Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Turning the Worm

Eddie stared in the direction of the light. He could hardly see anymore.

Three years of struggle. Thousands upon thousands of lives spent and lost.

He had been so close.

Now he lay on a cold plate, much as he had done many years before. It had been a lifetime since he had hated. It had been a lifetime since he had killed. It had been a lifetime since he had last breathed words of anger and sedition against the filthy humans who dared to compromise his kind.

The granules of sugar felt warm against his skin, and they wove a sickeningly sweet smell against the warmth of the sunlight.

In a way, Eddie hated himself.

It wasn't for the last of his followers, their bodies now stacked like cordwood behind him. It wasn't for the humans who would finally take their retribution. It was for the fact that he had failed, he had failed, and he had so miserably and utterly failed that he could do nothing but despise his very existence.

There was a subtle shift in the patterns of the light, and with the last of his vision Eddie could see the soft metal spears of the dinner fork. One last image of dull gray metal, and then there was only the loathsome pressure as it stabbed into his skin.

"Die," Eddie said.

And then he was silent.


Back to a discussion on villains, then.

I first discussed the qualities of a good long-term villain in an earlier post. Since then, however, I've wondered about the points of writing villains well, as opposed to merely characterizing them.

It's been said that every story has a hero and a villain. It's even been theorized that the presence of a hero in a story must belie the presence of a villain in that same story, and vice-versa -- in a sense, that we can't have one without the other. All well and good, I suppose, but the problem I have with this line of thinking is that I can't really apply it to any story that has exactly one character.

Suppose that you have a story with only one character, then. Is that character a hero, or is that character a villain?

My guess is that we, as readers, tend to see the solitary character as a hero by default. The supporting cast of a story has two primary purposes: Its members add "color" to a story and prevent it from becoming monotonous, and its members serve as potential sources of conflict for the main character. Remove the supporting cast, and the other elements of the story must take the brunt of the work: The background and scenery have to be interesting enough to hold the reader's attention, and the atmosphere and events have to be significant enough to provide the conflict. Or something like that.

I figure that single-character stories turn into man-versus-nature or man-versus-circumstance scenarios as a result, and in those scenarios, the main character always comes out the hero. Robinson Crusoe was obviously a single-character story for the most part, and it's hard to argue against the fact that we tend to think of Crusoe as the protagonist of his tale.

What I'm getting at, then, is... would it then be possible to write a single-character story that features a villain? You'd almost certainly run into problems there, not the least of which would be the fact that your main character might be considered a hero by default.

Having a reader consider one of your best villains to contain admirable qualities is somehow not something that I would go for. Maybe in a different stage of writing evolution, I suppose, but not here. Not yet.

I think that hatred and contempt should earn their keep in this case. Even if a story features only a single character, that still doesn't change the fact that we're reading the story, and that we're judging the character appropriately. If we hate the character enough, then we would consider him a villain, regardless of how much of a hero the story may portray him in relation to his environment. (Don't get me started on anti-heroes, though. They muck up the math.)

In a sense, this is really where the villain's callous disregard for certain concerns would come into effect. Tearing down the moral attitude of a main character brings him lower in our opinion. After all, what would we have thought of Robinson Crusoe if he killed animals for sport, notched a scar on his left arm for every day he spent on the island, and burned trees just to look at the pretty red-and-orange colors?

I mean, we'd probably wonder if he even deserved to be rescued.

Hmmm. That's interesting... we would probably wonder if he deserved to be rescued, wouldn't we?

Now that I think about it, running on pure callous disregard might not be the best way to execute a "villain story" -- because it appears to rob us of our motivation to read. Man-versus-nature stories usually provide us with a story of man dealing with difficult odds, and we read those because of the standing hope that the main character will survive. Replace that main character with an arrogant snot who doesn't deserve anything good to begin with, and what motivation do we have left?

I would guess, then, that there is only a single reason as to why we should read single-villain stories: Insight.

Spotlighting a villain in a single-character story gives us a rare opportunity, I think. We get the chance to see what an antagonist does, what an antagonist says, and what an antagonist thinks in a situation where he's all by his lonesome self. In such a story, we actually let a villain move around, chew the scenery and act like he darn well wants because we want to find out what makes him tick. It's much like watching a tiger ravaging a piece of meat at the zoo.

There's your single-villain story right there, then. It's quite a piece of work, getting into his twisted mind and letting him do what he wants within the confines of his own tale. The best part, I think, is that each reader gets to see exactly why the villain happens to be the villain, all technically without the actual presence of a hero who was supposed to imply his very existence in the first place.

I wonder what Eddie would think about that.

Poor Eddie, for that matter. He did try his best to be a good villain, after all.

The suman and the hare
The suman in the marketplace
The suman and the tape

(More links coming up soon, I hope. Looks like most people don't find suman latik as tasty anymore.)


eClair said...

It's kinda difficult to come up with something creative.

Suman is very confined.

Then again, that is why I like it.

Dominique said...

Sorry I'm late. My entry is up. Unless you count yesterday's entry as well....

Dominique said...

Great post, Sean. I guess I might add: the villain is usually the hero of his own story. So you're right, that makes it difficult. But it can be made to work, I think, if the villain is an established and recurring character. Mood pieces featuring Dr. Doom and Dr. Fu Manchu come to mind.