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Friday, October 28, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: The Good Guys

I've been blessed to have a life full of "good guys," protagonists in their own stories, proactive in making the world arond them better.


It started with my parents who always encouraged me to be and do my very best. I remember a series of kids' books I read before I was even in full-day school. The series featured Nurse Nancy and Doctor Dan. I thought Nurse Nancy was about as wonderful as anyone could ever be and said so, suggesting that maybe one day, I might like to become a nurse.

My mother's answer? "Then why not be a doctor?" For the mid-1950s, the idea was revolutionary and yet it stuck. I have never imposed artificial limits on myself and I've sometimes fought the perceptions of others. In this respect and many others, my mother has been an excellent role model.

Dad encouraged me, too. He helped with the "women's work" in the household, set an example as a fine cook, and expected his daughters to help with the outside work like tending the animals, irrigating the garden, and even helping to dispatch the varmints that found they way into the chicken coop. I didn't always appreciate the work, but I appreciated that he thought me capable of it.

Were there bad guys? Yes, there were. I could recite a series of terrifying almost-awful tales, yet I'm here to recite those stories because there were so many good guys, bold people who stood up for me and came to my rescue on more than one occasion when things might have gone very badly.

Today while in the midst of discussing fictional villains, I want to celebrate the heroes, the good guys, the bold and strong people who have been there when I needed them. I've been blessed to know some of the best of the best.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Motivating Our Villains

German poet and playwright Fredrich Hebbel once said, "In a good play, everyone is in the right." That is also my favorite way to write conflict, the sort of plot where good people have conflicting goals. Although everyone may indeed be "in the right," they can't all get what they want.

One of the best examples comes in the love triangle. Let's say it's a woman in love with two men. They are both good guys and genuinely care about her. She is a good woman who genuinely cares about both of them, yet you know from the outset that this story is going to end badly for someone. Debbie Macomber is good at this kind of plot. Although the essence of the conflict in the story may well be person-vs-person, everyone is a good guy, or as Hebbel put it, "everyone is in the right.

Yet sometimes people aren't in the right. Sometimes, as in the case of the movie villains we examined yesterday, there is a superbly evil person who is, unquestionably, in the wrong -- the VERY wrong.

So what did you notice about the villains in yesterday's list? What, besides their villainy, do they all have in common? I'm sure we could come up with a list, but the one thing that stood out to me is absolutely selfishness. Without a care as to how their own goals or plans affect anyone else, each of these villains seeks his or her own self-interest first, last, and always.

I currently have a story in the works that will have a bad guy -- a very, very bad guy. I'd share more about this villain except the story is a mystery and if I tell you now, there will be no reason for you to read it when the book is finished.

Instead let me share something about how I'm writing the villain. At a writers' conference I attended years ago, the inimitable Tami Hoag offered a workshop called "Psychopaths are People Too." The concept is simple and true: every person's motivation seems rational and justified to him or her.

I'm finding it spooky, but oddly satisfying, to think through the motivations of my fictional villain. I'm writing a bad, bad person and enjoying it immensely.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Best/Worst Movie Villains

No discussion of fictional bad guys would be complete without someone's list of worst villains. Since most of us have modern movies in common, I've decided to go with Reel Reviews' list of "Best Movie Villains of All Time," compiled by Frank Wilkins.

Some of these choices are surprising, but I suspect you'll find yourself nodding along with most of them, or maybe even getting a little chill as you say to yourself, "Oh yeah. He (she) was really, really BAD!"

In the spirit (spirits?) of Halloween, enjoy! As you read through the list, see if you can decide for yourself what makes them so bad and what it is that they all have in common.

Is there a movie villain not on this list that you think deserve to be here? Go ahead and add your comment.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Let's Forget Halloween

Halloween is the best time of the year for an examination of fictional villains and monsters. It's also my least favorite holiday (anti-holy-day?) of them all.

While I can admire the creativity, effort and commitment of those who go to extraordinary lengths to decorate their homes and design elaborate costumes, I wish those efforts served a better purpose. For me, Halloween seems little more than an excuse for beautiful children to dress in hideous costumes and go about begging strangers for candy.

That begging enables an outlet for any of those strangers who happen to have a sadistic streak. (Really, what kind of person thinks of putting razor blades in an apple or lacing hard candy with harder drugs?)

Even the history of the day with its tricks and pranks and its over-the-top fear factor raises my hackles while the celebration of goodies raises the blood sugar levels of all the nation's school kids all at once. You only need one November 1 in a room full of fifth graders to start wondering whether it isn't time to scrap the whole tradition.

For my part I scrapped it long ago. If my husband hadn't enjoyed the fun that can come with the occasion, my kids might never have had costumes or trick-or-treat escorts at all. Call me a fuddy-duddy stick-in-the-mud and I will readily agree, but for the widely-reported incidents of sadism, the apparent celebration of violence, and the elevation of what is ugly, I absolutely detest Halloween.

How do you feel? Is there a different tradition you'd just as soon do away with? Share?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Heroes and Villains

In the basic person-vs-person plot, the goodness of the hero depends largely on the badness of the villain. Conversely the nastiness of the villain exists more or less in proportion to the virtue of the hero or heroine who opposes him (her).

Hence Clarice Starling's intelligence, wit, decency and basic humanity are enhanced as she contrasts them against the demented intelligence and indecency of Hannibal Lecter, one of the most cunning monsters ever to grace American books and movies. She becomes a more amazing, insightful and virtuous heroine because she is pitted against an absolutely monstrous villain, one whose cleverness we can't help admiring even as our revulsion intensifies.

Harry Potter would never have become the Hero of Hogwart's if it hadn't been for Voldemort. J.K. Rowling herself, via her character Dumbledore, even tells us that Tom Riddle created the instrument of his own destruction by seeking out and trying to destroy "the boy who lived."

The list is long. Sherlock Holmes had his Moriarty; Batman his cast of hideous bad guys. Find a hero anywhere and he is matched by a villain as evil as he is good.

The example even works in history. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower might never have become the leader he was had he lived in a time of peace. He became the commander of the Allied Forces and then the President of the United States because his leadership was shaped, honed, and polished by his conflict with Adolph Hitler and the forces of the German Third Reich, Tojo and the Axis Powers.

We who write can do well to remember this phenomenon: In a person-vs-person conflict, the hero(ine) and villain create one another as they pit their best and worst against each other.

Who are your favorite fictional villains? What heroes or heroines do they "create" through their conflict?