Thursday, July 28, 2022

Superman or Batman? from James W. Ziskin

Which side of the fence are you most comfortable writing from, the good, the bad, or the ugly? Do you consider one side or the other more marketable?

My Long Fiction

In my books, I’ve always written from the side of good. Ellie Stone is a good person, even if she smokes and drinks too much and occasionally falls into bed with the wrong guy. Despite her flaws, she remains a deeply moral person with a strong sense of right and wrong. She’s mentally tough, but I wouldn’t put my money on her in any contest involving feats of strength. Although she did hold her own—mano a mano—against a man in A Stone’s Throw. To be perfectly accurate, I should say that it was not so much mano a mano as it was botella a nariz, as Ellie clipped her aggressor across the nose with a half-full (-empty?) bottle of Dewar’s Scotch Whisky, her favorite.

While Ellie is good, her antagonists are bad. I try, however, to flesh out those characters by giving them dark histories and motivations that aren’t always of their own doing. It’s essential to avoid flat characterization when it comes to villains. Sure, they’re bad, but they should have a reason to do bad things. There are certainly sadistic killers out there who murder simply because they enjoy murdering but, ultimately, I think that such a motivation is uninteresting in fiction. I find it more intriguing if the killer kills for reasons other than sport.

What inspires my bad guys ranges from delusional obsessions to uncontrollable antisocial urges to covering up a crime to revenge to righteous punishment. You’ll have to read my Ellie Stone books to figure out whose motivation belongs to whom.

My Short Fiction

Thinking about this week’s question, I realized for the first time that in my short stories I write from the side of bad. At least when I write in first person. My third person stories—two of them—were both written from a neutral stance, and justice prevailed. In “Pan Paniscus,” for example, how was I supposed to make a villain of a Bonobo who’s escaped from the zoo? Even if his mischief sets in motion a chain of events that ends in tragedy?

On the other hand… Not counting a Holmes and Watson pastiche I wrote, when I use first person in my short stories, quite the opposite is true. My narrators are villains. Not that they’re completely evil or without charm, but they certainly don’t wear white hats. One of them planted his foot into the backside of his cheating wife and sent her rocketing through the railing of their apartment’s balcony to her doom ten stories below. And he made sure her lover took the blame. In another story, my narrator pins the blame on an innocent man so that he—my narrator—can steal his—the innocent man’s—beautiful lover. And all this takes place against the backdrop of a New Year’s Eve wife-swapping party in 1954.

Perhaps there’s something about the short form that inspires me to root for cuckolded husbands and debauched rou├ęs. These are darkly humorous stories, of course, that end with an ambiguous sense of justice. I doubt I would let a bad guy win in a novel. For me, a book is serious stuff, I guess. But short stories give me more leeway for experimentation and humor. Of course they can be serious, but, for a reason I can’t explain, I enjoy a little wickedness.

Which Is More Marketable?

Clearly good and bad both work. There are so many wildly successful books featuring villains and anti-heroes, from The Silence of the Lambs to Lolita to The Talented Mr. Ripley. Too many to name. And the same is true of books with good characters, even if they’re flawed and far from perfect. 

One thing’s for sure, at least in my mind. Perfect heroes are boring. The good ones still must have their sins. I remember a question a beloved professor of mine once asked: “Who is the more interesting character, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes or Scarlett O’Hara?” Score one for the bad guys.

Okay, I didn’t talk about Superman and Batman. But you get the idea. Argue amongst yourselves.


Susan C Shea said...

Interesting observation that you choose to write from the villain's POV in short stories. I wonder if that's a good or even the only way to convey the danger, reasons for violence, the badness in so few pages? There's not enough time to solve the crime in long form? I realize that the only short story I ever wrote was also, ultimately, seen from the villains' perspective.

Vinnie Hansen said...

In my mind, a "perfect" hero would be unbelievable. Everyone has flaws, and characters, even the heroes, need them. Ellie Stone's flaws/vulnerabilities are why I like her. I also admire the way you do not feel any need to apologize for her.