Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Big Bad Wolf

by Bill Cameron

I don't believe in evil. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I don't believe in capital-E Evil. Eeee-ville. I don't subscribe to the notion that evil is some kind of malevolent force in the universe. On the flipside, I don't believe in Good either. I don't see the world in Manichean terms, as a struggle between the forces of Good and Evil. This doesn’t mean I don’t have a sense of right and wrong. It doesn’t mean I don’t judge actions. I like to believe I have strong ethical and moral sensibilities. But my own worldview doesn’t feature Good and Evil. And when it comes to human activity, I’m even a little hesitant to use lowercase good and evil to describe it.

The way I see the actions of people in the world is through the lenses of circumstance and response. We experience events in life and respond in our many and varied ways. Circumstances can shape our responses, though I don’t want to imply that I see us as deterministic beings incapable of making choices. But I do think some choices are harder than others, and that difficulty may be influenced by any number of factors, from social conditions, personal interest, and even our brain chemistries.

This is on my mind right now because I'm in the throes of character creation. Novel number three is in the development phase, and for me, that mostly means character development. Plot doesn’t happen until after I know who it’s happening to.

How I personally see the world obviously shapes the way I develop characters. I don’t see myself as creating villains and heros. Good guys and bad guys. I don’t even like to use those terms. Forced to differentiate, I may describe one or another as the protagonist or the antagonist, but even those terms include an implied judgment with which I’m not all that comfortable.

When I write, I see myself as channeling people. My hope is that I am creating them with honesty and integrity. I want them to be comprehensible and plausible. In Lost Dog, Peter is not the good guy and Jake is not the bad guy. Each is an expression of choices made in the context of his own circumstances. Each is a person, a human being, with his own social history, personal history -- his own brain chemistry. One does awful things, makes truly awful choices. The other, ultimately, makes choices that in a big picture Good v. Evil sense might fall -- loosely at least -- on the side of Good. But in many ways they’re not so different from each other. They differentiate through their choices. That’s what interests me about character. For me, that’s what character is.

Choices made in the context of life circumstances.

How about you? What do you look for in character, either when creating characters as a writer, or experiencing them as a reader?


Mark Terry said...

Well, for the longest time (until today, I suppose) I thought the Latin phrase: "Honi soit qui mal y pense" meant "evil are those who do evil things," which I believe covers the topic pretty well from my point of view.

On the other hand, after having misquoted this for 30 years or so, I find that "Honi soit qui mal y pense," which is the motto of the British Order of the Garter, translates to: "Shame on him who thinks this evil." Not the same thing, is it?

I'm just going to have to find some other Latin phrase to sound scholarly. Perhaps: "Hocine bibo aut in eum digitos insero?"

Which translates to: "Do I drink this or stick my fingers in it?"

The mind reels.

Joe Moore said...

Great post, Bill!

“How about you? What do you look for in character . . .?”

In a word: flaws. Especially if the flaw is the element that keeps the character at arm’s length from achieving a goal. There’s nothing more boring than a perfect character. Even Superman had to deal with Kryptonite.

Regarding good and evil, the books that Lynn and I write are based on the continuous battle between good and evil, or I should say, Good and Evil. Our main character is a daughter of an angel, and our ongoing antagonist is the worst bad guy of all time. So we have to deal with it on every page either directly or indirectly. We call it Woo-woo—the points in the story where the supernatural becomes natural.

The great thing about having the devil as the antag is we can trash him all we want and not risk being politically incorrect or insulting any particular group (except for the random Satanist out there). But even the devil is not perfect. He still doesn’t know everything. And he has flaws, too. Pride, vanity, arrogance, jealousy, and tunnel vision. That’s why our protag always gets the upper hand in the end.

Also, your advice about knowing your characters before you know the plot is dead-on right. Whenever I have problems writing a scene, it’s not because I don’t know the story, it’s because I haven’t totally learned how the characters will react, or why. It plays Hell with my daily word count, but it’s Heaven when I get it right.

Nina Wright said...

I believe that people generally choose what looks like the BEST possible course of action, given the information and resources available to them. The problem is that what looks like the best choice for one person may have disastrous consequences for another. Those who are already damaged--by addictions, mental illness, social conditioning, poverty, etc.--are often unable to calculate or consider anyone else's welfare.

I once read an interview with a hired assassin. He was asked how he felt about the families of the people he'd killed. He seemed puzzled by the question. After a moment, he shrugged and said, "How should I feel? I don't know them."

Todd Ransom said...

Great post. I get tired of seeing the same Good vs. Evil theme played out over and over in fiction.

Character and theme are the two most compelling parts of writing and reading fiction for me. I need characters to feel real instead of being cardboard stereotypes. I need to be able to identify with their decisions and actions. But most of all I need to see them change over the course of the story. It doesn't matter whether it is through growth or decay, but the character at the end of the book cannot be the same as when the story started.


Candy Calvert said...

At a writing conference I heard author Jenny Crusie say something like "a villain is a hero in his own mind."

I wrote it down, underlined it, and added a few penciled asterisks.

It was a huge insight for me--and has helped enormously with my characterizations.

Bill Cameron said...

One of the things I am trying to do with each project is make a point of writing a sympathetic character with very different values from my own. So, for example, I may not see the world in terms of Good and Evil, but I know I would find it fascinating -- and personally illuminating -- to write a POV character from that perspective.

Since I never know if anything I write will go further than my own hard drive, I always look for it to be of interest to me first. A personal challenge, a way to broaden my own view of life. Thanks for the great responses, folks!

Mark Combes said...

I agree Bill that there is a spectrum of good and evil as there is light and dark. But somewhere on that spectrum, we as reasonable humans can agree that it's dark outside. There is evil in this world. We might be able to explain the whys and wherefores of that evil, but it's still evil.

But it's this complexity of characterization that makes "Lost Dog" such a damn fine read! Cookie-cutter "Dr. Evils" aren't my bag. I want to eat the story and the characters right down to the rind.