Friday, July 24, 2009

Don't Hate Me Because I'm Evil

by Helen E. H. Madden

These are my boobs. And they proudly bear the motto of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West - "Defy gravity."

I was overjoyed some years ago when I came across a book entitled Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch off the West by Gregory Maguire. I have a thing for villains (go figure; I love unhappy endings too). Villains always seem so much more interesting than the heroes, at least when they're done right. A villain with style will go a long way in my book. Think Malificent from Sleeping Beauty or Ursula from The Little Mermaid (yeah, we watch a lot of Disney princess movies in la casa de Madden). The coolest costumes, the best songs, the most glorious death scenes all go to the villains in the world of fiction.

But to see a book told from the point of view of one of the most memorable villains of all time? That just rocked my world. And Wicked did not disappoint. It had everything I love in a good book. A detailed and twisty plot; a lengthy back story and mythology carefully crafted and interwoven into the tale; a conflicted main character doing morally questionable things; and an ambiguous ending that left me wondering, what happens next?

One of the high points of Wicked comes near the end, where the witch, Elphaba, confesses to a murder she may or may not have committed. The confession is not to relieve her sense of guilt, but to lay claim to a crime she fears may be covered up. And her choice of confessor? An old school mate who used to hate her and is perhaps the most amoral character of the story. What follows is a lengthy dinner party at which the elite of Oz discuss Elphaba's crime whilst they feed her roast and key lime pie, and then retire to the drawing room to debate what evil really is. Imagine that discussion, if you will, a confessed murderess playing Devil's advocate, egging her companions on as they debate whether or not she in fact is guilty of a crime dependent upon their individual defintions of evil. The definitions are as varied as the guests themselves, but in the end, it's the emerald-skinned witch who has the final say:


"Why did you do it?" asked the hostess with spirit.

The Witch shrugged. "For fun? Maybe evil is an art form."

But as she wobbled toward the door, she said, "You know, you're all a pack of fools. You ought to have turned me in instead of entertaining me all evening."

"You entertained us," said Avaric broadly, gallantly. "This will end up being the dinner party of the season. Even if you've been lying all evening about killing this old schoolmarm. What a treat." The dinner guests drolly applauded her.

"The real thing about evil," said the Witch at the doorway, "isn't any of what you said. You figure out one side of it -- the human side, say -- and the eternal side goes into shadow. Or vice versa. It's like the old saw: What does a dragon in its shell look like? Well no one can ever tell, for as soon as you break the shell to see, the dragon is no longer in its shell. The real disaster of this inquiry is that it is the nature of evil is to be secret."

from Wicked, by Gregory Maguire


Villains are much the same way. We only ever see one side of them at a time. Others before have mentioned that villains act with intent, they have their reasons. They have lives, backgrounds, histories, motives. But how much of that do we see on the written page? How much does the reader really get from a few thousand words in a book?

Another favorite villain of mine is Akito Sohma, head of the cursed Sohma family in the manga Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya. On the surface, there couldn't be a more evil villain. Domineering, manipulative, violent, abusive, mentally unstable, Akito does everything he can to maintain his hold over the other members of his family. He is, in his own words, God, and the rest of the family must answer to him without question. As members of the family slowly but surely breaking free from his control, he slides even further into the depths of madness and cruelty. But why? What drives Akito to fight so hard to maintain his position as God in the family.

The wonder of Fruits Basket is that Natsuki Takaya spends as much time revealing the wherefores of Akito as she does her heroine, the sweet and innocent Tohru Honda. The clash between the two is inevitable. The results, unexpected and more satisfying than any other story I've read in a long time. By the end of 23 volumes of this manga, I cried as much for the villain as I did for poor orphaned Tohru, and Natsuki Takaya gave me good reason to. She gave me the secrets of Akito, just as Gregory Maguire gave me the secrets of Elphaba in Wicked. And the revelations in both books were amazing to behold.

Do my own villains have such secrets? Do they have their reasons for being bad? I'd like to think so. I'd like to believe that my characters, both the good guys and the bad, have that kind of depth. But when putting them on the page, I am confronted with Elphaba's conundrum. Show one side of the villain and the other disappears into shadow, and vice versa. Making the villain both evil and human is a paradox I'm not sure I can solve.

But that doesn't mean I won't try...

****

In Daeva Shudra, the city of eternal twilight, there existed four races of demons. The lowliest of these were the Urobach. Twisted beings with skin the color of ashes and eyes like molten lead, the Urobach were the builders and laborers of demonkind, common creatures whose duty it was to serve.

Above them came the Marae, nebulous beings of shadow and mist whose true appearance no mortal had ever seen. The shapers of dreams and fabricators of illusions, it was they who first imagined Daeva Shudra eons before the Urobach labored to raise its foundations on the mountain Abbydos hidden deep inside the Earth.

Next came the Rephaim, the warrior caste of the demon races and the giant hounds of death that fed upon the blood of their enemies.

Above all the other races ruled the Daeva, shining and elite, the princes and arch-mages, the Earth’s firstborn children. The Daeva were the most beautiful and most powerful of all the demons, and the most beautiful and powerful of all the Daeva was the empress Shebazael.

She floated serenely in a bathing pool carved into a floor of polished onyx, her blue-white hair spread out like a cloud around her. The scented water caressed her pearlescent flesh like a lover, while her prismatic eyes caught the light of a nearby torch and shattered it into tiny sparks of blue and violet. Small and slender, she appeared fragile as glass, and yet she could crush armies with a single word. Now she spoke to Orziel.

“What have you done, cousin?”

Orziel leaned back in the water and sighed. “I’ve done nothing, absolutely nothing,” he protested as he floated on his back. “I was merely visiting an old acquaintance of mine when your loathsome consort showed up and tried to kill me. Look what his miserable pawns did to my foot!”

He lifted the injured member out of the water to show to the empress. She turned away, ignoring his wound as she spoke to the shadows surrounding the edge of the pool.

“Summon the prince consort. Tell him I will speak with him now.”

One of the shadows swirled and assumed the form of a maiden with hair the color of turquoise. The maiden, a Marae demoness, bowed before drifting away in a cloud of smoke to do her mistress’ bidding. When she was gone, Shebazael returned her attention to Orziel.

“You were with Asheru. I told you not to seek him out again.”

“Did you? I must have forgotten that conversation.” The half-demon dove under the water suddenly then sprang up directly in front of his liege. He placed his hands on her curving hips and leaned in close to kiss her. “Perhaps we could make this discussion more memorable?” he suggested as he pressed against her.

Shebazael raised a hand ever so slightly and Orziel went flying across the room. He hit the tiled wall of the bath chamber with a resounding thud and collapsed into a sodden heap on the floor.

“Oh, my empress!” Orziel laughed even as he writhed with pain. “Such a tender sign of your love for me. I’ll treasure your caress always.”

Shebazael shook her head and sighed. She glided to the edge of the pool and ascended its onyx steps. Two more handmaidens materialized, their skin pure silver, their hair and eyes hyacinth. They stepped forward and wrapped a linen sheet around the empress. She stood patiently as they rubbed her dry and plaited her floor-length hair.

When they were done, she raised her arms and a damask robe materialized and draped itself about her body. “Enough of your foolishness, Orziel. Why did you disobey me?”

He struggled to his feet, battered and sopping wet. “Because Asheru is mine, my creature and my lover!” He shoved the wet hair out of his eyes. “Besides, what better way is there to piss in your consort’s face than to fuck his precious heir?”

Before Shebazael could answer, Valefar burst into the room, his cloak a swirling torrent that trailed behind him as he came.

“You filthy half-breed!” he roared when he saw the still-dripping rogue. “Shebazael, your bastard kin has defiled my nephew. I demand he be punished!”

“My husband.” She regarded the raging prince coolly. “You know perfectly well Asheru is more than capable of rejecting Orziel’s advances, should he choose to do so.”

“And the fact that he chooses not to reject me ought to tell you something,” Orziel added with a wicked smile.

Valefar turned on the half-demon, his pale face darkening with rage. “You will not touch Asheru again!”

“You’re just jealous because I fucked him and not you.”

The half-demon wriggled his hips at the prince consort and laughed like a jackal. Valefar raised his fist, cobalt lightning spitting from between his clenched fingers.

Before he could release the deadly spell, Shebazael made a cutting motion with her hand.

“Enough.”

Valefar’s spell sputtered and died. Orziel fell silent.

The empress moved to stand between the two foes. “You will not harm Orziel,” she told her husband. “Half-breed he may be, but he still carries the blood of the Daeva in his veins, and there are too few of us left for you to slaughter him over some petty prank.”

“As for you,” she said, fixing Orziel with a piercing gaze. “You will stay away from Asheru.”

“He’s my lover!” Orziel spat out.

“No more. He’s a prince, and a member of my court. You’ve debased him long enough.” The empress paused, giving her next words considerable weight. “It’s time Asheru put aside such childish games and assumed his rightful duties. I’m naming him heir to my throne. It’s my decision that he be wed within a fortnight so he may produce heirs of his own, and thereby secure the bloodline of the empire.”

Orziel blinked in shock. “You’re naming Asheru the next emperor of the Daeva? The same Asheru who less than an hour ago spread his ass cheeks and begged me to fuck him? You must be joking.”

“Shut up, you dung-eating bastard!” Valefar fumed. “Even Asheru won’t succumb to your vile advances once he realizes how far he’s been set above you.”

“You can set him as high as you like, even on the imperial throne,” Orziel said between gritted teeth. “He’ll still drop his breeches and bend over gladly when I tell him to.”

The prince consort snarled, but Shebazael stayed his anger. “Leave him to me, Valefar. You have other concerns to occupy you now.”

The furious demon glared at Orziel a moment longer before he spun on his heel and stalked out of the chamber.

When he was gone, the empress turned back to her cousin. “You will stay away from Asheru,” she commanded.

“You can’t honestly mean to make him your heir,” he replied.

“I must. I need an heir.”

“But why him?”

The empress closed her eyes. Her delicate lips narrowed to a razor-thin line. “The curse of our Mother is harsh and far-reaching. First, She turns the light of the sun against us, so that it burns us to ash and forces us underground. And now...” She placed a hand over her womb. When she looked at Orziel, the white heat of anger burned in her eyes. “I’m barren.”

Orziel snorted. “You want a child? I never considered you to be the maternal type.”

“I want an heir,” she corrected him. “The empire needs an heir.”

“Why? Are you planning on dying soon?”

Shebazael’s eyes narrowed. “We’re all dying, Orziel, the entire demon race. Think, how long has it been since you last heard of a child among the Daeva? Five hundred years? A thousand? During our exile beneath the Earth, countless numbers of our kind have died. Too few have been conceived to take their place. We’re immortal, but we have a talent for killing each other and if we don’t start to breed again, we’ll disappear. It’s all part of the Mother’s punishment against us for turning on Her all those years ago.”

“So you plan to marry Asheru off in some pointless quest to beget his own offspring? If this is the Mother’s curse, then surely he’ll be affected as well.”

“Asheru is part of the last generation of the Daeva, born after our exile. He had no hand in the war against Her, so it may be that he’s not affected by the curse.”

“Of course he’s affected!” Orziel exclaimed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Shebazael. If he’ll burn in the sun like the rest of us, then he’s just as sterile--”

Shebazael flicked a finger and Orziel dropped to his knees, clutching his groin and gasping as he felt an invisible hand almost crush his genitals.

“Don’t interrupt me again, cousin. As I was saying, Asheru may not be affected by the curse in the same way. If he weds another of his generation, he might breed a successor and give hope that our race will continue. But he will not do that,” she declared, “so long as you continue to make him a slave to your lust.”

Orziel sucked in a sharp breath and leered. “I don’t force him. He’s a willing slave, more than happy to kneel at my feet and worship me. You know, when he’s down between my legs licking my balls, Asheru looks just like your darling consort. Do you think I should remind Valefar of the family resemblance?”

The empress sighed. “Orziel, your half-mortal blood already numbers your days. Why shorten them even further by insulting Valefar?”

“As if you treat him any better,” he said, staggering back to his feet. “Besides, how else should I occupy myself? Since you’ve refused to give me any station or power within your court, I have no other amusements.”

“I give you no station because you’re a bastard and half-mortal. It’s your own tainted blood that ruins your chances of advancement within my court.”

Orziel spit into the crystal waters of the bath. “Then why bother keeping me around, if you have no use for me?”

Shebazael caressed his damp cheek. “I never said I have no use for you. But you must be careful not to get yourself killed before I can employ you.”

Orziel leaned closer until his slick, wet body almost touched hers. “My lady, I have such services to offer you that would make you forget that eunuch husband of yours.”

“Dear cousin, if I thought you could perform such services to my satisfaction, I would have made use of you long ago. Stay away from Asheru,” the empress ordered as she turned away. “Valefar may still seek to avenge his honor. I’ll assign a detachment of my personal guards to keep you safe and out of trouble.” Then she glided out of the bath chamber, leaving behind her dripping-wet bastard kin.

from Demon By Day, by Helen E. H. Madden (available at Mojocastle Press)

14 comments:

  1. I've never read Wicked, but it sounds like I should check it out. Demon by Day looks great, too, Helen.

    Thanks for another interesting post!

    Have a super weekend everyone.

    Jenna

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ooh! Wonderful post, Helen. I second Jenna, I've got to read WICKED.

    By the way, my absolute favorite villain in DEMON BY DAY is the witch with the mirror, whose name I've unfortunately forgotten. She's so complicated, so believable, so evil and yet -- you can't help having sympathy for her, even admiring her.

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

    Warmly,
    Lisabet

    ReplyDelete
  3. I do think one thing that makes a villain interesting is the amount a depth an author is willing to give their character. A villain that just does 'evil' things, always has and always will for seemingly no reason is just downright boring in my book, and I want to see him (or her) die.

    As for Maguire, have you read any of his other books? He has written one told from the point of view of one of the stepsisters from Cinderella. I have to admit I actually prefer it to Wicked. I've not read all his books, so I'm not sure if he's done anymore from a villain's point of view or not.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Jenna,

    Wicked is the first book in a series of three, and there's implications Maguire will write more. It was fascinating, seeing a classic villain come to life. She was so much more than L. Frank Baum ever made her out to be. In fact, all of Oz really comes to life in Maguire's books.

    I got the Wicked shirt when we saw the musical. They changed the story quite a bit, but the musical is still good. I also recommend seeing that.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Lisabet,

    You're thinking of Myrrha in Demon By Day, whom I named after the plant myrrh, because she was so bitter. I want to do more with her, and in fact revisit the whole book again with a sequel, but time doesn't permit right now. We'll see what I end up doing in another year or so.

    As for Wicked, you'll love it. The follow ups, Son Of A Witch, and A Lion Among Men, are also very good, with the later being a terrific look into the nature of cowardice.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Mich,

    Maguire's book on Cinderella was Confessions Of An Ugly Stepsister. That was more a book on the nature of seeing the truth, and it was fascinating. I've read that, plus the other Wicked books, and would like to get my hands on Lost.

    As for villains, yes, investment pays off. You get out of a villain what the writer puts into him. Motivation and history add a lot to a good villain, but they're often not enough. There has to be something more, and that's the tricky part to writing them.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Helen,

    I adore an in depth look into what makes a villain tick. I want to know why and who and what made them go that way. So often, we get the afterward. They killed or maimed or whatever and were finally caught by the cops, and the story goes on from there. Rarely do we see what created them. Sigh! The early life of Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal Rising) was fascinating... his later life was all right and well done, but knowing why he was the way he was... well that was just great stuff.

    Awesome post and it sounds like I've got some reading to do.

    Hugs

    ReplyDelete
  8. Jude,

    Yes! I love an in-depth villain. I wonder how many writers go about working on their villains, and on the villain's relationship to the hero? That's where the good stories are.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Helen,

    Excellent post. My son has been urging me to see it and now, more than ever before, I think I need to go down to London to see Wicked.

    :-)

    Best wishes,

    Ashley

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hey Helen!

    I read Wicked a couple of years ago on audio book. I loved it. I loved the prose style, I loved the story. I loved Elphaba. She had so many sides to her. Having read your post I think I should read it on paper now so I can get the details. I liked that she was a revelotionary out to overthrow the Wizard who was a despot, and then that damn Dorothy showed up at the last minute and screwed up the revolution. . .

    I love a good villian too. Good post!

    Garce

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  11. Ashely,

    Definitely see the musical, but keep in mind it is very different from the book, for obvious reasons. I enjoyed the musical greatly, but the book will always have a treasured space on my bookshelf!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Garce,

    Definitely read a copy of the book. There's so much depth and detail in Wicked. As I was flipping through it to find my quote for this article, I was immediately sucked in, and ended up spending half an hour just reading before I recalled what I was supposed to be doing. It's just that mesmerizing.

    If you like Wicked, try Maguire's other books in that series, especially "A Lion Among Men," which tells the Cowardly Lion's story and takes a long hard look at what cowardice is.

    ReplyDelete
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