the damage he’s caused in pursuit of his goal and says, “I don’t care.” But maybe he says, “Enough.” Some repressed glimmer of humanity and compassion flickers, illuminating the barren life he inhabits. Then what?
If the villain chooses to evolve, then his redemption must be congruent with the damage he’s caused. Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation blesses those he has most directly harmed. Darth Vader dies saving his son from the Emperor. But redemption demands a separate discussion about the problem of justice, a discussion for another time.
About the Author
I’m a mystic, writer, healer, lover, cancer survivor, father, friend. I write (mostly) gay fiction featuring all those paths and more.
Having led what can only be described as a checkered life, I can honestly say I’m grateful for all of it. I’ve been a minister, an office worker, a janitor, a drinker, and a software developer on my way to finishing my first novel in 2004.
But basically I’m just a weather-worn psychic empath still learning how to live in the world just the way it is. The thing is, I experience the world as so much more than is generally accepted. That’s the challenge. Writing stories is the best way I’ve found to examine and share the questions, the wonders I engage daily.
My husband and I have been together since 2002, married since 2007. Between us we have four children and five grandchildren. We’re based in south Florida, and work hard to keep up with the astonishing life we’ve created for ourselves.