Thursday, July 31, 2014

Thoughtful About . . . Bad Guys


One of the lessons I heard taught in one of the first writing classes I took at my very first conference touched on bad guys--and how a writer's job is to look inside them and find a redeeming quality to make them three-dimensional.

Good advice. Except sometimes, in a book, I get pretty sick of bad guys with redeeming qualities that come off as excuses. He was abused, he thinks this will get him love, he's motivated by the death of his true love, yada yada yada. I guess in my head there are two different kinds of bad guys--the antagonist, who's just working against the hero but may not be bad, and the villain. The villain has evil in his heart. The villain desires destruction. The villain has systematically squashed all the good in himself.

Personally, I like a story with both.

As I'm digging (slowly) into my second Edwardian book, I realized that I have quite the team of baddies in this one. I've got my ultimate villain, who's still playing it cool and quiet, who no one will realize yet was the mastermind behind the whole series (mwa ha ha ha). I've got my secondary baddie who everyone will think is the ultimate one, who continues through the whole series. I've got my seriously-hurt-my-heroine, for-this-book-only dude, who's violent and a liar and yet thinks he's acting out of love (see, redeeming quality! LOL).

Then I've got my heroine's father. It would be easy to make him a cookie-cutter abusive dad. He beats her. Not blinded-by-rage-and-nearly-kills-her kind of beating, but the methodical, make-sure-it-doesn't-show kind. The won't-you-ever-learn-this-lesson? kind. Wrong, yes. But does he hate her? Is he just cruel? Is there more to him?

I'm rather sick of excuses for sin and evil in our world. Sure, people get carried away. Sure, people are affected by earlier traumas. Sure, we all have reasons for our mistakes--but they should never be a crutch. They should remain reasons, not excuses. We can't excuse sin. So I don't ever want to pardon what my characters do. I don't want to justify it. I don't want to make it right.

But I do want to dig deep enough into their fictional psyches to make them make sense. And sometimes that's hard.

Digging into Douglas (the abusive father) the other night, I realized that he isn't trying to make his daughter weak, to get his own way. He's trying to make her strong. His abuse began when her mother fell out of his favor, and the thing he came to despise about his wife was that she was weak. Not strong enough to deserve his name. Not strong enough to deserve their heritage. And Gusty is his only child, heir to his estate and title (this is Scotland of 1912, remember). The last thing he wants is to pass everything to a weakling who will lose it. So when he sees Gusty acting like her mother, he punishes her. He sees it as hardening steel in a fire.

She sees it as hatred, cruelty, a tyrant trying to break her. So of course, she reacts by trying to avoid the punishment. Trying to please him--or more, stay out of his way. She draws in instead of acting out. And so appears ever weaker to his eyes. When the book opens, though, she's reached her breaking point--she's about to explode, and she's finally about to take a stand. She expects his all-out rage.

Instead, she's going to earn his respect for the first time.

Now I would never, ever, ever excuse such violence. It's not right, and it's never going to come across as right in the book. But it's also going to turn out to be pretty important that her father doesn't hate her. (Don't know that I would say he knows how to love her, but...) It's going to be important to realize that these people misunderstood each other for a decade. It's going to be important to see that, when it comes down to it, her father chooses the path that will protect her--more, that will enable her to protect herself.

And hopefully, it's going to make us all stop and wonder what's really driving that person in reality whom we just don't get. The one who never seems to react like we think they should. The one who gets angry too quickly, who holds grudges too long, who can never see the "reasonable" (aka our) side of an argument. 

It's going to make us pause, I hope, and ask ourselves if we are that confusing person to someone else. If what we think we're doing to help someone is actually driving them away.

In my life, I take after my dad. I lapse into silence when I'm not sure what to think, or when I fear saying something that I'll regret. In an argument, I'm not the shouter--I'm the brooder. To my mind, that's the wise way to be. Better to think about it and come back later with a well-thought-out response than to say something that could hurt someone I love, right? Right?

My husband is a shouter. A throw-something-er. I always say "He's Italian. Need I say more?" He's demonstrative, and that goes for anger as well as love. And I'm still learning that in those rare times we fight, my silence doesn't help him. My silence makes it worse. He doesn't really care what I say, he just wants me to say it. To engage. To his mind, when I bite my tongue I'm shutting down. Turning off. Keeping him out--and all he wants is to know what I'm thinking. Whether he agrees or not doesn't really matter to him. What matters is that we're communicating.
See, the thing is, there's rarely a right way to be in life. We're all different--and that's good. We don't have to all react the same way. Yes, we need to keep our reactions holy, but there are even different kinds of holy. There's the measured and calm responses of Ezra, there are the violent and quick reactions of Nehemiah. Both were right in the eyes of God. But man, I imagine they may have had a few clashes when facing each other!

This is just one more lesson I've learned through story. That when I'm dealing with the "characters" who populate my life, I'd better be willing to dig deeper. To understand why they do the things they do. To accept them for that. And to never assume that I'm the protagonist in their story--it could very well be that, in that moment, I'm antagonizing instead...no matter how much "better" I think my way is.

Queen of Hearts photo credit: Express Monorail via photopin cc

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