Thursday, December 03, 2009

Vilification Doesn't Work in Fiction or in Life

By Laura Caldwell

I’m not a big fan of vilification, whether it's in fiction or in life. But more and more, I seem to be the only one who doesn't have the stomach for it. Public figures these days are either on pedestals or, once they have committed some transgression (at least in the mind of the media), they are smacked to the figurative ground, then beaten silly by gossip and strident tongue-lashing from news “experts.”

I find the whole vilification process not only distasteful, but false. We crime writers have been taught that a villain in a novel who is a 100% evil is, generally, just not interesting, in part because the character won’t strike the reader as true. I guess this is why, to date, I have not written about any serial killers. Yes, they do exist, but they seem so evil as to not be particularly fascinating to me. I don't know what the answer is in terms of the media's handling of news "stories," but I do know what the answer is for me in my writing. I want to write people--characters--whether they're considered good, bad or in-the-middle, who have complex reasons for their actions, who are motivated by one thing at one time, and then maybe something else entirely a few days down the line, just like the rest of us. Because really, the villains, "the bad guys,” are just like everyone else—maybe they're just nastier, maybe they just care a little less about their consequences.

I recently finished Dan Chaon’s novel, Await Your Reply. Sakey and I met Dan a few months ago when 57th Street Books organized an author support group of sorts (of course at a pub) following one of Dan’s local signings. I bought the book shortly after, didn’t have a chance to read it until a recent trip, and am now am terribly disappointed that I’ve finished it. Because Choan masterfully works with the concept of good and evil, making the reader guess—or maybe just decide on their own—who the real villain is in the story, or whether there is one at all.


Dana King said...

Americans don't like gray areas. People are either good or bad. If they do a bad thing, they're bad. Period. Unless they're on that individual's Approved Person's List; then they're still good.

Same think with problems. Every problem, no matter its origins or complexity, must have a single, simple solution. The Law of Unintended Consequences may not be considered when formulating this simple solution, nor shall the historical unpinnings of the problem to be fixed.

These words of HL Mencken mean more to me every day: To every complex problem, there is a simple solution. And that solution is wrong.

Sara Paretsky said...

Laura, that topic has been much on my mind this week because I stumbled on someone torturing a dog in the park near my home. I didn't know what to do, and called the cops, from a distance, but he saw me on the phone and packed up his dog and left. I still am tormented by my helplessness--and the dog's. And I was also reminded of a time some years ago when someone asked if I would help write a book exposing dog abuse--I couldn't--it's too ghastly. I don't want to be around that kind of wickedness, or try to understand it's psycho-social roots.
My own villains are often too one-dimensional. I tried with one book to create a more nuanced figure but am not sure it succeeded.