Learning to hate the idle pleasures of these days

I’ve recently been reading Iain M. Banks for the first time (which has been one of those “Why haven’t I been doing it for years?” moments).

For my entree, I’ve picked up  The Algebraist. It’s high-end space opera, with painstaking attention to worldbuilding detail and an entirely unsentimental view of good and evil.

The Algebraist introduces its scenery-chewing villain very early in the novel. He’s not a figure of any particular subtlety or nuance. He’s a total sociopath for whom the world exists primarily for him to manipulate and take advantage of, without an ounce of empathy for others. He’s also presented as rational and sensible, in no way a raving madman, which of course makes his actions all the worse.

But here’s the interesting thing… he’s almost entirely ancillary to the main plot. The other main characters never meet him, he never directly interacts with them, and the one point at which he might begin to directly threaten them turns into a personal humiliation.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why Banks included him, though it doesn’t detract from the novel. The real villain of the piece isn’t any one individual, but vast and essentially faceless bureaucracies and their brutal apparatus. Their representatives are just that, representative of the whole rather than having some deeply personal malevolence.

For mine, it makes the story stronger. There’s no individual you can boo and hiss at, which forces you to accept the greater structural inequalities and repression that Banks has written into his universe. Kurt Vonnegut is also noted for depersonalising his antagonists:

“I think about my education sometimes. I went to the University of Chicago for awhile after the Second World War. I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody. They may be teaching that still. Another thing they taught was that no one was ridiculous or bad or disgusting. Shortly before my father died, he said to me, ‘You know – you never wrote a story with a villain in it.’
I told him that was one of the things I learned in college after the war.”

My undergrad career also included a fair amount of anthropology, which may be  why I identify readily with the reluctance to divide the world into goodies and baddies. That behaviours come from cultures, which come from those culture’s understandings of and attitudes towards the rest of the world. Now this isn’t to say that you don’t have sociopaths, or cynical and ruthless opportunists, but I have a problem with the idea of intrinsic evil.

This has definitely translated into the novel.

The ostensible villain is a man with a definite plan (if not conspiracy), but he’s also someone who’s acting out of what he believes are fine motives, against malicious forces that are seeking to destroy his people’s identity. The other side in the story are a deeply bureaucratic and callous military outpost of an imperial power, whom also bear the moral and emotional scars of the long conflict.

Although there are absolutely people and acts to be appalled at, and downtrodden to empathise with, I’ve tried quite hard not to make heroes or villains. The people in my story are motivated by their characters, their beliefs and their histories, not by where they fit on an arbitrary sliding scale, labelled for the convenience of the reader.

This isn’t a particular desire to define a grey and grey morality for my universe or to to reflect world-weary cynicism. Instead, I’m trying to bring out the issues of my universe in light of the elements that make that world go round. The actions of individuals and the structures and attitudes of groups which exercise power usually drive the narratives of existence.

Gavrilo Princip fired the (almost literal) starting gun for the First World War, but he was also at a nexus of huge powers angling for supremacy, for centuries of conflicting views of history and national identity as well as the fact that the Archduke’s driver took a wrong turn. Teasing out a single causative agent is difficult in those circumstances, and assigning direct moral turpitude almost impossible.

Miss Prism: Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.
Cecily: Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.
Miss Prism. The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Fiction is a lot more linear than reality, of course, with far clearer (i.e. edited) cause and effect. Fiction also tends to play on our moral calculus, the part of our brain which spends its time trying to work out whether eating that last biscuit is really the right thing to do.

If people read my book and find that they’re easily able to pick sides and tell good from evil, I’ll consider that I’ve failed. My protagonist is hardly a moral paragon himself, and is there far more as the reader’s guide through the story than as a classic hero (though I fully admit that as an author avatar, he’s intended to be more sympathetic). This means that I don’t WANT to compare him against a villain in order to give his actions meaning or importance.

In a previous work based around the same character, I gave him a counterpart character who was indeed a scenery-chewing villain, who was extremely fun to write. But the true mastermind who was driving the plot sat above and beyond my character, and had understandable and arguably laudable notions for what he did. He was more difficult to write, but was worlds more satisfying. He dressed in black and played the part, but was quite obviously playing the part.

“And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days” – Richard III, Shakespeare

And that’s perhaps the point. Antagonists serve a purpose in fiction, to draw the reader’s eye, confound the hero and to create dramatic tension. Whether they then take that next step to villainy depends on how sympathetically you frame their motives. A lot of authors go to significant effort to bait-and-switch the reader on this point, reversing the sympathies of the reader by revealing later information that overturns the initial information used to define the antagonist and protagonist in the reader’s mind. I haven’t done anything as concrete myself in the novel, although I would hope a definite confusion will  set in as the reader becomes more immersed in the cultures of both sides.

If you frame an antagonist’s morality in entirely opposed terms from your reader (let alone the protagonist character), you can even go all the way to make a monster, which is different again from a villain.

Monsters (in the sense of sentient characters) are forced to do what they do by their very nature. This distinguishes itself from a villain, who acts deliberately and consciously. This can also be extended to effectively mindless antagonists, inscrutable robots and the like as well as people genuinely too psychologically unwell to know what they’re doing. The commonality of monsters is that the lack of a frame of reference with the protagonists and the lack of a moral code by which their actions can be judged, no matter how hideous.

Writing a good antagonist can make a novel memorable, even more than a good protagonist can. The heroic archetype can often be used in shorthand – which is handy for an author –  wheras with a good antagonist –  motives and actions need to be solidly defined for the reader (kicking a puppy and/or orphan is lazy shorthand).

In edit 2 I’m going to need to do my due diligence to ensure that both personal and organisational motivations are logical (if not necessarily clear) for all parties, and that the conflicts between the two are highlighted as coming from different understandings of the universe, not just because one side likes to pull the wings off flies or one individual likes to twirl his moustache and cackle maniacally.

On that, I’ve decided I’m going to finish my first draft today, no matter how long it takes. If my wife and children want to know where I am, tell them I’m in a safe, dry place with a power point, wi-fi and access to good coffee.

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2 Responses to Learning to hate the idle pleasures of these days

  1. John Harper says:

    Another great article, Ben, always a pleasure to read.

    I found myself nodding a lot to what you’ve had to say and I hope that to a degree I’ve accomplished the same thing. Although I do have ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’ the bad guys are doing bad things for good reasons and the good guys do bad things for good reasons too. They are not at opposite ends of the spectrum. It is greyer like you say and that is where true drama arises.

    Keep it up, can’t wait to alpha read this one for you 😉

  2. Pingback: Rabbit Holes and Believable Villains | Dispatches from the Gilded Cage

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