Friday, October 3, 2014

The Thin Line Between Heroes and Villains

By Art Taylor

This week's question—"Which type of character is more fun to write: villain or hero (in the classic sense of the word)?"—is a fascinating one, and my initial impulse was to say villains, since they're so so so much more fun to read about, aren't they? Even without that word "classic" in the question, it's the classics that leap to mind here: Medea, Satan in Paradise Lost, Dracula, a slew of Shakespeare's characters (Richard III and Iago at the top of that heap), and speaking of Heep, doesn't the scheming Uriah liven up that second half of David Copperfield considerably? Even in more recent books, it's the villains who command both the page and our cultural consciousness: Tom Ripley, Hannibal Lecter, Voldemort.

But then I looked at my own writing and realized that the question didn't fit: Most times, I don't think I write either heroes or villains, as it turns out.

My story "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants"—about a troubled love triangle—was the first that jumped to mind, because the opening section just oozes with nastiness from one of the three main characters—and I sure had fun writing it. Here are the first paragraphs:

During one of their trysts, one of those long lunch breaks they took from the ad agency where they worked, Roger invited Felicia to bring her husband over for a Friday night cookout. 
“Tell hubby it’s casual,” he explained to her after he’d caught his breath once more. “Tell him we’ll just”—and here he grazed his fingers a little more insistently along her damp skin—“just get together and heat up some meat in the backyard.”
Felicia arched a single eyebrow and then turned her head toward the far side of his bedroom—looking at what, Roger wasn’t clear. Unlike the other women who’d sometimes shared his bed, often under similar circumstances, Felicia seemed a true mystery—aloof, challenging, and the more desirable for it. He followed her gaze. Her beige linen business suit was folded sensibly across a chair by his bedroom window. Beyond stood the backyard itself, the patio, the teak table and chairs. Roger could already see himself standing by the grill, making small talk with her husband. Your wife’s breasts, he would think as he smiled and chatted with the other man. That mole on her pelvis. That scar at the hollow of her ankle.
“Whatever you may think,” Felicia said finally, “Blanton is not a fool.”
“Blanton,” Roger said and then again, “Blan-ton,” stretching out the syllables as if they were his to twist and toy with. “You know, I still just love his name.”

But then I realized that by the story's end, the roles have shifted in several ways: underdog hero, hapless victim, cold-blooded villain—which is which when all is said and done?

[The full story, originally published by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, is available here thanks to EQMM's generosity. Winner of the Agatha Award back in May, it's also up for the Anthony and the Macavity at this year's Bouchercon in Long Beach, CA.]

My most recent story for Ellery Queen, "The Odds Are Against Us"—about a conversation between two old friends—also has a pivotal shift, where any clear division between hero and villain gets desperately blurred, a move that's ultimately the point of the story.

And my novel-in-stories On the Road with Del and Louise, due out next September from Henery Press, follows the adventures of small-time criminals—at once the heroes here and yet, well, criminals, right? which could be troubling? Members of my writing group (a distinguished bunch, though I won't name here) did tell me that writing about criminals as main characters might be a marketing mistake—might alienate readers in some way. But at the same time, "Rearview Mirror," the first of the Del and Louise stories, remains the favorite story among many readers—the one I get the best feedback about. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that readers down the line continue to find them charming instead of contemptible.

While I'd never put myself into the same league as the great Donald E. Westlake (any more than Milton's, Dickens', or Highsmith's), I can't help but think of him when a question like this comes up—both the Dortmunder books and the Parker novels, completely different series, of course, but in each case stories where the pleasures of reading them don't depend on external judgements about who's doing the right thing or the wrong one, who's good, who's bad. And as an added nudge toward thinking of Westlake, there's this week's review in the Washington Post of The Getaway Car, a new collections of essays and other writings by the master. Definitely on my own TBR list.

Heroes? Villains? The best characters, I guess I'm trying to say, hopefully offer a little from both ends of that spectrum—and it's from the gray areas that the best conflict, both external and internal, emerges. At least that's what I seem to be striving for in my own work, for better or worse.


Paul D. Marks said...

Art, you really hit the nail on the head when you say “The best characters, I guess I'm trying to say, hopefully offer a little from both ends of that spectrum—and it's from the gray areas that the best conflict.” If one looks at the anti-heroes of literature or mystery writing, they fall into that category, especially Parker, since you mentioned him.

By the way, enjoyed The Odds Are Against Us – good twist.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks much, Paul! I appreciate the kind words. (Still catching up after Fall for the Book, and still look forward to reading your story!)

Kristopher said...

Looking forward to the Henery Press release Art. I love their work.

If shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad can find massive success, I think a criminal character, if done right, can certainly be an interesting lead character. Not easy, but originality counts for something these days.

Good luck in Long Beach! The Care and Feeding of House Plants is a great short story folks. Read it if you haven't already.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Kristopher! And yep, those are good examples at real extremes as well of how criminals can take the lead roles.

I wonder if expectations and attitudes are generally different for films and TV than for books... or how much genre counts? Noir, we expect that blurring of lines; cozy, not so much, of course.

Thanks for chiming in! (And for the good wishes too.) :-)

Kristopher said...

Well, the Dexter series did originate as a book series. I think there are plenty of examples of folks who at least blur line between good and bad, if not outright criminal characters.

Yes, I think this would be a stretch in a cozy however. But the cozy world is changing, so maybe in time...or not.

Susan C Shea said...

Congratulations on your awards and nominations - will be holding a good thought at BCon. (See you there?) I smiled when you reminded me of the Dortmunder series - must reread one soon.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Susan—and yes, I'll be in Long Beach, so see you there!

And I know, every time I think about Westlake, I want to just go back to his work. If only I had the time! :-)

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