The Problem with an “Evil” Character

A few times, I’ve heard an author say something along the lines of “A villain is the hero of his own story.” More than not, I believe this truism in that it reflects life and the people around us. Not everyone, but most people. There are self-loathing people and self-loathing characters, but this is not the case generally.

But what does the truism really mean? It means that everyone has motivations and goals. Heroes always have goals: save a kitten, stop a runaway train etc. But so do villains: steal the art from the museum’s wall, kidnap my child from the custodial parent etc. The real point is that people, good or bad, justify their actions.

There is one justification that villains do not use: evil. Nobody says “What can I do that would be evil today?” Nobody. Except Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, Gru from Despicable Me, Megamind . . . characters that are sympathized with. Hardly the case for evil for evil’s sake.

Nevertheless, fantasy and urban fantasy writers sometimes lean into EVIL as a reason, or as a justification. The book I’m reading now describes a character as “evil personified.” This does not tell me anything concrete. Nor do I believe it. To a certain extent, evil is in the eye of the beholder, especially those that are wronged, appalled, victimized, or made vulnerable. The monster could be acting out of territorialism, hungry, greed, rage, self-preservation, ignorance, or directed malice. This is more specific and less dismissive. Claiming something, or someone as evil avoids the issue of trying to understand the actions. This is a mistake.

Maybe the character is a fictionalized Hitler, Dahmer, or even 911 terrorist–all have been called evil. But that description averts the issue of facing the actions and motivations. Hitler did unspeakably horrible things, or ordered them, but he did not do it to “be evil.” He was driven by hatred, racial ideology, megalomania and ignorance among many things. The result was evil. But not the motivation. The 911 terrorists were driven by religious fanaticism and a sense of purpose. The result was evil. But not the motivation.

In writing, leaning on “evil” is a crutch. The aliens in Alien are not evil no matter what they do to the humans. They are ghastly creatures the feed and breed in ways that do not bode well for humans. That’s what predators do. I’m sure rabbits and chickens and pigs are not always pleased with human ways. Passenger pigeons and dodos went extinct, buffalo and many whales nearly so. But humans didn’t do this out of evil. We had screwy, myopic motivations that deserve to be properly addressed.

GenCon and Hoosier Hospitality

Next week, GenCon will be all the rage in Indianapolis. While it has the LARPing of other Cons, this is the largest American game convention: board games and video games. The fine people of Catan will be trying to set a new world record for simultaneous Catan players [to beat their last record from 2 years ago at 800+] I do love and collect board games and will be stalking the demo tables most of Friday. [Maybe joining the Catan-a-thon.]

GenCon also has a huge fantasy and sci-fi writers symposium. I will be sitting in on many discussions: anatomy of a fight scene, eliciting emotional responses, atmospheric writing, common people in epic conflicts, action scenes, killing off characters, researching stories, dialogue and dialogue tags, description through dialogue, character voice, heroic pairs, magic and the modern world, worthy opponents, and supporting cast [real people vs. plot devices]. Yes, that’s a lot of lectures, but I have 3 days and plenty of time to watch games.

I’ll also be hearing a few authors speak that I reviewed this past year. Firstly, Patrick Rothfuss [The Lightning Tree and The Slow Regard of Silent Things] will talk for 2 hours my first night. There will also be a panel of writers from the anthology Writers of the Future Volume 31 on my final night. Nothing beats listening to an author speak that you’ve just read and enjoyed.

I imagine I’ll pick up a book or two while I’m there also. Drop a line if you’re heading Indiana-way. This year I’ll try to remember the change in time zone and not show up late . . .

Character Interactions: Walsh and Britt, the siblings

Sibling dynamics fascinate me as a sibling can be one’s biggest rival and cheerleader all in one. So when it came time to introduce a new character that had only been referenced as the far younger sister of a main character in the urban fantasy series I am creating, I knew I really had to explore how their interactions would reflect twenty years of history.

Walsh [Benjamin Walsh], who narrates this scene, is well-established as a reserved music teacher that does not easily open up about his private life or feelings. However, as he becomes convinced that his sister, who’s thirteen years younger, is in danger, he goes to Madison, WI to get her and her newborn daughter to bring them back to his home in Chicago. The idea of living together again has him feeling both wistful and nervous.

     I feel a bit guilty showing up unannounced to my sister’s door at 7:30 in the morning. So, I try to peer in through a window and I knock gingerly. To my relief, Britt appears like a wraith concealed by the sheer white curtain.
     She opens the door wide. “You’re here,” she states the obvious. “And, you look like crap,” she says to continue a life-long habit of greeting with an observation that usually verges on both truth and insult.
     “You chopped your hair off,” I notice.
     “It’s called a pixie.”
     “You pixied your hair,” I correct.
     “Thank you.” Her arm beckons me in. “Your niece is in the kitchen. We need to be quiet—Chuck and Tess both were tending last night.” Having bartender roommates is yet another reason to move my sister out.
     Bea, my niece, is not even two months old. My last visit to Madison was during the week she was born. Today, she is flopped back in a portable, rocking seat. Quiet and bright-eyed, she is happily strangling in her tight little fist a cloth raccoon that has the consistency of a sock.
     “I wasn’t expecting you, Benji. Did Michael not come with you?” Britt picks up Bea and goes back to bottle-feeding her.
     Britt has always and will always get away with calling me “Benji” in that peculiar way in which younger sisters always get away with their precocious obnoxiousness. I’m admittedly particularly soft on her. If for no other reason, than that she was my thirteenth birthday gift. I was an only child on my twelfth birthday when I made the fateful wish for a sibling. I was a lonely kid, a young, gay wisp of a boy whose body refused to mature in synch with the rest of the boys. So, I wanted someone who’d love me and look up to me. In particular, a sister. I was leery that a younger brother might quickly become the sporty son that I was not.
     Usually, I’d get to choose what I wanted for dinner on my birthday. But not in 1988. No, for my thirteenth birthday, my dad and I had hospital hamburgers with none of the fixings. He did let me have a soda with my dinner. So there was that. Mom still wasn’t in labor and doctors were worried. She was big enough to burst—stretched to the point where I expected her skin to become transparent revealing my stubborn sister within. Four days later, tired of waiting, doctors took Mom into surgery and delivered Brittany Rose Walsh. Britt. The sporty, rebellious kid that I was not.
     My sister was seventeen when I first brought Michael home with me. She loved him. He was the perfect accessory—the lover of her gay older brother. To a teenaged liberal rebel who had already donned veganism, smoking menthols, and sipping Jägermeister, we were perfect. Her love affair with the idea of us was short-lived however. All too soon it had become clear to her that we were boringly domestic. We were sell-outs to the American dream.
     “Michael and I are no longer together,” I confess.

Entropy: Ordinary People in Extraordinary Circumstances

The urban fantasy series that I’m writing under the working title, Entropy, thrusts the world into chaos. A modest percentage of the population acquires extraordinary abilities, call them superhero powers if you will, however the “gifted” largely do not handle it well. Bryson Finney and Jared O’Shea, whom I’ve introduced in previous posts, are two of those ordinary folks. Their case is peculiar, though, in that they each have premonitions of strange events from the future time of the change: millions of birds braining themselves into buildings overnight, grounded air travel, disrupted internet, television signals, cellular service . . .

They don’t know what this means or when it’s going to occur. That’s the situation when Jared [narrating the scene] wakes up one morning at Bryson’s where he is dog-and-house sitting.

Ripper is whimpering, but he has food and water. I open the backdoor a few inches to let him slip outside. I’m not going to be playing with him while I’m in my underwear. The neighbors don’t need a show.

My bagel pops up at the same time that Ripper starts growling and barking. This is his serious bark reserved for raccoons, bats, opossums and the neighbor’s Doberman. Squirrels, robins and the other neighbor’s poodles get a more playful bark. I should check on him. With my luck, I’d be enjoying a bagel barely an hour after Bryson and Kate leave for a week’s trip to Texas, and their dog would get carried off by an eagle due to my negligence.

Ripper paces alongside the back of the house to the right of the door. He’s fine and barking at a clod of dirt. There seems to be a few clods right at the edge of the lilies. Or, they’re lumps of fur. “Ripper, come on! Come back in!” Don’t make me come out there in my underwear. Maybe I should go grab a pair of cut-offs. Is that a mouse? One of the clumps is moving. “Rip! Come here! Now! Ripper! Rip. Rip.” It moves in a funny way, like—BATS. “Ripper COME here!” Neighbors be damned. I’m out the door ready to scoop up the stupid, obstinately deaf dog. It’s comfortably cool out. It must have rained last night. Fog still shrouds everything beyond two houses away. Ripper starts to back away from a bat feebly crawling with a wing outstretched like an awkward crutch. The pup backs towards me. The multiple clods of dirt I saw are all bats—there could be five in the yard. Only one moves. I wish I were wearing shoes or at least socks. And maybe shorts. Grounded bats equal sick bats. With a lunge, I scoop up Ripper. I waste no time getting back inside and bolting the door behind me. I’ll deal with the bats later. When I’m dressed. Or after work, even. I wish Bry had left me a note about the bats; I wouldn’t have put the dog out.

My cell phone waits in the living room not charging. It contains a text from Bryson: “Craziness at O’Hare. Fog! Ambulances on the tarmac. Don’t think a plane crashed. Check the news. ETD is not changed yet.” He could have mentioned the damned bats. I respond, “Downed bats in the backyard. What gives? Rip’s OK.” I look at my phone for a good half-minute waiting for a return text. Nothing.

My bagel’s cold.

The news conjectures about the incident at O’Hare, though details are slow to trickle in: One ground crewman is dead. . . .One full luggage cart is destroyed. . . .No reported injuries on the plane involved. . . .The pilot’s taken in for questioning and drug-testing. . . .The air traffic controller is taken in for questioning and drug-testing. . . .The dead ground crewman is identified as Alicia Fuentes—mother of two. The picture forms of a landing gone horribly, freakishly wrong. By mid-morning, half a dozen other pilots in the air over O’Hare and Midway at the time of the accident have reported instrument anomalies lasting for some minutes. Heavy, early fog didn’t help.

Character Introduction: Bryson Finney

In my original superhero urban fantasy series, the second of the 3 primary characters that take over the 1st person POV is Bryson Finney. I’ve previously highlighted his near-brother status to Jared O’Shea in posts here and here. With Jared as the first narrator, Bryson is usually seen through his filter. However, the following scene shows Bryson, the Texas-transplant, in his natural element–grilling and doting on his wife, Kate, and his puggle, Riptide aka Ripper.

Bryson is already working the grill. It looks like we’re having corn on the cob and sausages. It seems awfully early in the season for corn. “Did Kate tell you we renamed the dog? Waco was a terrible name; everyone up here thinks of Branch Davidians. As a kid, our dogs always had Texan names: Austin and Texarkana were beagles, Houston was a Chihuahua, Dallas was a springer spaniel, Tyler was also a Chihuahua, and Midland was a bulldog.” I knew about him having dogs, but I’d forgotten about the Texas-themed names. “My stepdad named them. Obviously, he’s a freak about Texas. He’ll be disappointed that I broke tradition, but this here’s a Yankee dog. Riptide. Like my band—Riptide.”

“Yeah, Kate said. About time you actually used that name.” Bryson is smirking and grilling, quite proud of himself. Kids can be punks, but I bet Bryson’s students like him. He has that right amount of intensity about whatever he believes in. As a teacher, his passion is history and how technology, science, war and politics have propelled society’s development. This guy knows more about America than anyone I know.

“Did Kate tell you anything else?”

“Not really. She’s getting together with Barb and friends. Barb’s the tall one, right? Are you ready for a beer? Bigger question: are you ready to dreamwalk?”

“We’re pregnant, Jared.” WOW! Bryson is looking right at me. Smiling, but not smirking. I believe he could cry. I can feel myself misting up.

“Dude!” Really? Dude? My reaction blows. I’ve got to do better than that. “That’s great news, Bry.” My voice wavered when I said “great news.” I am such a wussy that I could tear up to a beer commercial. Bryson has turned his attention back to the grill. He’s beaming. “Too bad you already used the name Riptide for your dog. You could name the kid Galveston or Amarillo.” I can’t think of any other Texas cities.

“Odessa if it’s a girl.” He’s laughing. “I’ll take a beer. Unless you think it could interfere with the dreamwalk?”

“One can’t hurt.” I’m still shocked by his news though I guess I knew they were trying. I am going to spoil this kid rotten.

Character Research: The Epileptic and the Musician

In the past couple of weeks, I have editorialized on creating a diverse cast of characters for science fiction and urban fantasy that transcends bias based on race and/or gender. Part of that diversity also means creating characters that have world-experience that goes beyond the limits of my own resume and relationship history. But, to do this requires: curiosity and research.

I can imagine what a certain situation or job would be like, but that doesn’t mean I’m correct. I like to run micro-scenes by people that have a better know-how into a scenario. My partner’s brother was a military lifer, he is my go-to for questions of rank and organization as my series delves more deeply into a dystopian US under martial law.

Jared, the primary narrator of the first book talked about here, here, and here, has a seizure [Oh, spoiler alert. <–back there. Skip that part.] Having not experienced a seizure first hand, I've given the appropriate scenes to an epileptic and the mother of an epileptic for critique from those who've intimately experienced it.

Kate, looking the sickly yellowish-green of bad limes, wipes my forehead with a cool cloth. “Bryson!” she yells, “He’s stopped seizing. He’s back with us, I think.” I feel very achy, but the headache and buzzing noises are gone. Kate’s look softens, “Jared? Are you okay, Jared? You’ve had a seizure. But you’re going to be alright.”

I’ve pissed on myself. The warm wetness has soaked through the chair. I’ve never felt shame and embarrassment this thoroughly. I wish they had not found me like this. “Thank God, you’re okay,” Kate adds while brushing my hair from my forehead. Bryson is in the doorway behind Kate. He listens to his phone but watches me intently.

“How are you feeling, Jare?” Bry asks with louder than normal volume. How am I feeling? Wet, embarrassed, achy, ashamed, thirsty. Thirsty? Yes, just a little bit. “I don’t know,” he snaps at the phone, “He hasn’t answered me yet.” Kate looks up at Bry, her eyes begging him to not get snippy on the phone. “The ambulance is on its way,” he assures her. She accepts this answer and turns back to me.

Another character, Walsh, teaches piano and voice at a local university. While I am a singer involved in multiple choirs, I still went to a profession singer-pianist to scan his scenes for accuracy.

. . . we’ve settled on the emotive “Danny Boy.” That is what we are running currently. My fingers lilt into the old Irish tune by memory, finding jazz hidden between the lines and notes on the page. My mind, though, drifts over to the window and out into the garden. Eric’s voice and pitch waft gently away from the key my piano playing offers.

I stop playing mid-phrase, letting my final chord ring. Eric winces and corrects his note. “Shit,” he concedes allowing his stance to slump. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. And, I was really into it that time.” I move to advise, but he beats me to the lesson. “I know,” Eric whines, “I stopped listening. It’s just that same phrase where the piano part doesn’t have my note—“

Character Interactions: Jared and Bryson, Part II

       Walsh and Bryson agree on meeting over brunch, and I’m along for the ride, literally. I’m sitting shotgun in the jeep on the gloomiest of gray days, while Bry drives us into the city. Why I had to endure another 8:30am wake-up call is utterly unclear to me. At this rate, we’ll arrive at the restaurant ninety minutes before Walsh. Bry is staying mum, but he’s up to something. At least he provided me with a travel mug of coffee.
       We don’t seem to be headed toward the city, “Bry?” He’s taking a parking spot on a quiet residential street. If I’m right, we’re just blocks from the lake and the Baha’i temple north of Evanston. Bry gets out of the vehicle without a word. I’ve little choice but to follow his lead. I step out of the jeep into the moist air. The weather is mild—no warmer than the low 70’s. “Bry?”
       “The storms sure cooled off everything.” He pulls his sweater sleeves down to his wrists. He hasn’t looked over at me once. His eyes are to the firmament and its textured dull gray blandness. “We’ve got some time to kill.” Bryson starts to walk up the street, away from me.
       “We could have slept in longer,” I offer. He laughs but keeps on walking. Bryson can be infuriating, but I’ll follow.
       The pavement is mottled with dry spots. The trees overhead seem particularly heavy. Every little breeze brings water down from the leaves. The cottages here have nice little gardens which look particularly green, yet disheveled this morning. Extra leaves and twigs litter the lawns. “We lost some branches last night.” Now Bry is looking at me. “I cleaned up the yard before I got you up.” Bry, the do-gooder, shrugs.
       The Baha’i Temple perches loftily on its knoll beyond the near ridge of trees. Bryson leads the way up through the gardens to the steps of the temple. After ensuring that I am following, he continues up the steps and then follows the perimeter wall to the east side of the building. Here, we are exposed to the cool breezes coming unimpeded off the turbulent, smoky-green lake. The maze of evergreens below us seems to offer protection from the wind to their little wedges of gardens. Why did he bring me here?
       “I love this place.” Bryson acts nostalgic. I haven’t been here since I was a kid, and never with him.
       “Are we going inside for some sort of mass or service?”
       “No. That wasn’t my intention.” Bryson takes a seat on the top step circling the temple. “Though, you are free to go in if you want.” I don’t. It looks like we’ll be here for a bit so I take a seat on the barely dry stone steps. Why did he bring me here? “My dad used to bring me up here after big storms. There is something about the lake when it’s at its most restless state that enthralls him. He finds peace in it. I guess I do, too.” I had no idea about this ritual of theirs. But I get it: the lake looks beautiful when it’s wild. It seems to glow from within. “We’d always take the Red Line up to one of the harbors or we’d come all the way here. This was my favorite destination. It always felt like we had arrived at the end of the world.” We’ll be having dinner with Bry’s dad. Maybe that’s why Bryson is feeling sentimental.
       “Is your dad okay?” I hope Bry’s not about to tell me that Bryan has cancer or the equivalent.
       “He’s fine.” Bryson is now looking at me, not the lake. “It’s you, I’m worried about.” Ouch.
       “Is that why you have me on suicide watch?”
       Bry’s eyes drop to his clasped hands. “I don’t have you on suicide watch. I’m just worried about you.”

Last week I introduced the brotherly friendship of Jared and Bryson. The scene above is later in the same chapter and takes place the next morning. The rift between them has been yawning for a spell, but this moment starts them on the path of working together again.

It’s a Man’s World

Superheroes still trend toward being male. Especially in a Hollywood lead role. Why is this? Recent series such as Divergent and Hunger Games have shown that there is an audience for strong female lead characters. Comic book fans are supporting the female Thor, even. So, why is there still a lag in depicted equity of the genders?

I don’t have an answer to this, merely conjecture. I think our cultural default is still male [and white as I brought up last week in talking about racial equity]. We assume a captain, a general, an admiral, a hero, a cop, a detective, a coroner is male unless proven otherwise. Seriously, as you read the list in the prior sentence what gender did you imagine?

At C2E2 [Chicago’s ComicCon], there was a panel discussing this very subject. One author said that they purposely start every character as female unless they had a reason to switch it to male. That seems rather extreme, but I can see alternating the genders and correcting for situation as necessary. The idea being, naturally, to write beyond stereotype.

This is an important subject in my own writing. As a male, I don’t want default male. This is particularly challenging in the series I’m writing because at the core is four main characters, a straight couple and a gay couple. That’s 3 males and 1 female if one overlooks the gender distortion that the gay men bring to the mix. It gets further complicated by Kate [the lead female] being separated from the rest. Her story will emerge, but that leaves the three main male characters. So, I find myself packing in female characters to balance the testosterone out: Walsh’s sister and niece move in, the neighbors are lesbians. The cop, the police chief and the army general for the district: all women.

Am I making mountains out of molehills?

Character Interactions: Jared and Bryson

A week ago, I posted an introduction to Jared, the narrator of the first book of my urban fantasy series. Also important is Jared’s long time best friend, Bryson Finney. They’ve been palling around and acting like the brother that neither has since aged 10. Now they are mid-30s, and Jared moves in with Bryson and his pregnant wife Kate for a short spell while he sorts through the separation with his own wife, Molly.

Curiously, both Jared and Bryson experience the premonitions that they call jumps, or dreamwalks. They have also established a pattern of downloading to each other about their premonitions. After a particularly sexy dreamwalk that involved another man, Jared is a bit reluctant to download with Bry, and Bry senses it. The following is an excerpt:

       “Jared, answer me or I’m coming in.” Bryson raps on the bedroom door, not sounding very patient at the moment. “Even if it’s just to say you want to sleep in longer.”
       “I want to sleep in longer.”
       “I’m coming in anyway.” The door swings open.
       “Dude—“ I protest. Bry has a bent paperclip in his hand. “Maybe I locked it for a reason.”
       “I’ve seen you naked and lord knows you don’t have company.” Bry’s not very amused. He’s probably pissed at me for not awakening him and downloading last night. “I’m a little miffed that you didn’t wake me last night when your jump ended. We should’ve held the download then while it was still fresh.” I called it. Besides, I purposely didn’t wake him. I don’t know if I’ll even tell him about last night’s jump. “I woke up with the TV on and you missing, Jared. And you locked the basement door at the top of the stairs. Not cool. It’s still my basement even if you have a room down here. You can lock this door all you want—“
       “Apparently, I cannot.”
       “Shut up. I’m pissed at you. I was scared that I’d find you all—“ Bry just shakes his head without finishing his thought.
       “You’d find me all what?” Bry shakes off my question. He regrets starting to say whatever he almost said. A horrid image enters my head. “Do you have me on some sort of suicide watch?! Bryson?! Bryson!” He’s not going to answer. My best friend thinks I’ve been unstable enough that a suicide watch is merited. I can’t be mad at him for that: I’m horrified. This is not the type of stress he needs right now, or ever. I swing my legs off the bed. “I’m getting up. Let me know what we’re doing today.”
       “You can sleep longer if you want.” He’s not upset any longer. “I would like you to download later. That was one helluva jump; you were gone for hours. I watched an entire crappy zombie apocalypse film while you were out.”
       “We need to get a hold of Walsh. I’ll need to download with him, too.” Bry looks at me with curiosity. “I spent my entire dreamwalk in his presence.”
       “I’ll try to give him a call. You should jump in the shower; you look terrible.” Bry steps out of the room and starts to close the door.
       “Thanks.” He must think I’m being sarcastic since he said I look terrible. Actually, I’m confident that I do look terrible. “I mean it, Bry!” I’m yelling to a closed door. “Thank you for keeping my ass in line.” The stairs to the main level are squeaking from Bry’s ascent.

The Multi-Racial Conundrum

Many fantasies and sci-fis like to imagine a post-racial world, or even a world where race was never the great divider as it plays out on modern Earth. Subtlety does not always work, as one is potentially handing a post-racial world to a racialized society. However, making a big thing of being non-racial, contradicts the point of showing a non-racial society.

On camera that is far easier done than in print. Especially since, in American culture, there is an assumption that characters are Caucasian unless proven otherwise. In the Hunger Games, the characters from District 7 were subtly described as darker skinned, ie black. But the skin pigment references were too subtle. When the movie cast actors that matched the literary descriptions, some ignorant people expressed outrage over making the characters black. They called it pandering.

Sure, the screaming and vitriol is louder and more heated when a character once depicted as Caucasian is re-imagined as non-Caucasian. But considering that these superheroes WERE NEVER REAL, I do not give the counterargument any more credence. Somehow, Rowling did it right with Harry Potter. Nobody seemed surprised that Angelina Johnson and Dean Thomas were black.

One sci-fi FAIL that I read made a big point of saying that race was no big deal in this world. Then it went on to blatantly describe the race, and only the race of every character in a platoon. It was another 50 pages before I found out beliefs and likes and anything personal about any single character from that grouping. Awkward.

So, what is the formula for successfully imagining a post-racial society? Coming from a state that is over 90% white and a school that was 99% white and 1% hispanic/asian/black combined, this topic matters to me. The world is richer for its diversity and that makes its stories richer for it, too.

I make an effort to include names that come from multiple cultures and traditions. I also try to show subtle cultural markers: one person may do a sign of the cross when an ambulance passes, another might speak Tagalog to her father and English with everyone else. That’s the world I see around me now.