Gray Heroes

27 June 2013

From Dave Farland:

I once got a letter from a reader who asked about heroes and villains that switch roles in a book. The author pointed out that at one time I mentioned that in most cases we don’t get too deep into the mind of a villain. As authors, we avoid penetration in villains.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it can be disturbing and distasteful. I have a brother who has worked as a detective, and on a couple of occasions he had talked to me about interviews that he has done with child molesters. I can tell you with great certainty that I wouldn’t want to spend any time at all in the head of one of them, and if your audience is subjected to a revolting character for too long, they will set the book aside.

The second reason to avoid deep penetration in a villain is that it can undercut the surprise in your story. For example, let’s say that we have a villain who devises a complex plan to, say, murder an enemy king. If you as an author get deep into the villain’s head, if you reveal too many details of that plan, you can take the element of surprise out of the story.

Please note, though, that this can also work for the story. It can get the reader to wondering, “Gosh, how is the hero going to get out of this one?” So you can basically give up some surprise in order to raise the level of suspense. So often in storytelling, we must sacrifice one effect in order to gain another.

. . . .

First, pay close attention to your characters’ motivations. Your hero can win the hearts of the readers early, and so long as his actions are understandable, the reader will follow him down a dark road for quite a long way. So you have to keep that deep point of view in your hero. Now, with your villain, you might start out with him using only shallow penetration, but then move into deep penetration as you go. Show why the villain is doing what he does. Ask yourself, does he have any misguided ideals? Was he trained to be this way? Does he act out of any noble desires? Does he feel trapped into behaving as he does?

Second, with both your hero and your villains, let them apologize for their deeds. Give them good reasons for doing evil. For example, when I was a prison guard, in at least a couple of instances I saw other guards manufacture evidence in crimes in order to try to convict the inmates that they most suspected. The good guys tried to use deceit to fight crime. Meanwhile, I’ve known villains who used the law in order to gain their own ends. My own grandfather, who worked for the FBI during prohibition, hid behind his badge as he arrested smugglers on the Canadian border, and then sold the stolen goods.

Link to the rest at David Farland

David Farland, Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

32 Comments to “Gray Heroes”

  1. Funny. I just finished up a short-story in which the protagonist is actually the “bad guy” and the antagonist is the “good guy.” Of course, the good guy is a pirate so it’s more shades of gray than black & white from the get-go. But I found it fun to write a story from the opposite side of the table and get the views of the character strictly from the villain. I think it made for a great story.

    So it can be fun to do. It really depends on how evil the villain is on the spectrum and how willing you are to get in their mindset, and what you’re trying to get out of the story.

    If nothing else, it can be a fun writing experiment.

    • I think readers have more patience for that sort of thing in short works.

      • I think readers have patience for it in any work.

        One of my favourite superhero books is “Soon I will be invincible”, written from the POV of the villain. And none of that “Im a villain cause I was abused as a kid” type of excuses either. The villain just wants to take over the world, plain and simple.

        And the whole book I was rooting for the villain to win.

        • He does talk about how he got the way he is – mostly to dismiss it, but it’s not like he’s not aware he’s bad. 🙂

          And yes, that is a magnificent book.

        • How can we have this thread without a mention of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog?

          Joss Whedon is an expert at turning norms upside down.

          • IMHO, I think this only works when you’ve crafted a likeable, villain that’s respected on some level. They can be pure evil, like Lector, but there needs to be some qualitites that fans root for so the reversal becomes an enjoyable surprise and not a detestable one. Making them the hero is upsetting when I’m flipping pages hoping they finally eat a hollowpoint.

            Imagine if Lucious Malfoy turned out to the single great hero at the end of “Hollows”. Considering how many other characters got killed along the way I’m still annoyed that maggot didn’t somehow get waxed in the end.

          • Haha I was just thinking that. Thank you! 🙂

  2. I love, love, love writing gray characters! Love it! I love getting into the heads of villains and good guys that are iffy and really good guys. It’s so much fun exploring the human condition. That being said, anyone who’s familiar with my work knows that I also love taking my characters and my readers on emotional roller coasters–plot wise and relationship wise. I generally prefer happy endings, but they’re only worthwhile once all the gray has been wrangled.

  3. Patricia Sierra

    I disagree with this post. Two of my books with co-author John Philpin (The Prettiest Feathers & Tunnel of Night) have at their core a narrator who’s a serial killer. The books would be failures without his voice revealing the inner workings of his mind. Because Philpin is a forensic psychologist, the killer’s voice rings true and chilling. Philpin wrote all the killer’s first-person chapters.

  4. Oh, and what about the success of Dexter? Guess we can’t ‘go there’ because no one can handle it. Ha! Dexter is awesome! The character, the show, the everything!

    Just because some people are squeamish doesn’t mean we all are.

    • I don’t think he’s saying that the villain has to be all good, but if you can justify why he’s bad, that works too. If he’s just evil with no redeeming qualities, most readers are not going to want to spend much time with him/her.

      “Second, with both your hero and your villains, let them apologize for their deeds. Give them good reasons for doing evil.”
      In my first book, No Good Deed, the ‘bad’ guy was very gray. His intentions were not evil even thought he was not nice to the hero.

      • Patricia Sierra

        The serial killer in my books has zero redeeming qualities and never a justification for his deeds, yet — judging by the feedback from readers — he’s their favorite character in those books.

        • The more ruthless the main character of one of my books is, the better it sells. I’ve tried extremely romantic approaches to my genre – the final scene of one of my books is quite the tender tearjerker, if I do say so. Nobody buys it. Everybody who reads it agrees it’s a nice story, but nobody buys it. This is generally true of all the ‘mantic ones. If one of my stories has what might reasonably be called an HEA, I mark it in the Erotic Romance category, which should put it in front of a lot more eyeballs. Doesn’t help.

          The main character of my newest story is a snide, patronizing bastard in addition to being utterly callous to the effects of his actions on the other characters (although he often insists that he’s really not a bad guy.) The effing thing is selling three times faster than my previous fastest-selling book, which features *two* extremely ruthless characters, one of whom gets her comeuppance at the hands of the other. Now I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have had them join forces and make the product of their ruthlessness a squared quantity. 🙂

          N.B. for any readers not familiar with me – I write erotica. So my experiences may not transfer well.

  5. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the original book) was all evil and never apologized for his actions, yet he’s the most badass vampire around. Redeeming qualities? Gorgeous, suave, intelligent, rich. Hmmm…

    He’s THE blueprint for fictional vampires. Sometimes loving to hate a character, or loving the darkness, is just as good as loving them because fiction is a safe environment to experiment and explore our dark sides.

    • Patricia Sierra

      I can forgive a lot when someone’s gorgeous, suave, intelligent, and rich. But enough about my ex-husband…

      • Hence the trend in current paranormal and YA. Plus the slim positive that the ‘right woman’ might change him. *gag*

        But you know, woman will accept all the above in an evil character much easier in a man than a woman. What’s the consensus for men accepting above such for fictional women characters? The nonredeemable, evil, gorgeous, rich bitch– yes? no?

    • A point of order: In Stoker’s novel, Dracula is not an attractive person, physically (or, in general, in the way he behaves.) From La Wik, which matches my own recollection fairly well:

      “His appearance varies in age. He is described early in the novel as thin, with a long white mustache, pointed ears and sharp teeth. It is also noted later in the novel (Chapter 11 subsection “THE ESCAPED WOLF”) by a zookeeper that sees him that he has a hooked nose and a pointed beard with a streak of white in it. He is dressed all in black and has hair on his palms. Jonathan Harker described him as an old man; ‘cruel looking’ and giving an effect of ‘extraordinary pallor.'[6] When angered the Count showed his true bestial nature, his blue eyes flaming red.”

      Not to say that any given person couldn’t find any or all of that appealing, but in terms of general attractiveness… he’s not. That’s all on Bela Lugosi.

      • Speaking of the modern tendency to glamorize villains, I’m reminded of the recent movie the The Phantom of the Opera musical where Gerard Butler was cast as the Phantom in an effort to make the Phantom younger and sexier. In the book he is never anything but a monster until the very end, when the reader is able to sympathize with him not because he is glamorous or sexy, but because he has made a good choice and done the right thing. I, at least, am thoroughly sick of our modern preoccupation with the “glamorous” villain or the villain who isn’t really a villain because his momma didn’t love him enough as a child and therefore everything he does is justified.

        • I find it highly annoying, but I think I find the modern trend to make heroes “complicated” (i.e., scruffy, angsty, and whiny) even more annoying. For God’s sake, look what they did to Aragorn. To Superman. Is nothing sacred? Can we not have one single example of somebody who is simply good and noble and just? Must we smear slime on everything?

          • Agree 100%. I hate this emphasis on “grey” characters. I don’t want grey characters. I hate the “dark and gritty” trend. I like vibrant and colorful characters of all shades. Grey brings to my mind connotations of either dullness or murkiness. Or just, you know, dust and dirt. Grey. Yuck.

  6. Different genres maybe? I don’t like villain sex in romance because it is eeevvvvaaaaalllll. Instead of writing a villain with some depth of character he (or more likely she) is just bad to the bone. In fact for a while in addition to all of his evil, rapey, sadistic ways, the villain would also be homosexual– just a rotten cherry on top of a sundae of evil.

    Sf and fantasy tend to have power hungry villains.

    Mysteries and thrillers are less interesting if they have very obvious or unnuanced villains– although there is the trope in mysteries of the first corpse being a person who has a lot of enemies, all of whom had a good reason for making him a corpse.

  7. Kathlena Contreras

    I LO-O-O-OVE villains! Always have. They’re just so…cool. The protagonist in my latest book is an amnesiac dark lord who nearly destroyed his world before escaping into ours. The antagonists are the wizards who defeated him, and are now hunting him. My betas have been crazy about my dark lord protagonist. He’s one of my very favorites, too.

  8. I’m quite fond of villains in books (and films), and even if they’re not technically villains, the people who walk on the wrong side of the law are always more intriguing. I suppose that’s why I love films like High Sierra (Bogart/Lupino) so much. 🙂

  9. Mmmm. Not sure I agree, though perhaps it can be too tough to make a sale… Can’t think of any major books with a villain portrayed as good… Ah some people mentioned Dracula… nice. Myself, I’ve written a book from the POV of the bad guy, ie an insurgent somewhat based on my time in Iraq… Suppose the jury is still out.

  10. Jacqueline–about female ‘bad guys’–check out the modern Sherlock series (with Benedict Cumbersnatch and Martin Freeman). Irene Adler is the baddest badass character ever and she is fascinating. Very interesting character and yet in the series no background for her badassery is given. She’s just very very smart and totally amoral.

    • I think you mean the American Sherlock in ‘Elementary’, unless both shows featured a villain named Irene.

      • They both did. Benedict Cumberbatch is an awesome Sherlock. They guy who played Frodo in the new Hobbit is Watson. PBS aired some episodes the last two summers, during their Mystery! phases. Looking forward to more. In the Cumberbatch version, the show spends more time letting you see why Irene Adler fascinated Sherlock (I like her in-show twitter handle, @thewhiphand). The American Sherlock took Irene in a different direction. She’s still a villain, though.

  11. I think it’s too simplistic to think of good guys and bad guys, unless you’re writing children’s stories. It leads to a lack of complexity in the characters. As the actor Lee Marvin said: I don’t play bad guys, I just play guys trying to get through their day.

    • While it’s true that almost nobody is the bad guy in their own movie, I think this view is a little too post-modern and relativistic. Some people are just bad, and they do bad things, because they like doing bad things. (“Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.”)

      We can argue about whether they were born that way, raised that way, or ‘fluenced by the Devil, but at the end of the day, any writer (or moviemaker, blech) who refuses to admit that some people are just nasty makes me believe not that they are sophisticated, but the very opposite – that they are naive.

      And on the subject, it is interesting to note that the more his very gifted creator tried to un-Hannibal Lecter Hannibal Lecter, the less engaging the character and his story became.

  12. Elizabeth
    Oh yes I’m familiar with The Woman. Great show and great character. I was just trying g to get people’s opinions here on men vs women villains. There are more memorable male villains than female I think, especially in books.

    • Mystery, especially the Noir-flavor and classic pulp have no dearth of female villains. ‘The Maltese Falcon’ comes to mind.

      Pulp era comics had some fabulous fatales and morally challenged women.

      As for your question, I think people like a unique, intriguing villain the way they like a good story. I find it hard to believe that someone would actively avoid stories because of villain-gender preferences.

  13. I generally am not fond of the grey hero. They can be done, and done well, I agree, I just think that’s a character that is done very badly most of the time. Like Marc said above, the idea that there are no bad people is just flat naive. Plus, a lot of writers just suck at executing the “darker and edgier” thing, and I think that’s partly because they aren’t thinking too deeply about the plot and characters.

    I’ve never seen Dexter, and I never watched Hannibal (I hate gore, I just assume that a show about a cannibal is gory. Stands to reason). For those of you who are into it, do you think the shows work because they ARE following the “guidelines” of writing villains, or because they “go there” by breaking the rules below?

    The guidelines (which seem disturbingly similar to the conditions that foster the Stockholm syndrome):

    -The villain has to be surrounded by worse villains so he looks better in comparison. I hear Dexter is a serial killer who goes after bad guys. If he were going after women with long brown hair parted down the center, would he still be cool? Or would he have to struggle with not wanting to kill?

    -You mainly see the world through the villain’s point of view, so you’re forced to identify with them by default

    -The villain has some sort of line they won’t cross, a “code” that suggests you might be safe with him/her in some instances. This could lead to …

    -The villain will do something good for someone/something, which allows the viewer/reader to think there’s hope that he can be “reached,” or do a “heel-face-turn.”

    -The good guy might be “good” by default, and not by virtue (catching the villain because he’s paid to as a cop, not because he actually cares, which can lead to him not looking particularly good in comparison to the villain).

    I’m curious whether or not those “guidelines” are more like laws, where the story will crash if you don’t follow them. Some of you have said you write villains, so I’m curious whether you do or don’t take that approach.

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