Wednesday, April 18, 2007
I've been thinking about bad guys.
A number of weeks ago there was a discussion on the ACFW loop about bad guys in fiction and the tendency in recent novels to make them understandable. That is, to explain their background or childhood as a way to show how they came to be what they are. Some people opined they didn’t like this, as it tended to smooth over the evil or make excuses for it.
I found the discussion interesting because it occurred not long before Coral Moon released. In CM the bad guy’s background is revealed. Indeed, I show do why he is the way he is. I found it surprising that some wouldn’t like this, as one of the historical complaints about the suspense genre in general is the tendency to make a bad guy “all bad.” That this leads to a shallow, one-dimensional character, which is unrealistic, because all people have some good in them. This concept has given rise to the so-called “pet-the-dog” concept in the characterization of bad guys, in which you have a scene in which the evil one shows compassion to someone or an animal. Thought being that the evil he then embarks upon looks all the more evil in contrast to his humane acts.
In Violet Dawn, first in the Kanner Lake series, the bad guy is all bad. The challenge there was to create an interesting “all bad” guy—a man who fancies himself as wily and deadly as the legendary black mamba snake. Verbs and adjectives for this character were those that would be used in describing a snake. I even sprinkled in words ending with “S” sounds that would lend the subliminal hiss. Some readers got this, some didn’t. Some complained he was “one-dimensional” or “flat.” Others liked him. Well, for a bad guy, anyway.
In Coral Moon I did something entirely different. I wanted the reader to understand the bad guy even as he/she feared and hated his terrible acts. I chose to begin the book in his POV, showing how he didn’t want to do what he felt he had to do. However, this inner angst made him no less a cold-blooded killer, for he pushes down whatever conscience he starts out with to commit the murders. This look into his psyche forms one of the more subtexted themes of the book—how closely evil and good can coexist, and how, through certain circumstances and without God, the former can rise in a person’s life to trump the latter.
Last week’s blog tour of Coral Moon brought forth various reader reviews. One BG reviewed the book and mentioned that because she understand the bad guy’s background and almost felt sorry for him, she couldn’t fear him as much in the crisis/climax scene. I found this fascinating. It wasn’t a reaction I’d expected.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Nearly thirty years ago I read Tennessee William’s play Camino Real. In his foreword to the play, he makes a statement that so struck me, I remember it to this day. He says, “Hatred is a thing, a feeling that can only exist when there is no understanding.”
And so I am left to ponder: must a reader thoroughly hate a bad guy in order to fear him? And if understanding lessens the ability to hate, then should we writers of suspense stick with the “one-dimensional” all-bad bad guy?
Where is the balance? Tell me what you think. (Those of you who’ve read Coral Moon, please be careful in your comments not to include any spoilers.)