Everyone Loves a Scoundrel - But Handle Yours With Caution
By David Niall Wilson
Everyone loves a scoundrel. So I've been told throughout my writing career, so my observations of which men and women are most attractive to hordes of the opposite sex women have led me to surmise, and so the world of publishing has confirmed. From Hannibal Lecter to Billy the Kid, from Mata Hari to the Goddess Kali, you just can't beat a good anti-hero. In fiction, though, as in life, we have to exercise caution when we set out to make gold from lead or draw our heroes from the dark side.
Hannibal, for instance, is an example of a man who should be as execrable as any in the history of humanity, but is instead fascinating. What causes this? What is it about the charismatic bad guy that draws people in ways that white-hatted heroes often fail to match? I believe the difference is only a matter of perspective. What is less clear is whether or not such a shift in perspective is a good idea. It is easier to justify it when the character is wholly supernatural, like Dracula. When we draw our villains from real life we are treading on thinner ice.
If we were presented a Hannibal Lecter drawn from the atrocities he performed, rather than one who listens to classical music, knows fine wine, and shows flashes of psychotic brilliance, the result would be very different. If the gunslingers in westerns were shown as cold blooded killers who didn't bathe regularly, I doubt they'd have attained their mythic status. The reason, then, that we allow ourselves to love bad guys - in my mind - is that we first remove them from reality and invest them with a touch of magic. We make them into the types of characters Superman and Batman used to do battle with. We give them charisma and good looks. We let them outsmart people and escape from situations that, in reality, would be their undoing. We put swash in their buckle and pearly white teeth in their smiles.
You can make a villain sympathetic and heroic just by changing the circumstances of his situation. Hannibal was treated poorly as a young man. Billy the Kid and Jesse James were southern soldiers who were hounded after the war. By carefully crafting the "good guys" to be boring, or setting them up to seem overbearing, dull, or outright mean-spirited, we create an atmosphere that makes readers pull for them to get smacked down. Then we provide the villain with just the right skills and attitude to get that job done. Sometimes we like to believe that we would have done exactly what those villains did in their situation, and we root for them to succeed against authority figures we've been conditioned to distrust or outright dislike.
In my own fiction, I've made great use of the anti-hero. Though most of mine aren't outright villains, the qualities are in place. In my trilogy, "The Grails Covenant," I offered up the Vampire Montrovant. He isn't loved by his own clan, but he is respected. He has a decided cruel streak, but he is brave, determined, handsome, and charming at the same time. He is willing to cut a man into tiny bits of meat to reach his goal, but not to perform that same act just for amusement.
In my novel Deep Blue, Brandt, the hero, is a down-and out blues guitarist who drinks too much, has too high an opinion of himself, and pays little attention to the feelings of others. His better qualities shine through over time, but he is not a cookie-cutter good guy. His is a real life with real problems, set against a backdrop of music and dark fantasy. You can relate to him, and that is another key.
My first novel, "This is My Blood," retells the story of the gospel through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, a fallen angel raised in the desert to tempt Christ with her beauty. Throughout this novel I give examples of how often the mantle of hero can shift from one character to another, and how the manner of looking at a thing affects changes in how your characters are perceived. Lucifer is the villain, and there's little doubt of that, but when it comes to other characters I worked in, such as Judas, Lilith, and Peter, things become decidedly blurry.
I think, as authors, we have a responsibility in writing about evil that I take very seriously. It's one thing to give almost supernatural powers and charisma to a villain, or to present them as misunderstood and build them a following. It's quite another to invest their actions with that same mystique. Hannibal Lecter is an amalgam of several real-life serial killers. The atrocities that they performed are among the vilest deeds recorded. By pulling Hannibal from reality as we know it and turning him into a mistreated child grown into an evil super-genius of comic book proportion, we find something darkly fascinating, or even charming in the character. We can't make the mistake of translating that fascination to serial killers in reality. There is a trend - particularly in modern horror films - to take the brutality and cruelty to bizarre lengths without providing the disconnect from reality such subjects have traditionally commanded. I think it's a dangerous trend without much in the way of socially redeeming factors. I see no villains or heroes to pull for in movies like "Saw," or "Hostel," and I believe they represent a frightening step toward legitimizing evil and branding it as "cool."
Billy the Kid was a crazed young gunman who killed dozens of men in cold blood, often on a whim. The fictionalized version of that same young man rarely shows the brutality or the insanity inherent in his life, or the harm that he caused others. We have our mythic gunfighter, and we love him, but we can't allow that to translate to romanticizing the act of one man brutally killing another.
Hannibal Lecter is a cultured man who, while he kills brutally and actually eats his victims, always seems to have reason and some sort of code of ethics behind his choice of victims. The men he is based on, the Ed Gein and others, had no such compunctions. They ruined people's lives and lived like monsters on the earth. There was nothing charismatic about them, nor would you be likely to romanticize them if you met them in person - though folks like Ted Bundy throw a monkey wrench into that logic.
In closing, I'd say that as in all things creative, the vision you follow will be your own. The villain is one of the most powerful characters in a writer's arsenal, and like anything powerful; he or she should be used with caution. Be careful what you romanticize, but as Jesus says in "This is My Blood," to paraphrase, without a backdrop of darkness, there is no way to judge the light. Here's to those characters that walk the thin lines in shades of gray…
Thanks to James Goodman for inviting me to participate. Those interested in what I have to say can get a belly full of it HERE - or once a month at Storytellers Unplugged. My recent collection, "Ennui & Other States of Madness" is available from Dark Regions and there are still a few copies of "The Not Quite Right Reverend Cletus J. Diggs & The Currently Accepted Habits of Nature" available at The Horror Mall or on Twitter.