This last Thursday I posted the first third of a short story that starred a pretty deplorable character. Jake was either born without ethical restraints, or else he managed to sand them away over time. Also, he happens to be a jerk. Particularly vicious was the scene where he sees a stranger and proceeds to scathingly critique him as one of the lowest dregs of humanity.
And yet, I actually intended for that scene to ultimately make the audience feel more sympathetic to Jake. In time, as more of his character is revealed, it will become evident that that vicious mockery is more inwardly directed than outwards. Jake still has problems, and is still the story’s villain, but he is more of a victim of his actions than anyone else.
As I wrote the segment where Jake mocks a stranger I allowed myself to be crueler because of my knowledge that it was self-reflective for him. However I also knew that the reader wouldn’t have this information, and so might misread the moment. And that was intended.
It’s almost unavoidable at the beginning of a story for readers to make first impressions and take all that they are shown at face value. One of my favorite things is when an author is aware of these two facts, and structure their story so that it will support the readers’ in their initial perceptions upon a first reading, and then challenge them upon a second.
I could, of course, have opened the story by establishing how much Jake loathes himself, but then the audience would have been sympathetic to him from the outset. That would have limited their ability to despise him, so instead I let him introduce himself as he believes himself to be: creepy, unrepentant, and cruel. When at the end of my post he started applying these sorts of labels to himself, the readers only heard him echoing their own thoughts for him. Perhaps as they come to see how miserable he is they might feel bad for having made those initial judgments.
Or maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll feel he is only receiving his just desserts. Either way, the reader will be making a choice, thus be more actively engaged in the story, and thus be more affected by it.
A Christmas Carol)
In writing my story this way I’m actually paying homage to one of my most favorite tales of all time: A Christmas Carol. When we are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge we are not told first about his unhappy childhood, about how he was banished from his home by an unfeeling father. We don’t hear about his immense poverty and his drive to become something more. We don’t know the tragedy of how that misguided ambition ultimately lost him the love of his life.
No, we do not hear about those things until later, so that there can be nothing in the way of our reviling this bitter and cold man. All we know at the outset is that he is cruel, deservedly despised, and we very easily dismiss him.
But then, as these sadder elements of his life are unfolded, we find ourselves grieving for the lost child still within him and we are deeply relieved when his soul eventually finds its reclamation. From the first impressions we are able understand why the world is so disbelieving of his dramatic transformation, but by the end of our journey we are believing of it ourselves.
The fact is, if Charles Dickens had laid out the story to capture our sympathy for Scrooge first, then his reclamation would not have tasted nearly so sweet. To despise a character, and then pity him, and then joy for him is a far more moving arc than any other arrangement of those same sensations.
Another favorite example of this is from the film Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane is not a very pleasant person. He happens to be rich, powerful, and a genius, but also pompous, self-righteous, and manipulative. He possesses a constant hunger for more, and by his obsessive and overbearing nature he manages to sour his every relationship until all that remain in his household are the servants.
We’ve seen how he demands control of every situation. He tries to force love and friendship from those that would have given it willingly. He wants to own happiness, to buy it. He lavishes the woman he loves with gifts until she feels smothered and ends the relationship. It is almost pitiable, except for the fact that he is wholly responsible for his own suffering.
Then he dies with a single word on his lips: “Rosebud,” which is revealed to be the name of a sled he played with as a young boy at his parent’s home. There he was happy, and it was a simple and authentic happiness. Tragically that moment of bliss was taken from him suddenly, and he has never since found it again. Just like that we understand his enigma.
We realize that he has been made afraid of all good things being taken away. He wants to be in control so that he won’t be hurt again. And, ironically, it has been his avid pursuing that has lead to his constant losing, a vicious and never-ending cycle of loss and clutching.
In all of these cases the understanding that dawns on the reader is not meant to excuse the main character’s flaws. What they have done is still just as wrong, but now at least we see the motivations that led them to do those wrong things. Actions can be both wrong and understandable, after all. and the beginning of prejudice is when we forget that there is a humanity behind the mistakes people make.
I think we can all agree that the world needs more stories like these. I’m not going to get political on this forum, but it is clear that intolerance for opposing ideals is a depressing epidemic of our lives. It’s not wrong to want this world to be better, but society will never be improved via argument or insult. If someone doesn’t agree with your particular point-of-view then there is an understandable, even if misguided, reason for that. People don’t need to be forced into becoming better, they only need a sympathetic voice that truly hears, understands, and validates their concerns. When nurtured in this way people will naturally recognize their own faults and rise to their best.
When it comes to writing, though, this sort of sympathy for a negative character can be difficult to pull off. It’s difficult to do in real life, so of course it would be tricky in the written word, too. I don’t mind admitting that I’m nervous about tackling the subject with Jake. At the very least I do understand the template to follow: first introduce the character as they are perceived, then reveal them as they actually are.
Hey there, you can call me Jake. That’s what I tell people my name is.
Speaking of people, have you ever noticed that they all like to have collections? Poor people collect stamps and coins, rich ones collect houses and cars. Lots of people collect problems. I knew one lady who had a new terminal disease to complain about every week.
Thing is I think everyone collects something or other. We want to find that something where we can say “This. This is what defines me. I could never have too much of this. The more I accumulate of this the more complete I will be.” That makes it so easy, to be made right just by hoarding things.
As for me, I collect people. Now, to be clear, I don’t mean that in a creepy way. Well not as creepy as you’re thinking, anyway. I don’t harvest organs or have a stack of bodies in my cellar or anything like that. I take people’s digital lives. I hack them and uncover all of their public secrets. No, that wasn’t a typo.
Frankly I am amazed at how easy it still is to take the deepest, darkest secrets of people. Even with all the cautionary tales and available resources in cyber-security, people insist on surrendering their lives to their devices. They use those devices to track their calories, to schedule their day, to make their investments, to socialize and communicate. And then they go and connect that device to public networks with virtually no security measures whatsoever. Our digital age is the thief and I’m just the enterprising soul that reaps the field.
Take someone’s name for example. They think its their own, and they think no one knows it unless they tell it to you. But here’s something to try: go somewhere with free WiFi, like a coffee shop or a library. Malls like I’m at now are great, too. Really it’s just a question of what demographic you want to sift through. Now open up your laptop, go to the network settings, and you can see a list of all the devices that you are sharing your connection with. And what are the names on those devices? Invariably you’re going to find a lot of titles like these:
I Am Sam
Alright, excellent. Now look at the people around you. It’ really not hard to start matching device names to users. They’ve already told you their personality, what type of brand they’re using, and age (leet speech is younger).
There. See that big meathead doing hunt-and-peck on his laptop keyboard? That, my friends, would be Brian. And that millenial girl with blue hair and an iPhone case encrusted with fake diamonds. Tia.
“Hey Tia, how’s it going?”
She looks up, her smile curious, wondering what old friend is calling to her. It quickly shifts to confusion, she’s running through her high school yearbook in her head, trying to place my face. Nothing comes up and she starts to look upset, offended even. “Um…do I even know you?”
I took something that she thinks she never gave to me. Her name. And it shocks her, she feels violated. I like seeing people with that angry, stupid, self-righteous look. In this moment I have owned her better than she has owned herself. I know her name, I know what she’s thinking, I know what she’s going to do after this: Google “What to do if someone’s stalking me?” and then she’ll change all the locks on her doors.
All I said was five innocent words.
She doesn’t need to worry, though, I’m already done with her. She’s useful for a cathartic moment of shock and awe, but I have no interest in diving deeper into her not-so-private digital life. I’ve already seen enough duck-face-selfies to last me a lifetime. I smile then walk away, continuing to mill around for a more interesting subject.
Tia is shouting “Hey! Hey you! Get back here.” She won’t follow, though, her overconfident voice only betrays how scared she actually is. I stroll past the phone vendors and the tech store. I pause briefly at the maternity clothing shops but decide I don’t feel like fishing for an expectant mother today. Though that can be interesting…
The food court. Talk about your buffets! One contained place and you get a conglomerate of all the types. Jocks and nerds, pretty girls and not-so pretty girls, grandparents and teenagers. Just take your pick. I’m about to go find a table when my head snaps to the side, my eyes glint, and a broad smile splits my face. That, my friends, is a forty-pound bass if I ever saw one.
Or maybe I should say a two-hundred-and-eighty pound bass. He’s extremely overweight and throwing his empty KFC bag in the trash. Dangling from his left hand are the shopping bags he accumulated before this particular pit stop: Under Armour and Garmin. He’s a walking contradiction.
On the one hand he knows his life is pathetic. He’s miserable at who he is and realizing he’s slipping down a hole he won’t ever be able to climb out of. But then on the other hand he’s been deluded by tacky slogans and mass media telling him that “there isn’t anything he can’t do” and he “just has to believe in himself.” They remind him how special he truly is and then promise him happiness if he just buys their brand.
So what does he do? He swipes his card and pays his dues, and the pain is soothed enough that he can hurt himself some more. He’ll go home, eat a tub of ice cream, and say “it’s okay, I bought a new pedometer today so I’m still making progress.” Pathetic, and all so emblematic of all society.
I follow him as he saunters around, watching his watching. He seems to take particular note of the guitar store, no doubt reminiscing on a childhood dream that never came true. He sighs and shuffles away, checks his watch, pauses to think, and finally glides over to a bench in between the main walkways. He sits down and fumbles in his backpack, pulling out a laptop. He’s got some time to kill.
I can’t go sit down next to him right away, that would just look weird. I’ve been careful to hang back enough that he hasn’t seen me yet, and I peel off to the side as I plan my approach. There’s another bench right next to his own. Maybe a little too close. People aren’t usually in the habit of sitting down right next to a stranger, I don’t want this to come off as weird.
I’ve had the thought, of course, that I probably overthink all these details but that’s just part of the fun. It’s all a facet of the performance, you see.
Now where was I? Oh right.
I whip out my phone and begin my approach. I walk in his direction, along the path right in front of him so that he’ll be able to see my act. I’m staring intently at the phone screen, pretending to be reading an engrossing text. I furrow my brow, as if I’ve just read something upsetting right when I become parallel with him. The concern still on my face I stop walking and instead shuffle over to the nearest seat, which not-so-coincidentally happens to be the one right next to my target.
I reach for my own sleek notebook, powering it on to complete the story. I got a text, it upset me, and I have to go online to address whatever it was about. I allow myself a sideway glance at the man. He hasn’t taken notice of me at all. Oh well, the performance was wonderful anyhow.
So long as I’m eyeing him I start taking in more details, looking for some topic of conversation. His shirt says Good Charlotte. I’ve heard the name, but none of their songs come readily to mind. I sit there next to him, reading up about the group and preparing to initiate our conversation.
He sits there next to me entirely oblivious.
A surreptitious reach into my bag, a flick of the switch on to turn on the signal jammer there, a few seconds wait. In no time at all he’s trying to reset his WiFi connections, sighing in exasperation when that doesn’t work. He’s pulled out of his reverie and starting to glance around him. I do the same, making eye contact and mirroring his expression of frustration.
“Hey, are you having trouble connecting here?” I ask before he can.
“Yeah, it’s not finding the WiFi at all.”
I shake my head. “Sucks, man…” I make as though I’m just noticing his shirt for the first time. “Hey, nice!” I gesture to it.
He glances down to see what I mean and breaks into a smile. “Oh yeah! You like ’em?”
“Just started listening to them actually,” I say quickly, the last thing I need is for him to start an in-depth discussion about them. “But I sure like what I heard. Anthem, I Just Wanna Live…” I repeat the first song names that Google brought up for the band and he starts nodding.
“Sure, sure. Those are definitely good ones, but you’re just scratching the surface.”
There it is. The connection. I do a lot to make myself look friendly. Approachable. Nice. Trustworthy.
“Well at least I get to try out my new toy I guess,” I grin, pulling a black box and cable out of my bag. I can tell he wasn’t ready to stop talking about his favorite band, and that’s good. Keep him wanting more.
“What’s that?” he asks curiously as I plug the device into the side of my laptop.
“One of those LTE mobile hotspots. It’s supposed to get me my own internet line anywhere. Once I get it fired up you’re welcome to hop on if you want…”
The hook is dangling and he pauses.
“Naw, it’s cool. I can just use my phone’s data.”
I nod. “Yeah, sure. Let me know if you change your mind.”
With that there’s nothing left but to wait. The jammer will keep his phone from connecting, too. Maybe he’ll come back around, maybe he won’t. This is only going to work if he makes the next approach himself. That’s a secret it took me too long to figure out. People have to be the one’s to initiate their own hacking.
While he vainly waves his phone in the air to find a signal I open up some fake webpages on my screen. They’re just imitation websites running locally from my machine since I’m not actually connected to the internet either.
He’s putting his phone away and we’ve come to the moment of truth. It would be easy for him to just get up and walk away…unless he wants to stay here. Because he wants a moment of feeling like I’m his friend.
“Hey, uh…” he begins bashfully. “Was your hotspot able to connect?”
“Yeah, it’s working great!”
“Sweet. Uh, is it still cool if I hop on?”
“‘Course, man!” I grin broadly. “It’s ‘WiFist of Fury.’ That’s w-i-f-i-s-t. Password is ’roundhouse kick to the head,’ all lowercase and one word.” This is another of my secrets. I give them my password, I don’t ask them for theirs.
“Nice,” he smiles back, then opens his laptop back up. As he does so I slide my hand back into the bag, and switch the jammer off. A moment later a notification in the corner of my screen lights up.
New Device Connected.
Got you I think.
The device name is PetesDragonComputer. Well pleased to meet you, Pete. He starts browsing the web, happy as can be while I reach back through our tether and start browsing his own computer.
First things first, I install a key-logger so I can start tracking everything he types. If he happens to log into his email while we’re connected I’ll get his credentials and then I can have a field day with his data. Even if he doesn’t, there’s plenty I can do now.
I open up his file structure and start browsing. The “Documents” directories are obvious, I set those copying over to my machine immediately. But then I start checking for anything else that looks out-of-the-ordinary. A “P90X Workout Program” folder? Yes, please.
As the files copy over I see a few of them are pictures. Glancing sideways to ensure Pete isn’t watching I open a couple of them.
Day_1.jpg, it’s an image of Pete from the side, his shirt off, his beer-keg-gut hanging loose for all to see.
I scroll down to the last entry and open it.
Day_60.jpg, it’s an image of Pete from the side, his shirt off, the exact same beer-keg-gut hanging out. Literally all that’s changed is the color of his shorts.
I snigger, and quickly Alt-Tab away in case Pete looks over towards my screen.
Nothing else obvious stands out, so I start searching his directories for some favorite keywords. In order I look for:
I didn’t always search for that last one, but after stumbling across such a file on one computer I’ve always hoped to find another. Any matches get copied over to my hard drive. After any matches from those get copied over to my hard-drive I’ll get started on more photos and videos. Those can be juicy, but they also take time to transfer and you never know how long you have before your fish decides to swim away.
And so I sit there, literally downloading the life of this man who is sitting right next to me. I’ll just keep taking so long as he keeps giving. I don’t delve into his secrets just yet, as soon as he leaves I’ll head back to my apartment, order a pizza, connect my laptop to the tv, turn off all the lights, and start getting to know Pete. If the keylogger managed to lift any passwords I’ll get to know him even better. I’ll come to know him better than most of his closest families and friends. I will consume him, and he will become just another part of my collection.
So no, I’m not some sort of “ethical hacker,” and I’m not the lovable rogue with a heart of gold. I don’t question whether what I’m doing is wrong or not. It is. But be that as it may, try and tell me you aren’t a little intrigued yourself…
So there we have it, as promised on Monday this story is in a very different style than my usual fare. It has a different setting and the voice from what I usually write, but more dramatic a shift is just the experience I am trying to evoke in the reader. Whereas most of my stories are meant to provoke introspection and pondering, this one had far less lofty goals. To put it bluntly I expect the reader to feel fairly slimy, tainted just by being associated with someone as unnerving as Jake.
Writing this definitely stretched me, both in form and function. On the one hand I had to adjust to writing shorter sentences, chattier dialogue, and snappier pacing. Even further, though, I had to access some different corners of the mind. Where titles like Glimmer feature characters that are so earnest and sincere, this one required tapping into being cynical and manipulative. I certainly have those shadows in me, but I usually don’t write from them.
That’s not to suggest that our main character is one-dimensional, though. While right now he’s only shown you a single slice of him, as an author it is important for me to keep in mind all the details that make him a more real person and be true to them. That’s a concept I’ll be exploring more in my next post, come back on Monday to read about that. Then, on Thursday, we’ll get some new developments in Jake’s story with the second section of Phisherman. I’ll see you there.
Almost every story includes some sort of antagonist character, a villain who stands in contrast to all that the hero seeks to accomplish, and the entire crux of the story is to discover which of their competing resolves will win out in the end. Not that that outcome is actually in question most of the time, our culture loves a happy ending, and so with rare exception each story will conclude with good triumphing over evil. In fact, I cannot conceive of a more common and ancient archetype in all of literature than that of the eternal struggle between right and wrong. In another post we will discuss more about why we humans have this obsession for fundamental conflict, but for the time being let’s just accept that we do, and then both the need for and purpose of villains becomes immediately obvious. For how else can that strife between good and evil be represented unless there is some embodiment of that good and of that evil? And how better to embody these than in some living characters with whom the metaphorical battle can now be acted out literally? Thus our varied villains each wear one of the many faces of evil, giving us insight into another small slice of that metaphysical concept, and helping us all to better understand our universal enemy. Having established the purpose of villains, now we can consider what it is that makes one well crafted or poorly designed.
Villains need to be essential. By this I mean that the actions and characteristics of the villain in your story, ought to be the only way your villain could be. Think of the last story you read and ask if it would have worked had the author had left everything else just as it was, but then replaced the villain with some different evil character. If so, then that story just featured a generic villain who was unessential to the greater arc of the plot.
One of my all-time favorite stories, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, features a non-essential villain, and is admittedly weaker because of it. I am referring to the slave-catchers that are in pursuit of Eliza, Tom Loker and Marks. They each have their own characterizations, Marks is small and slimy while Loker is large and rough, and each brings their unique talents to their sinister work. Eventually Loker is wounded in a chase and then abandoned by his comrades. Rather than being left to die by his quarry, he is cared for by the Quakers, and in the process comes to experience a change of heart. It’s a nice story, but it really could have happened that way if Loker had been any other sort of vile character. He might have been small and slimy like Marks, for example, and his arc could have remained just as plausible. As a result, Loker is ultimately entirely forgettable and I actually had to Google his name just to remember what it was. So how exactly do you make your villain essential? Well, that brings us to our next point.
Your villain should define your hero. Going back to the first paragraph of this post, your villain is meant to be an incarnation of evil, but not just evil generally, evil of a specific type. They are meant to represent or be defined by specific vices, one that stand in contrast to the hero’s specific virtues. In general, though, those virtues that define a literary hero are most often only obtained by them towards the end of their stories, they do not possess them at the start. When we think of the good half of Ebenezer Scrooge we see him as a kindhearted and generous man, but he does not exist in this form until the end of his eventful night. Nicholas Nickleby is always a good person, but he is not the mighty protector of lost souls until strife and experience grow him into that role. Jim Hawkins is an unassuming boy when he leaves for Treasure Island, but by the end he has grown into a resourceful and determined young man.
These arcs and character growths each occur as a result of that main character’s conflict with the villain, the protagonist only becomes a hero by the opposition they face. Most often the villain begins the story by holding the balance of power, after all, and so can only be overcome by one that is diametrically opposed to them. Thus the hero learns love because he needs it to counter the villain’s hate, kindness to counter the villains cruelty, tranquility to counter rage, leadership to counter manipulation, courage to counter control. This is what is meant by a hero being defined by the villain that they grow to surpass.
It turns out Uncle Tom’s Cabin also has another villain that actually is essential to its story, one that defines the hero through his characteristics. Simon Legree is superstitious and fearful, and he manifests this by being unbearably cruel and savage, trying to force a sense of control on a world he doesn’t trust. By his viciousness he breaks one slave after another, but try as he might, he can’t seem to break Uncle Tom. As Simon presses down harder and harder on Tom, Tom is driven more and more towards faithfulness and courage, the exactly opposite characteristics of Simon. Though the power seems to be in Simon’s hand, he remains flighty and nervous while Tom is grounded and steady all the way through to the end. Not only is Tom a contrast to Simon, he becomes that contrast through him.
Finally, villains should also be interesting. Now I know that sounds stupidly obvious, yet we see this simple concept eluding most literary villains. One of the ways I most commonly observe this is in how a villain is introduced. So many authors, probably anxious not to slow the pace in actual character exposition, try to use as few sentences as possible to drive home the point that this character is a really bad person. The introduction to the main villain will therefore involve them doing some callous evil, such as killing in cold blood, which will establish them as irredeemable and deserving of the justice that will soon follow.
“My Lord, what should we do with this village of totally innocent bystanders?”
“Dispose of them, I suppose.” Maniacal laughter follows.
Oh my! Well this certainly is a very bad person here, isn’t it? Aside from the fact that this is so routine a trope that it has lost all impact, it is also a sign of lazy writing. What are you going to do in the sequel when you need to raise the stakes with a deeper force of evil?
“My Lord, what should we do with these two villages of totally innocent bystanders?”
That might sound facetious of me, but I’m actually trying to draw attention to the current pattern of evil-escalation in these more lazy stories. Instead of evil growing deeper, it simply grows broader. I rarely like to give specific negative examples in these blogs, so I’ll just say take a look at most comic book series, either in print or film. They tend to begin with threats to individuals, then progress to threats to cities, then threats to the whole world, and finally threats to the entire universe…what’s next, threats to a multiverse? Oh wait…
No, if you want to make a real impact, your villains can’t just be evil, they need to be uniquely evil. Readers will respond to a single ingenious act of evil on a small scale than to a generic act of evil on a universal scale. Consider the story of William Tell.
William Tell is described as a famous crossbowman who stood in defiance of the local ruler Albrecht Gessler. Gessler decided to make an example of him by arresting William and his son and ordering their execution. Then, struck by a sinister stroke of cruel genius, Gessler made an offer to William that he would spare their lives if William would demonstrate his prowess with the bow by shooting an apple off of his own son’s head at considerable distance. The obvious dilemma is that now William’s only possibility of saving his son’s life is to risk slaying him with his own hands. As a father myself, the cruelty of this hope mingled with horror is just as chilling now as it was five centuries ago, never mind that only two lives are at stake here.
A story is only as strong as its weakest of components, and a villain is one of the most critical of those pieces. When a villain is done well, it does not only produce a memorable character, it also elevates the entire story along with it. This next Thursday I will try to present the other side of the coin with the hero’s perspective from the Revelate series. As I do so I will give particular attention to ensuring that that hero is defined by the opposition he faces. I’ll see you then.