Wednesday, August 21, 2013
How Bad should the Bad Guys be?
I love reviews where readers have picked up on the details, themes or images I'm trying to get across. I'm even interested in the bad reviews, to see what didn't work or simply wasn't to the reader's taste. But I'm even more fascinated by things readers comment on that hadn't even crossed my mind. For instance...
A recent review for Gethyon mentioned how all my bad 'guys' in the story had no redeeming features (in all but one case I agree, although I know something about one of the villains that readers have yet to learn. Shhh!). They were, to quote 'just bad, plain and simple.' So that got me thinking. Does an antagonist have to have any redeeming elements? Should they? And exactly how 'bad' should they be?
I'm not someone who believes a villain should or needs to rape, murder and pillage (in fact, too much of that completely turns me off a book no matter how good the rest of it might be. I quit reading the Night Angel trilogy by Brent Weeks because the volume of rape, not just of women incidentally, and the number of significant characters killed off by the start of the second book just destroyed my enjoyment of the story and writing. I no longer cared if the good guys won because I'd had enough. Generally, if I know a book has a detailed rape scene, even if not done to glorify it (and I don't understand anyone who would write a story that does glorify it) I won't buy/read it. That's a personal turn off.
Murder/theft/war/violence are different things. People kill, steal, or go to war for lots of reasons, and readers may or may not forgive a character for it. One of my early crit partners for Gethyon told me I needed to make his character more sympathetic because she was having a hard time empathizing with him despite the circumstances. Fair enough on the protag. You want your reader to have some reason to cheer him/her/them on. But what about the villain? They may feel totally justified in killing. A recent example that springs to mind is Serene Galahad in Neal Asher's Owner trilogy. She felt completely vindicated in killing off Zero Asset citizens - those who had nothing to offer humanity, who were putting a greater strain on the potential survival of the human race at all, and who would die anyway - for the benefit of society as a whole. Harsh, but you could see the logic of it, in terms of a global viewpoint. Of course, ultimately she veers away from her good intentions as revenge, personal necessity and a gradual descent into megalomania take over. But faced with the realities she was, perhaps even the 'good' guys would make the same initial choice. Societies go to war for what they often see as necessary - ideals such as freedom, crushing oppressors, religious fervour, destroying a global threat, etc Both sides may have their justification, and it's always the winning side who declare the bad guys as those who lost.
It made me look at my villains again, and their motivations. The Siah-dhu, for instance, isn't human. It's a dark entity composed of many minds, a thing from your nightmares...well, my nightmares. Faceless, voiceless, it's the shadow you see out of the corner of your eye. It has no conscience, and easily destroys a whole planet without remorse to achieve its aim. It wants Gethyon and Quin for their abilities to travel through space, and the reader never really gets to know why. By Keir, its powers have been severely limited, but its acts are no less evil. It's certainly not intended to be a redeemable, or in any way likeable, character.
Commander Rialto, who made Keir's life hell, also doesn't give us any reason to forgive him. Neither do Neoris or Dephon in Gethyon. Jinx - well, she's a killer, sassy, dangerous, and her motives for hunting Gethyon certainly don't earn any sympathy. The Emmisary in Keir doesn't get any gold stars for redemption either, although we learn something of his motivation. The thing is, I like my bad guys to be BAD, and sometimes even my good guys). Because everybody makes mistakes. It's their choices, and how those mistakes change them that shapes their definition of good and bad.
But readers will forgive some things over others. For instance, I'm not a fan of forced seduction/kidnap scenarios where the heroine falls for her captor, or the 'Mars needs Women' tropes. I watched a discussion on Twitter where a reader verbally shredded a book which had a kidnap with the hero determined the heroine should be his (although there was no forced seduction/rape) but he was being a total jerk, and yet the heroine fell for him. The reader was unimpressed to say the least (I never did find out what the book was though). But as Marcella Burnard proved to me with Nobody's Present in Tales from the SFR Brigade, I'll even enjoy a 'Mars needs Women' story if I like the characters. There it's down to not only the reader, but how exactly the author portrays the characters and writes the story. If they succeed in casting them in a sympathetic light, or give reasons why they've been driven to such desperate measures, you can at least understand, if not completely empathize. It's all a question of perspective.
So how bad DO you want your villain? Would you rather the protag was a redeemable bad guy/gal you can forgive? Or should that be the antagonist's role? Or would you rather the bad guys were just plain BAD?
So, I have good news and bad news. Firstly the bad. My cyberpunk short story Reboot did not make the Sword and Laser anthology. Boo! However, since they took just 20 entries out of nearly a thousand, I don't feel quite so bad. Reboot will find a home, and if not, the benefit of self publishing is I can always release it myself. Another candidate for doing my own print anthology at some point.
The good news? Keir became a RomCon winner last week. Woo hoo! He now has a nice collection of shinies. :)
I hate zombie movies. I hate horror. I'm not a fan of teen romances. And yet, despite all that, I found myself watching, then reading Warm Bodies, and absolutely loving it! I can't quite explain why. I think part of it is this isn't your average zombie story for one. It's actually a sweet romance with some comedy and humour, and while the blurb calls it Romeo and Juliet, I'd say more Beauty and the Beast. While both those tropes have been done, for some reason it all just worked in this story for me. It was themes redone, but with a new twist. While I think I prefer the film over the book (but do read the book because despite the overused 'F' word and more grimness, and perhaps a less feasible plot, you get to hear more of the working inside R's mind and how it all came about), I devoured both. The fact that the author got me to overcome my revulsion for three genres AND something written in first person, and got me to sympathize with and cheer for a rotting, flesh-eating monster means he did something totally right. I just need to pin down how he did it...
In the meantime, I'll be posting a review of the film next week. I'll also be away from my computer (dragged away kicking and screaming, argh!) so I look forward to the comments on that on my return.
Sharon, huge congrats on news of a third publication with TOR!
Donna, I am thankful for the teacher I met who inspired me just as yours did.
Laurie, hope to see you back soon as August winds toward its end...