Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Wearing of the Black Hat

Here's the deal. I'm having some trouble being evil.

Don't get me wrong. I ain't no saint. I mean, I can be as petty and snarky and nasty as the next woman. I'm self-centered and selfish and quite often just as jerky as everyone else driving in the car pool line. I actually enhaled (but it didn't work, and I still don't get what's so great about it), I don't think all children are God's precious little angels, and I've been known to drive well over the posted speed limit on more than one occasion.

My problem is that my mind doesn't work in the way that lets me put myself in the shoes of my villains. Going with that whole "the writer needs to know her characters inside and out" theory, I'm having a bit of trouble with my bad guys.

The other morning I woke up with a villain in my brain. And as a sidebar here, I've determined that all of my best writing ideas and solutions come to me in those minutes when I first wake up, when I'm still lying in bed, contemplating whatever I've recently dreamt. I experience the most amazing thoughts during those precious moments. My pre-shower-moments moments.

Anyway, I woke up with the perfect solution of who the bad guy would be in a story I'm working on. The heroine is trying to track down a rapist (novel idea, right?) but I had no idea of who that rapist was or why he did what he did and all of those important things that are kind of necessary to actually have, you know, a story. But like a light switch flipping to on, it all came to me that morning. Everything. Who he was. Why he was doing the bad things he was doing. Even a back story that would tie him to the heroine in the ways I needed. The perfect villain.

Except, most of the time, my villains don't come this easily. Most of the time I cannot fathom what would drive a person to murder or abuse or even other less personal crimes like kicking a dog or taking money from sweet little old ladies. When I sit down to do a character sketch of my villains, I draw a complete blank.

So I fall back on every stereotype spoonfed to me over thirty-five-plus years of television, movies, popular fiction, and even some classics. Except it doesn't work because I end up with silly bad guys. Boring bad guys. Bad guys who are just cardboard copies of Snidely Whiplash.

I think this is because when I come up with an idea for a story, I don't need a bad guy with an interesting personality. When I'm fleshing out my hero and heroine and the trials and tribulations they will endure, I just need a person who makes Bad Things happen when I need them to happen. Studly Green Beret and Susie Archeologist are on the run from Evil Tribal Warlord. Who cares if Evil Tribal Warlord's father traded his favorite goat as part of his older sister's dowry when ETW was only six? I just need him to carry a really big gun and have enough charisma to lead a gang of thugs who can run really fast through the jungle and have a craving for innocent White Woman With Golden Hair nookie.

But, since I've determined to be one of those writers who eventually sells one of her books and - since I'm dreaming big here - plans to be more than a one-hit wonder (said in the loosest sense of the word "wonder"), I can't do this. I can't afford Cartoon Villains. I need bad guys who are real enough that they are actually scary. And real threats to the hero and heroine so that the reader is inspired to keep turning those pages because she really has no idea if things will turn out okay in the end.

Of course, I hit the wall whenever I try to think Evil. I come to a full stop whenever I try to imagine what might incite me to kill someone. Short of a person threatening the lives of my children, I cannot imagine what it would take for me to commit murder. How in the world can I put myself into the mind of a serial killer enough to make him real?

I've tried research. And it does help. I've discovered there are different types of rapists and what motivates each one and common characteristics. I can kind of fake it a little bit, I think.

I've read book after book about the Middle East, trying for the life of me to understand a mindset that allows extreme Islamic fundamentalists to kill so many innocents in the name of their beliefs. This one, however, is beyond my pale. I cannot get beyond the gaping horror I feel and my complete conviction that these people really do not think with fully balanced minds. I can't get over the conclusion that they are all flipping nut cases. So any terrorists that find their way into my stories will probably end up as raving lunatics with no more motivation than they kill simply because no one has killed them first.

I've heard many an actor claim that playing a villain is way more fun than playing the good guy. There's the chance to really go against your own psyche and let the animal in you run loose. I suppose I need to dig deeper to find that depraved creature living inside me. Not the one that would encourage me to eat an entire bowl of unbaked yellow cake batter, but the one who could be joyful when watching other people suffer for no other reason than I was the one in control.

Maybe what I should do is just imagine how I feel when the biggest idiots on the planet, those insane, obnoxious drivers I encounter so frequently on Chicago's expressways, cut me off after I've been waiting to merge ever so patiently onto or off of the road. You know, the ones who drive on the shoulder or in the exit only lane until the very last second, at which time they cut in front of you like they are far too important to wait their turn as the rest of us peons have done. At moments like those, I truly believe I'm capable of murder. I know real, gut wrenching rage and hate, the kind that someone surely would have to feel to be a true villain.

How good it would feel if for a few unpunishable seconds, I could actually release that monster within. That ought to get me through some pretty goulish scenes.

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