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Evil vs. Hope

Several years ago, I participated in a book signing at a Hastings bookstore in some far corner of my state, and while I was waiting for the session to start I found myself chatting with a store janitor cleaning the aisles. When this man found out I was there to autograph copies of my latest fantasy novel, he mentioned the Harry Potter series. J. K. Rowling’s stories were then new and wildly popular, and this man was unsure about them. The popularity of the books worried him. He wasn’t sure about their themes of magic and sorcery. He was concerned about children reading the stories and how those stories might influence young minds to turn to the darker side of human nature. Most of all, he feared the villain he’d heard about.

My answer to him was as follows:  If you don’t write about evil in a story, how can you dramatize good overcoming it?

It made him think in a new direction. He went back to sweeping and I resumed signing books. My answer was a valid one because fiction needs a villain to test the hero and force the hero to change and/or grow; however, the janitor’s concerns should be taken seriously and not brushed aside. In the years since, they have stayed with me.

This morning I was reading an article called “Why We Need Utopian Fiction Now More Than Ever” by Eleanor Tremeer. It’s about the growing desirability for utopian themes to return to science fiction. As our real world careens through a climate of uncertainty and anarchy, it needs hope.

The author raises a good point; however, science fiction has a long history of reflecting the current times and whatever fears the population has. For example, the Cold War and its constant threat of nuclear attack generated numerous stories about mutant monsters such as Godzilla rampaging against a helpless population. Our current glut of dystopian settings mirrors concerns about climate change and societal unrest.

Even so, I confess that I’m ready for some optimism in my fiction. I find myself worrying about the present state of so-called children’s fiction where it seems that anything goes. Do middle-grade children need to read dark, edgy stories that feature violence and disturbing anti-social behavior? If I stand on my answer to the janitor, yes. Books need evil in them, providing it’s overcome.

But if it’s allowed to prevail, what are we doing?

As I pick up book after book in the kids section at my local bookstore, I find myself sharing that janitor’s concerns. In children’s fiction, we need to take care. I’m not recommending that we censor books unilaterally, but shouldn’t we be asking ourselves: What does this story have to say? How will this affect a child reader? Will this provoke a child to ask questions? Will this influence a child to be more sensitive to the feelings of others? Will this inspire a child to be braver, more honest, and emotionally receptive? Will this frighten a child? Will this teach a child that lying is okay? Will this desensitize a child? Or will this make a child think, so that in the future the child can make connections and understand bigger, more challenging themes or issues in part because of having read this book?

Such issues used to be called the responsibility of authors toward child readers. Publishers, librarians, and teachers were gate-keepers that steered young readers to stories they might be ready for and away from stories that were perhaps too intense or confusing for them at their particular age. It went hand-in-glove with broadcasting’s prime-time regulations for television content, stipulating that certain programs could not be aired until 9 p.m. when children were in bed. There was a general agreement that children were to be protected–not just by their parents, but by all adults. At the same time, middle-class American society permitted any adult to reprimand a child for improper behavior anywhere at any time.

Having grown up in that era, I enjoyed a childhood with a bubble around it. I was protected yet given considerable freedom to play and roam just about anywhere in my community. My mother knew that the elderly lady down the street would phone her if I was doing something I shouldn’t. And I knew that if I ran into trouble I couldn’t handle, I could seek help from an adult. The single warning criteria repeatedly stressed was never to get into a car with someone I didn’t know.

That is not our world today. It is not the world that children grow up in now. The bubble has been shattered. Chide a misbehaving child in public, and you run the risk of having her parent attack you like a ferocious she-wolf. Helicopter parents guard and hover over their children, who rarely set foot outdoors and seem managed constantly. Stranger Danger is the lesson kids are taught, and they are so shielded from adults that all grownups are perceived to be a) monsters or b) totally without authority or relevance.

I find it odd that despite so much parental protection, no one seems to be watching the content of children’s books. They are troubling due to their tone, the behavior of the characters, the rudeness and profanity that now sprinkle the pages, the inability of a child protagonist to stand alone, thus gaining self-reliance and independence, and–most alarming of all–their lack of conclusive endings where evil is met, confronted, and defeated.

When stories don’t dramatize the termination of villainy, they are themselves, in their cumulative effect, villainous.

Which brings me back to Tremeer’s point about our current need for hope in fiction. When you do not feature a true villain that can be confronted, outwitted, and defeated, you are serving defeatism.

You are writing a pessimistic story that leaves nowhere for readers to go. You are saying, this is a bad situation and it can’t be fixed. It will go on and on without end, without resolution. Just survive it as best you can.

That’s not the approach to fiction that I know or love or believe in. It’s not the approach to life that I want to have. It’s not what I want to see spoon-fed to children as entertainment.

Do you?


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Sparkle: Boo Those Villains!

It’s been said that the villain makes or breaks a thriller novel.

I think that could be said about any fictional story. Antagonism makes plot work. Just as a body builder uses a gradual increase in weights to create the resistance that strengthens muscle, so does a story hero need an opponent in order to change, grow, meet and surpass challenges, and ultimately win.

Often in class, I utilize the term antagonist or opponent to get students thinking about the principle of opposition. I want them to understand that a scene antagonist doesn’t have to be the story villain. Friends, for example, can disagree about how to achieve a common objective.

But for this post, I want to discuss villains and villainy. In the current era of often-sappy political correctness, we may find ourselves squirming, uncomfortable with the perjorative term of villain.

Fiddlesticks! Get over your civilized squeamishness and face it squarely for what it is.


This person is bad. This person does bad things to others. This person has embraced evil and likes it.

Or . . . this person has embraced evil and feels guilty about it, but not enough to stop.

Writers can play all day long with the motivations for evil. They can design lengthy, psychologically intricate profiles and back story for such characters. They can decide whether they want to side with “nature or nurture” as a reason for such bad behavior.

I was talking with thriller writer Eileen Dryer several years ago at a writer’s conference in Denver, and she defined evil as “banal.”

Meaning, in other words, that evil is the stupid, trite, ill-planned, impulsive behavior that harms others.

That’s certainly a form of it, one that’s so distressing and hard to deal with in real life. An example would be the half-drunk boyfriend who shakes his girlfriend’s baby too hard to stop it from crying. In the subsequent trial, the man may weep and mumble, “I didn’t mean to do it.” And we feel disgust and anger at the careless waste of an innocent life.

Certainly banal evil can play a useful role in fiction, but I think it’s most effective in combination with planned, intentional villainy.

The hit television drama DOWNTON ABBEY turns heavily on the machinations of two bad servants: Thomas Barrow and Miss O’Brien. Their evil-doing is often banal, and their villainy mild: thieving from the house to supply a wartime black market business, sabotaguing a new footman from motives of petty jealousy, hiding the earl’s dinner shirts so that his valet looks like a fool, abducting the earl’s beloved dog in order to pretend to find her and perhaps gain promotion from a grateful employer … most of these actions are designed around gaining a promotion or getting a work rival fired. That’s serious enough: in the 1920s, being fired without an employer’s reference meant no chance of a job elsewhere and subsequent ruin or starvation.

We laugh at their pranks, yet these characters are capable at any time of crossing stronger lines, of doing real harm with shattering consequences. SPOILER ALERT!!!!! O’Brien causes the miscarriage of a baby, and her guilt over that is something she has to live with. She also wages a long, clever campaign of trickery with the intention of putting Barrow in prison.

We can’t feel sorry for O’Brien with her sour outlook on life and her restless resentment of her privileged employers. If she’s ever pushed too far, just how ruthless might she become? Writer/creator Julian Fellowes nimbly skips back and forth over the line of what is a prank and what might become villainy, keeping his audience tuned in every week.

Another example: Bobby is a teenage football star of his high school, caught up in the jealous angst of his first relationship going sour. He catches some dweeb with “his” girl at a party. Outside, the boys argue. Bobby loses his temper and knocks the other boy down. The boy lands awkwardly, hitting his head on the curb, and dies.

Up to this point, Bobby Banal is just acting on his emotions. He’s committed a wrong, but it wasn’t intentional–at least not to the extreme of manslaughter.

Now, Bobby has a choice. Is he going to run into the house and get others to help him? Is he going to whip out his phone and dial 9-1-1?

Or is he going to hide the body in his car trunk, mop up the blood, and drive away to stage an “accident?”

The line where Bobby crosses the boundary into villainy is very clear here, isn’t it? Do you also see how Bobby Badguy just became more interesting?

We don’t like him. We don’t want him to get away with this. Yet we can’t help but feel an illicit thrill of curiosity. How far will he get before he’s caught? No, no, Bobby! Don’t do this!

A fiction writer will then put the squeeze on Bobby (to use old hardboiled detective parlance).

Because Bobby Badguy didn’t quite get away with hiding the body. He thought it happened in the dark where no one saw and no one heard over the music and noise of the party, but what if the girlfriend was watching?

Now what choice will Bobby make? Does he fold, start crying, apologize to Mindy, and let her call the cops?

Or does he coerce her into keeping his secret? What hold might he have over her? What might he do to create such leverage?

And so Bobby can continue to devolve as a human being into a villain. Until he becomes a hunted, cornered, pathetic, broken individual who’s either arrested or shot down by the police.

One of the best devolvements (is this even a word?) in storytelling that I’ve ever come across is the character trajectory of Michael Corleone as depicted in Mario Puzo’s novel and the masterful Francis Ford Coppola films.

Michael begins the story looking fairly clean. He knows what his father and brothers do, but he’s been kept out of the business. He’s above all that. He’s a war hero. He has other plans for his life. His father wants him to be a senator, and you see him making the first tentative steps in that direction by his wooing the beautiful WASP girl who has the right looks and background for a politician’s wife.

When you’re watching the film you may be distracted by his good looks and the persuasive way he expresses himself to the girl he’s interested in. You may believe what he’s saying.

Once you look at him more closely, however, you realize his introduction is that of a man who’s lying, who’s living in denial. He’s pretending that he’s untouched by the criminal activity, yet he knows about it and has never acted against it. That’s the first false step.

As soon as Don Corleone is ambushed at the street market and seriously injured, Michael’s true nature is revealed: one of an intense, determined, ruthless killer out for revenge.

And by the end of the second film, Michael has ordered his brother’s execution. He’s far more ruthless than his father, a far more dangerous villain, and now someone capable of fratricide. There have been many choices he could have made to truly change himself for the better, but Michael put himself on this path. He wasn’t ever forced into it, no matter what he might claim.

A book sparkles when it has a well-designed villain, someone who wants to do bad things to the sympathetic characters. You don’t have to write about Mafia dons or some Hannibal Lecter clone. You can stay at a much milder end of the spectrum if you choose.

Let’s examine the character Sara Crewe, protagonist of the children’s classic, A LITTLE PRINCESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Sara’s nemesis is the strict, regimented Miss Minchin, proprietess of the girls’ school that Sara attends.

As long as Sara’s bills are paid, Miss Minchin pours on the phoney charm. She has a business to run. Wealthy pupils like Sara are cultivated and catered to in order to keep child and parents happy. Happy parents will recommend her establishment to others. Every business owner understands the need for good PR.

But as soon as Sara’s father dies and word comes that Sara has no inheritance at all, Miss Minchin is furious. Not because she hates Sara, but because she chose to purchase many luxuries for the child on credit, expecting Sara’s father to pay for them. Now, Miss Minchin must return the items or swallow the loss. It’s a blow she doesn’t expect, and she blames the child.

In the Victorian world, sentiment, sweetness, and compassion toward children extended only so far, only if they could be afforded. Miss Minchin turns Sara into an unpaid servant, using her labor as the means by which Sara can repay the debt her father owed to Miss Minchin. And in fact, Miss Minchin believes that she’s been kind by not throwing Sara out into the street to starve.

Where Miss Minchin becomes a villain is through her angry blame of Sara for the problem, her unkindness in telling Sara of the father’s death in a harsh way, her casting Sara into a belowstairs world of poverty and neglect. There are any number of ways in which she could handle the situation with more understanding and compassion. If she treated her servants fairly, they wouldn’t be so stressed and cruel to Sara in turn.

It’s important to remember that wickedness puts verve into a story. Don’t be timid in making your antagonists into villains. Let them see the line and cross it.

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In Search of Villains

Why is it so hard to find a truly bad guy (or gal)? In our efforts to render multi-dimensional characters, have we gone too far down the road of understanding and/or excusing wrong behavior?

Fiction needs conflict in order to test the protagonist and advance the story from its opening to its closure.

Conflict comes from the antagonist. For years now, I’ve been carefully using the term antagonist most of the time because I wanted to convey to my students that the opponent in a scene need not be Snidely Whiplash.

However, I’ve grown weary of that namby-pamby approach. What I’m looking for is a well-designed villain, someone who’s evil and intent on harming or thwarting the protagonist.

Serial killers qualify, but they’ve outworn their welcome. Let’s get over the psychotic insanity and find a motivation that’s a little more clever, shall we?

How can a villain harm an individual? Let me count the ways ….

Embezzlement? Blackmail? Ruin? Identity theft? Robbery? Abduction? Emotional slavery? Abuse? Bullying?

On the surface, embezzlement seems rather tame. A bit dusty. Certainly dry.

But is it? It was, if you recall, the underlying motivation for the villain in the film GHOST. Patrick Swayze’s best friend electronically transferred a few million and got himself in trouble.

John Sandford’s novel, BROKEN PREY, features a trio of geeks that electronically drain the bank account of a powerful Mexican drug cartel.

Real-life crook Bernie Madoff siphoned off the pensions of so many people who are now facing uncertain futures and impoverished retirements.

This year, I assumed management of one of my father’s business accounts. It only took a quick comparison of my checkbook balance versus his to show me how easily a person in financial trouble could stumble down the road of temptation.

Embezzlement is more than taking someone’s money. It breaks trust as well, and that hurt can stab deep.

Blackmail? Oh, tosh! No one can be blackmailed these days. Modern society no longer deals with guilt or its sister, shame. People behave as they please. All kinds of indiscretions float through Facebook, and even a princely scandal fades fast.

There is, however, emotional blackmail. One family member coercing another within the entangled webs of dysfunctional families. A wealthy, elderly relative can force her children and grandchildren to put up with her demands in order to inherit her money.

A rebellious teenager can manipulate his parents, pitting them against each other and possibly even pushing them toward divorce.

Blackmail operates best on a foundation of guilt, but it’s really about the inequity of power between two people.

Robbery? Muggings happen. These days, the fear of having your identity stolen due to a robbery preys on people’s peace of mind–less for the inconvenience of losing cash in the wallet and more for the supreme nightmare of juggling bureaucratic red tape to restore everything.

But what if you’re a courier entrusted with the formula for a remedy that will cure cancer? The formula has been sold to a pharmaceutical company, and you’re supposed to deliver it. Only you never arrive.

Robbery, in today’s world, needs to have enormous consequences.

Wait! Let’s define what “enormous consequences” means.

Consider a little girl in the year 1900 that’s given a dime–all the money the family has until payday a week away–and she’s sent to buy a loaf of soft white bread because that’s all her ailing grandmother can eat.

If the dime is stolen, or if the loaf of bread is stolen, aren’t the consequences to that child and her family also dire? What happens to the grandmother if she can’t eat anything? She will weaken and possibly die. If they love her, they’ll be devastated. The child will blame herself. What if no one helps her understand this isn’t her fault? Or what if a grieving parent does blame her? How can she make restitution?

There are so many ways for characters to hurt each other, and so many paths of evil that the bad guy can take. In writing, remember to think through why an antagonist selects the course of action he or she chooses. The motivation doesn’t have to be one that will activate compassion in the reader. Sometimes, villains are just mean because they enjoy it. Effective story conflict doesn’t always require readers to feel that the villain is justified in some way. As my father would say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” The bad guy’s mother may beat him black and blue every morning before school, and that won’t justify his bullying a scared little first-grader out of her lunch.

No matter why, he’s practicing extortion. We can understand where it comes from, but we don’t have to paint it a sympathetic color in an effort to have a complex character. Wouldn’t it be better to keep reader sympathies with the six-year-old who has nothing to eat all day?

Or, if we want to make a protagonist out of the boy, then he should not let the beating drive him to commit wrong. It takes a mighty strong character to break the cycle of violence and abuse. If this boy has that kind of character, then how will he defeat the abusive mother without degenerating to her level?

Fiction needs villains in order to keep story conflict going. Study James Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY for examples of how banal evil can be.


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