Train Wrecks and Bad Guys

Unless you just got back from exploring the surface of Pluto, you have heard about the train wreck that is Charlie Sheen.
It started as a bit of industry gossip a couple of weeks ago. Sheen went on a radio show and started ranting about his producer in very unflattering terms. It got worse, to the point where the producer and CBS put a hold on their big hit show. Which means hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. Which means this was getting serious.
The media was more than happy to put Sheen on the air, where his wild eyes and self-reflections (“I’m a total bitchin’ rock star from Mars”) evidenced a mind that desperately needed help. Even his X-rated inamorata described him as “a sad hot mess.”
California authorities apparently agreed, and stepped in to remove Sheen’s children from his presence.
Now, I like Charlie Sheen the actor. Very talented and appealing onscreen. My three favorite Sheen films: Wall Street, Terminal Velocity, The Arrival.
So at first I shook my head at Sheen’s unraveling, then I started to get a little ticked off at what he’d done to himself and others. Finally, sadness was added to the mix.
Yes, I know he’s responsible for what drugs he puts in his body, how he’s treated women, and so on. He is reaping what he has sown. Still, I can’t help feeling a little sorry for the guy.
Which brings me to the point of today’s post. When you write about train wrecks — people whose lives are a mess and who do things society generally frowns upon — you need to find your way to a compassion point. If you do, you’ll write much better fiction, because the emotions you create in the reader will be more complex.
This is especially important in the writing of “bad guys.” I make writing students answer this question about their villains: Why do I love this character?  I force them to get deep into the background and relate to the bad guy in a tough love kind of way. As if he were a family member you deeply understand and care about. Sort of the way Martin Sheen, Charlie’s dad, must feel right about now.
The least interesting bad guys are those who are pure evil, or just crazy. The ones who stay with readers will have different levels that give off a gray, rather than a black tone.
Dean Koontz put it this way: The best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well as terror. Think of the pathetic aspect of the Frankenstein monster. Think of the poor werewolf, hating what he becomes in the light of the full moon, but incapable of resisting the lycanthropic tides in his own cells.”
So, for an insatiable public, the Charlie Sheen saga continues. I hope he gets the help he needs and really cleans up this time, because his children need a father.
Which reminds me, I have a bad guy right now who needs a little more of my sympathy. I’m going to see what I can find out in his background that makes him do the things he does.
What about your bad guys? Do you love them?

15 thoughts on “Train Wrecks and Bad Guys

  1. I really like your perspective on this. You’re right, there needs to be compassion.

    I have two bad guys in two wips. One operates out of loss, anger, and hatred. The other, well…he’s just demented.

    The first one I love because I understand where he’s coming from and what he lost.

    The second, because of the total immersion into darkness. He’s clever, talented, arrogant, and bad to the bone. And he thinks he has the right to be.

    Solid points and vital reminders!

  2. When I wrote my first draft, my antagonist was simply evil. Then in revisions, I gave her a reason to do the things she did (loss of a child). I continued to develop her character throughout, and I do sympathize with her now. I hope others will too.

    This is a great article with a perfect, current example.

  3. The worst villains are the ones who are completely off screen until the big denouement, at which time you find out that the bad guy isn’t anyone you’ve ever heard of before. Drives me nuts.

    Actually that’s just bad story telling, not necessarily a bad villain, so I guess I agree with you! After all what could be more chilling than to find yourself relating to or even agreeing a little with the “monster.” The movie Phantom of the Opera did a great job of showing what turned Erik into the phantom, and a piece of each audience member wanted Christine to look past his deformity, and even his murders, to love him.

    The stage productions, as enjoyable as it is, doesn’t humanize him at all. So the audience misses out on a good portion of what makes the story a classic.

  4. It’s funny just how much you can find yourself caring for a character who is a train wreck. I based For the Love of a Devil on the Book of Hosea, so the plot demanded that the female character be a complete train wreck. The story begins with her leaving her three pre-school children at home by themselves and it goes downhill from there. There wasn’t much to love about her, but her husband loved her. To tell his story, I had to see through his eyes and even with all she did to hurt him, I couldn’t help but love her.

  5. Words Crafter, good fodder for the bad guys there. On that second one, important point: justification. All bad guys think they’re justified in what they’re doing. We need to “hear their argument” about that and make it strong. Not that it ever truly justifies their bad behavior, only that the reader knows exactly why they’re dong it.

  6. Jessica, it sounds like you are on exactly the right track. Maybe when we first start out we don’t (as the author) know the reasons. But if we go back and start finding them, the writing becomes richer.

    Lisa, your mention of Phantom brings up that classic example: the Lon Chaney version. I would recommend EVERYONE start watching those silent Lon Chaney classics. Chaney was brilliant at portraying wounded villains and giving them that compassionate edge, even when they were at they’re worst.

    Start with WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928)

  7. Timothy, right on. “Seeing” through the eyes of another who loves the villain is a great way of getting this compassion quotient down on the page.

  8. JSB – great stuff as usual. Points out some work i have to do on my WIP. My villain is nasty and crazy…

    Any other great examples from modern fiction? Frankenstein and Werewolf always came across as victims to me (totally mesmerized me as youngster)- in contrast Dracula was , to me , unilaterally bad news but nonetheless a tremendous villain(he had no issue with his ‘curse’ and cruelty…gloried in it)

    I was wondering if there are occasional exceptions to the sympathetically nuanced villain and ability to engage. Perhaps Dracula and another of my favorites Nurse Cratchet(sp?) of ‘One Flew over the Cuckoos’ nest comes to mind. Very compelling yet irredeemable to my mind. What made these characters so emotionsly powerful for the reader or film viewer? In a caring profession but she was without compassion…was it the juxtaposition?

    Are these rare exceptions and, if not, any insight on how come they work?

    I much appreciate your educational efforts

  9. actually, it was nurse ratchet….i know this as it was my 3 a.m. nickname in the emergency room!! my early am inebriates thought that was amusing. tho’ that demeanor did make them think twice about lifting my hemostats for roach clips.

  10. tjc, good questions. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Cuckoo’s Nest. It would be interesting to re-read in light of all this. It’s possible Kesey knew more about her b.g. than revealed in the book (which is, after all, narrated by Chief Broom). Good to think about.

    Hannibal Lecter might be considered a recent example. His b.g. is revealed in the later novels by Harris,esp. horrific childhood trauma.

    kathy d., I know that sobriquet was not deserved!

  11. JSB- Thanks.
    Apologies if this seems minutiae.
    It seems there are two elements potentially involved here.
    One – the background as revealed/available to the reader and
    two – the background the writer knows to exist in his character but isnot revealed.

    Ia one (revealed to reader) generally necessary for the character to ‘work’ or are you referencing two as providing the underlying character understanding by the writer necessary to render/deliver a villain that has the desired complexity without direct reader reveal required?

    Ignore if this comment/question makes you feel like you are watching a dog chase his tail.

    thank you
    Kathy…Ratchet- one of the all time emotion magnets of a character! seriously nasty…suspect even she couldn’t stop roach clip appropriation with the crowd you reference.

  12. Completely agree. And I love bad guys, too. I also love a story where there’s no apparent “bad guy,” someone whose intentions are good but they end up in an antagonistic position. Like in Hitchcock’s movie with Jimmy Stewart, Vertigo – other than the murderer, who’s not really important at all in the big picture, there is no “bad guy.” Jimmy Stewart just goes crazy. I like a story like that.

  13. Hitchcock always said the strength of his movies was in the villain. Think of how Robert Walker is so much more interesting than Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train.

  14. Amazing conversation between Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming, recorded in 1958, discussing, in part, the same things were talking about here. As well as the differences between Marlowe and Bond.

    Check it out

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