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?
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How to write an evil character

My subject today is how to write a really, really evil character.

When I say evil, I’m talking about nature, not about motive. Evil goes beyond the normal catalysts that drive human beings to commit murder and mayhem–those catalysts can include jealousy, anger, rage, fear, even a distorted kind of love.

When I think of evil-doers (and I have to credit the former Prez for that phrase), I’m talking about psycho-killers. Cold-ass weirdos. As writers, sometimes we need to create those kind of unabashed, dead-at-the-seams, evil characters. We especially need to create this type of character when we are writing a big, breakout book.

Back in August, we had a week of posts on this blog about our favorite villains. But now I’m wondering, how do you write that evil? For example, who could forget the moment when Jack Torrance’s nonsensical pages of writing were finally revealed to his wife in The Shining? That one moment showed both his insanity and his being overtaken by the evil of the Overlook Hotel.

Just because it’s true, doesn’t mean it works on the page

One of my greatest frustrations in writing group is when someone defends their not-so-convincing work by saying, “But it’s true. It really happened this way.” So the f’n what? If it doesn’t work on the page, it doesn’t work, period. Writing what is true is not always convincing.

Here’s a true story that would be hard to convey in fiction: A successful, apparently-happily married scientist, the mother of an adorable toddler, one day decides to poison her husband with a massive dose of arsenic. She’d been building up with “test” doses for months, giving him flu-like symptoms. No one could believe she’d done it. Even the man’s parents didn’t believe she’d killed him. She was visiting them in their house when she was arrested by the police. Even when the husband was dying of the last dose of poison she’d injected into him while he was in his hospital bed, he still thought that they were a happily married couple.

It turned out that this woman was a true psychopath. She didn’t want the shame and perceived social failure of a divorce, so she decided to off her hubbie and start over as a “grieving” widow. There’s evidently no stigma to being a widow in a psychopath’s mind.

How do you write that in a convincing way?

Right now I’m struggling to write such an evil character, one of those people who on the surface seems to be a caring, warm pillar of the community. And even though this is one cold, unsympathetic creature, I am trying to wiggle inside her head through the writing. Right now I’m researching the type of emotional disorders that might have given rise to her pathology. And (as Joe points out in the comments section), a well-written villain-psycho needs strong motivation beyond mere pathology. Even Hannibal Lechter had that going for him. So I am also going to give her a powerful motivation to kill for what she wants, in addition to her psychosis.

And I’d love to know, what are some techniques you use to convey a character’s evilness?

Stay tuned for upcoming guest appearances at the Kill Zone:

April 5 P.D. Martin

April 12 Eric Stone

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