by Phil Geusz
©2000 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved.
Recently the subject of writing villains was brought up on the
furry-lit mailing list.
This was my two-cents worth, edited and filled out and prettied up a bit.
I think that creating an evil character is very much like just like creating a good one, in that you must find him within yourself and either your own direct personal experiences or else your experiences in fiction. Unless you've encountered real evil yourself, you can never write it.
In my case, the evil I use comes from two major sources. One is history. Historical evil characters have far more depth than the cartoon cutouts you so often encounter in fiction, and it is remarkable how little the public seems to know about these people's real lives and loves and passions. Heinrich Himmler, for example, was the head of the Nazi SS. His oldest and most serious hobby was herb gardening; in fact the least-abusive of all concentration camps was dedicated to growing herbs in quantity for this reason. Hitler and others considered him incorruptible; there is no doubt that he chose not to financially profit from his position, as did so many other Nazis.
Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, often portrayed as a villain after Pearl Harbor, was in fact nothing of the sort. He resolutely opposed war with the US and Britain to the point that he actively risked assassination. The Admiral of Combined Fleet and architect of one of the most impressive series of naval victories in history was in fact a very warm and personable human being. He loved geisha girls, gambling, and standing on his head at parties. Much of his time was spent answering personally each and every letter sent to him by anyone, a veritable deluge of mail. His calligraphy was highly renowned, and many wrote him just to receive a sample. Today a careful study will show that Yamamoto personally never violated the laws of war, nor ever issued orders to violate the laws of war. Yet, there is little doubt that had he not been killed in combat Yamamoto would have been hanged with Tojo and the rest. Oftentimes the question of who is the villain isn't settled until a war is won or lost.
In the same war, US Admiral Halsey could easily have become a villain. He was aboard the USS Enterprise when she sailed into the devastated and still burning remains of Pearl Harbor within, if I recall correctly, about 24 hours of the surprise attack. An eyewitness who shared the bridge of "The Big E" with him said that Halsey was clearly deeply moved by what he saw that day. And the famous words he spoke were perhaps understandable then and there. "Japanese," he said in a firm, angry voice, "is going to be a language spoken only in Hell." Later in the war, his slogan became "Kill Japs, Kill Japs, Kill more Japs." He was a brilliant Admiral and great leader and, as events turned out, no villain by any means. I'm not suggesting in any way that he was one. But, given what we know of his basically violent nature, and the ruthlessness with which he waged war even on behalf of a democracy, would he have become a villain had he served Germany instead of America?
Here's another neat case study in villainism. Though the incident was covered up for years, in recent times paperwork was unearthed proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that a group of US Army troops massacred dozens of surrendered German soldiers in cold blood in 1945. In fact, they lined up these particular Germans and machine-gunned them mercilessly into a pulp. Normally this would qualify them as villains. But under the circumstances, were they really bad guys? You decide.
These combat veterans had just liberated Auschwitz, one of the oldest if not the oldest of the concentration camps. Though another camp had very recently been liberated, word wasn't really out yet about what the things really were, just that they were nasty places where a lot of medical attention was going to be needed. In order to avoid a confrontation with the guards, who he thought might be manning the main gate for a last stand defense, the officer in charge -- a colonel -- decided to go around and advance into the camp along a rail line clearly marked on his map.
Auschwitz was not a "death camp" per se -- lots of folks starved or were worked to death there, but there were no ovens and the inmates were expected to last for some time there. However, this was 1945 and things in Germany did not run as well as they once had. A trainload of Jewish victims, mainly women and children, had arrived a day or two before with everyone aboard already dead due to gross neglect along the way. The Americans, all heavily armed, had by the purest chance decided to enter the camp along the same rail siding where the train still sat waiting to be unloaded. They walked past carload after carload after carload of bodies, vainly searching each for a single live human among the dead. By the time the soldiers made it to the main camp, they were literally screaming, and weeping and foaming at the mouth in murderous rage. The SS guards surrendered formally and peacefully. Their officer even saluted and handed over his pistol and the camp's paper to the American Colonel. Then the American officer, still in deep shock, marched the Commandant outside and put a bullet through his brains with his own gun. The prisoners were then lined up and shot as described earlier, dozens or perhaps even hundreds of them mowed down by distraught men who were still screaming and weeping in rage as the guns hammered away. At one point a General from another unit happened along and tried to stop the massacre, but the Colonel led him away at pistol point, declaring loudly that the General could court martial him later to his heart's content and even hang him if he wished, but that by God he was going to finish cleaning up the camp first.
Meanwhile, as the massacre of the guards went on, other American soldiers gave the inmates permission to discipline the informers and trustees among them however they pleased. The inmates, who had suffered long and terribly at the hands of these people, tore them into unrecognizable shreds of flesh with their bare hands as the Americans stood by and cheered them on.
Now, I've got a question for every last writer still reading this. Tell me, who were the villains here? And why?
Answer these questions, and you've got the makings of one heck of a story. It does not have to about the liberation of a concentration camp, but it can be about when lynching really is justifiable, for example, or about how to deal justly with a man like the American Colonel in cases like this one. (In point of fact, the whole thing was buried, as mentioned above, for a variety of reasons. No one could see prosecuting anyone for these particular crimes, not after what these particular men had seen and been through. No one wanted to admit publicly that Americans had committed a genuine massacre right before Nuremburg. And most of all, no one wanted to put the Colonel on trial for mutiny under circumstances where there was a very real likelihood that he might be found not guilty, again right before Nuremburg.) Your story, if you use the emotions that this little tale brings out in you, will be gritty and real, because the feelings and emotions are real. In writing, that's as good as it gets.
My second great source of villain material is one I'm rather ashamed to admit to. It is the sensational, true-crime books you often find for sale at bookstores and even corner markets. I've stolen more characters and vicious actions from them than you can shake a stick at, and all of it sounds gritty and realistic because it is real. People hurt kill each other for the most bizarre of reasons and in the strangest of ways! Read this stuff for a little while and not only will your world-view be widened and your fictional villains fleshed out, but you'll be sadder and wiser to boot.
I guess I have two root points here. One is that villains and their actions are far more complex and three-dimensional than the Simon LeGree types I keep finding in fiction. The second is that I believe that the best way to fix this is to go make an effort to read in detail about the lives and crimes of the genuine article. I think the basic problem is that too few of us actually have been forced to face the evil in others, or far more threatening and powerful, the evil in ourselves. But you cannot credibly write about something if you do not know it intimately. Face the darkness, ye who would write of a lack of light, lest your scribblings become tinny and implausible. It's not easy, but the results are worth the effort.