Monday, March 19, 2007

Bad guys and good writing.

I was doing a bit of research (OK, I was goofing off) following the bread crumbs wherever they took me. I started looking at events in 1941 and wound up reading a review of Saving Private Ryan written by a former soldier of the Waffen SS, those guys in black with the Death's Head on their caps. The guys who ran the camps. Yeah, those guys. Real nice. This old soldier's movie review is written as an open letter to Steven Spielberg and I'm doing fine with it until I hit this:

"...almost all the German soldiers seen in "Private Ryan" had their heads
shaved ... something totally in conflict with reality. Perhaps you were
confusing, in your mind, German soldiers with Russians of the time.

Or else, your Jewishness came to the fore, and you wanted to draw
a direct line back from today's skinheads to the Waffen-SS and other German
soldiers of the Third Reich."

The rest of the review is more anti-Jewish spew, inadvertently revealing more about the man than the movie and reinforcing all those negative things we thought about Nazis.

And that got me thinking about writing bad characters, the kind of person who would spend all day counting shoes at Auschwitz and then go home feeling like she'd done a good day's work, blind to their role in the evil that surrounds them.

If we're to write these people honestly, we have to climb inside their skin and walk around a bit. We have to know how they were bent as children in order to grow up so twisted as adults. When they say things that we find unacceptable, and there were plenty of things people said in 1941 that we would find grossly inappropriate today, we have to understand the context, right or wrong, because no one except Richard III has ever set out to be a villain. They rationalize. They accept the unacceptable. They twist things around in their heads so that they're right and everyone else is wrong. They're human.

See where following bread crumbs can lead you?

I'm curious how you write villains, if you'd like to comment. But it's Monday, so there's no pressure.

Oh, and I'll cross post this to
Crimespace. It seems to be the place everyone is hanging out these days.


JD Rhoades said...

I do love writing villains. No thriller can succeed without a truly nasty villain. But I always try to find the thing inside that makes the villain think he's the hero, he's the one in the right.

Olen Steinhauer said...

That's right. Villians generally do villainous things because of all the noble reasons. Self-preservation is common enough. Pride. Feeding the family with the stuff you stole.

I'm trying to nail down my villain--or antagonist--right now. He starts on his nasty road after a) his wife leaves him for a more entertaining man, b) though a slip of the tongue his boss (he's an embassy intelligence employee) informs him he's about to be retired, c) he's reminded that his young co-workers have little respect for him as a "man", and d) a job brings him into close personal contact with 3 million dollars.

What does he do? What might you do? Of course he absconds with the money and leaves the lonely life and job he was going to lose anyway. Once he's started his plan, he can't go back (he'll be too easily discovered and jailed), but discovers that to pull it off, murder must be used. He's in a pickle.

My villains tend to start off just like you or me, but history or personal situations maneuver them into a single choice, and that choice changes everything so that very soon they're trapped and have little choice but to soldier on. But at the same time I want their regrets to be small. They're bothered by that first crime they felt obliged to commit, but to deal with the guilt they have to change their basic morality, and that's the point where they actually can become "evil", though any killing they commit remain proper within their new morality.

That was mighty longwinded, but you did ask after all.

David Terrenoire said...

I like that one decision that changes everything, Olen. We've all come to our own places in life and could have gone other ways. That's fascinating.