Friday, July 8, 2011

Bad guys have never had it so good

For many long ages, stories overwhelmingly had clear cut good guys and bad guys. In the early cinema this was famously designated by white hats and black hats. The good guy always did everything right and was never tempted to do anything wrong. The bad guy was always reprehensible and his demise was applauded.

But things aren't so simple in stories any more. The change was slow at first. Anti heroes and compelling villains began to pop up in literature in the modern era. Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, and The Grapes of Wrath are notable and well known examples. The trend to admire the bad guy has accelerated in recent decades. Readers and viewers are enjoying villains in a new way. The villain is not just meant to give the hero someone to fight. Sometimes there is no hero and the story is all about the bad guy.

My fascination with the bad guy started when I was five years old and saw Star Wars at the theater. Darth Vader scared me but wow was he the most awesome thing I had ever seen. This was not Saturday morning cartoons. This was serious stuff. He could choke you without touching you, and I definitely needed to pay attention.

At the end of Star Wars I realized how much I truly loved Darth Vader when he survived. Joy of joys, the bad guy survived! I was so happy. For once a story had a truly happy ending. The bad guy got away. Don't we all want to get away with something?

Of course we all learn later that "there is good in him" and that's nice that Darth Vader is redeemed. Stories of redemption have perennial appeal because we all have a psychological need to be forgiven our lapses.

But I loved Darth Vader because he was powerful and ostensibly evil. At the end of the Empire Strikes Back when he tells Luke he is his father, I was shocked but then delighted. How cool is that? Darth Vader is his father. I wholeheartedly wanted to take that outstretched black-clad hand and end this destructive conflict and rule with my father. Come on! Vader made a good offer.

Another great example of the bad guy oriented story is the movie The Chronicles of Riddick. No one can argue that Riddick has a soft heart about anything or is the slightest bit interested in redemption. He is a remorseless killer. His one fault might be pride because he is rather proud of being really really awesome at killing people. It's a story of bad guys fighting bad guys. Good and decent people are just in the background suffering and dying. Talk about fantasy projecting reality.

Although bad guys or at least heroes with flaws are increasingly in vogue, there are some excellent examples from older literary works in which bad guys define the story. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas by Jules Verne would be hopelessly boring without the captivating presence of Captain Nemo. Nemo both makes sense and is utterly terrifying because there is no convincing him to let you go. He makes sense because his criticisms of land-based civilization are sound. Most readers I suspect can identify with his hatred of our flawed terrestrial existence and long for escape. Nemo is a pure idealist. He has latched onto the superiority of living in the oceans and will never go back to the land. He also can never let the world know about his Nautilus and therefore will never release the hapless heroes who are trapped in Nemo's world. Nemo's unrelenting yet warped ideals are terrifying because we recognize that someone who clings absolutely to a belief can be dangerous. Nemo is not really good or evil. He's so far out there that he really does not have a category. Although he kills people and robs others of their freedom, he is above caring about such petty cruelties. Essentially Captain Nemo is utterly fascinating, and when I read the novel I would swing between extremes of thinking he made sense and being totally afraid of him. He was the best kind of villain. You want to escape him but you do not really want to destroy him because he is so awesomely superior.

Another character from literature that I admire is Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Tom I think would be properly categorized as an anti-hero. He is not villainous. He has been to prison for killing someone but it was not first degree murder. When he gets out of prison he travels with his family from Oklahoma to California as they seek work after being kicked off their farm. Now a migrant laborer, Tom endures many hardships with his family as a harsh and exploitative society treats them worse than animals. Suffering so much ceaseless persecution eventually forces him to commit another violent crime. His badness is understandable. Tom's crimes are presented alongside the greater crimes of society, and he seems almost innocent by comparison. Although he is a killer, Tom's criticisms of the world are justifiable and he is a very sympathetic character.

I've been thinking about bad guys a lot lately because my soon-to-be-published novel Rys Rising: Book I is dominated by its bad guy, Amar. I created Amar to be a bad guy for readers to love, but now I've begun to realize that the whole novel and the series are primarily about him. Does this make him the hero? After reading my new novel, my husband emphatically disagreed that Amar even was a bad guy. That's debatable, but he's hardly anyone you'd want your daughter to bring home for dinner.

I don't even think that Amar is particularly sympathetic, but he is interesting and exciting. He gets to throw off the constraints of goodness and pursue epic ambitions. His enemies will be vanquished. The conquered will cringe at the speaking of his name. He is the chosen of the powerful rys Onja.

I am a little apprehensive about how he will be received. I like to think that he is more bad ass than bad. I am hopefully confident that some readers will enjoy him if they are like me and relish a complex and successful bad guy. I am heartened to know that there does exist an audience interested in this type of character. I recently interviewed Daniel M. Bensen, author of the epic fantasy humor novel The Kingdoms of Evil. He offers a bad guy for people who like to root for the bad guy, and Bensen provided the best explanation for the rising popularity of bad guys that I have yet to read. Be sure to follow or subscribe to this blog so you won't miss his insightful comments. His interview will appear tomorrow.

Please comment with your opinions about bad guys and good guys and the qualities you enjoy most in either type of character.