Friday, March 8, 2013

Oh, Villainy

by Gary

Quick, name the good guy in the Fu Manchu novels.  It’s the British Secret Service’s Denis Nayland Smith but who the hell remembers that?  The man is pretty much a cipher.  He’s stalwart and stiff upper lip, but we all know who the evil genius Dr. Fu Manchu is, and are fascinated by his dastardly deeds.   
Mads Mikkelsen as your favorite head case.
“…Tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green.”  Understand Sax Rohmer’s (born Arthur Henry Ward) Fu Manchu and other Chinese in his books were not just portrayed politically incorrectly, but his Smith espoused downright racist notions of Asians.  The books play on and propagate the “yellow peril” paranoia of the times.  Yet, as the recent re-issues of three of the Fu Manchu novels attest, the character still holds our interest. 

Translated from book to screen now to TV comes Hannibal.  The idea here is that the series is a prequel to the events of Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.  Young FBI profiler Will Graham, played by Hugh Dancy, enlists criminal psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, played by Mads Mikkelsen, for his help in catching serial killers.  Of course part of the fun, as it were, is we all know that this is Hannibal the Cannibal, the worst serial killer of them all.  That like Fu Manchu, he is a man of towering intellect capable of monstrous evil.

Now while these sort of grandly villainous sort have a certain fascination, to me I want to give my villains a point of view, explore their rationales for doing what they do.  To me if you’ve read a book about one serial killer, that plenty.  My villains like my heroes tend to want something.  He or she may have base desires of greed or avarice, but the more you can make them complex, the more they are willing to unleash their Id to enact their vision of what’s possible, I think those are the villains that resonate.

My femme fatale lawyer (some wags would argue a lawyer is an automatic villain, heh) Wilma Wells in The Jook was after a specific goal that she uses the main character, himself an anti-hero, to get.  Knowing that, I could portray her with nuance and shading, not just a good-looking dame out for the fast buck.  She was a strategist.  She had a plan and made that plan happen.  The villain as strategist is a compelling character to explore.

Sherlock Holmes is vexed and challenged by his arch-nemesis Professor James Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime.  Our heroes must be put to the task, overmatched even, for them to rise as the hero.  Their test is physical and psychological, often suffering a loss, in their attempt to stop the bad guy.  It is great stuff to put our protagonists through their paces, and cathartic to write their opposites who don’t have to act with the same constrains as the detective or the cop.

Then too there is the aforementioned anti-hero, the character shrouded in their varying shades of gray.  Hawk in the Spenser books, Parker in the Westlake as Stark books (he’s defined by the sometime even more venal and ruthless crooks in his arena, Catwoman in the comics and cartoons, and Mouse in the Easy Rawlins books.  These characters have a wider range of what they might do in a given situation.  They can be more volatile, less predictable, and therefore somebody we want to see what they’ll do when they get in deep.

The hero is often the dark reflection of the villain, and vice versa.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Speaking of anti-heroes, in the shameless BSP department, check out troubled Afghan war vet Danny Shaw over at the Indiegogo webseries project I’m writing called Midnight Mover.   I think you'll dig it.

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