Occasionally I am going to indulge myself in holding forth on one topic or another, some having to do with the craft of writing, others just opinions on Life, the Universe, and Everything Else.
This, my first essay for John's web site, is something floating around between the craft of writing and Life It's Own Self.
Life It's Own Self:
Somewhere in the dawn of time, humans realized certain facts beyond tribal necessity, one of which was, given a choice, getting along with the next tribe was often a better choice than killing them all off and taking their stuff. If they were adept at making stuff you couldn't make, their stuff was valuable (because it was scarce to your tribe), but if you obliterated them, you also lost the source of that stuff. So, you traded some of your stuff for their stuff. So enlightened self-interest was born.
You know what comes next. Romeo and Juliet: a boy from the sheep herding tribe falls for a girl from the fisher folks, and that gives birth to in-laws. Which may explain more than anything else I can think of why people give up on treaties and go to war.
But somewhere along the way someone decides that there are some general principles coming out of all of this that benefit the tribe (and coincidentally, every other tribe) and from that comes all manner of interesting stuff, religion, ethics, morality, and the Boy Scout Oath.
I'm dealing with some issues of personal behavior as I write this. On one hand I'm dealing with the fall out of the recently ex-girlfriend's decision to become an "ex," and while this is hardly a unique experience in my life (counting ex-wife along with girlfriends, must be somewhere over two dozen times in 50+ years), it's the manner in which the deed was done that has caused some issues. On the other hand, I'm trying to teach two children how to be principled, ethical, moral individuals, when every fiber of their being cries out to kill the other tribe and take their stuff. As every parent knows, children are born being selfish little barbarians, and there are many times when mom or dad understands why Tigers eat their young.
The Golden Rule (Do Unto Others As You Would Have Others Do Unto You -- which works pretty well for everyone but masochists) breaks it down into very simple terms: if you don't want people killing you to take your stuff, don't kill other people to take their stuff.
Around us in stark relief and horrifying detail we see countless examples of people who just don't seem to "get it." From the mugger who terrorizes little old ladies for their Social Security Checks to the madmen who fly planes into office buildings, we can witness on the news over and over that lots of people think the Golden Rule applies to everyone else, but them. It's "Do Unto Others As I Would Have You Do." And then there are those who add, "Or I'll Kill You," at the end.
Pretty messed up, if you ask me.
Which now brings me to:
The Craft of Writing:
Characters can't just do things because the writer wants them to do things. Well, I guess they can, but then that's the sort of book critical readers throw across the room after a while. "I need this guy to be a villain, so I'll have him act villainous." Ya, right. Look, Osma bin Laiden has this in common, with Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin, Attila the Hun, all the way back to Cain, who argued, "I did it because Pop liked my brother best:" they looked in the mirror and each saw a good guy. The scariest thing about a lunatic like bin Laiden is he really thinks God is on his side. He really thinks of himself as a moral actor. He has priciples and ethics, by his own lights.
What does that tell us That the rationalization of the human mind knows no bounds Sure, but it also tells us that the human psyche is a very convoluted thing at times and that people are capable of all manner of conditional ethics, relative morals, and principles like quicksilver.
So, when writing villains, it's good to know this, because if you don't make that person act as if he/she is the hero of his/her life story, the reader will smell a cardboard character before flipping the third page. I love good moral ambiguity in a story. Look at Hamlet, one of the great stories of all time; here's a guy trying to do the right thing whose "right thing" is mostly self-serving revenge, and look at the mess he makes out of it. He could have bought his mother's story at face, said, "Sorry dad, but I've got finals to cram for," and that would have been that. It also would have been a very short, dull play.
So the point is, make your villain the good guy in his or her own mind. Or make him crazier than a bug in a bass drum. But if you just have them being bad because you need someone to be bad, chuck it in. It won't work. Unless you're doing melodrama and your having him twirl his moustache while tying the heroine to the railroad tracks.
Copyright Raymond E Feist 2003
No reproduction without permission