Rabbit Holes and Believable Villains

I would say stop me if you’ve heard this before, but I know you have because I remember writing it.

My research is currently leading me down the garden path on many issues. But the one that’s currently occupying my brainspace is the nature of the struggle that forms the core of the book I thought I had a good handle on why that conflict had occurred, why it had stopped, and the motivations of all the players.

But reading about real-world analogues throws up annoying questions of internal consistency. As I’ve mentioned before, fiction is a highly streamlined version of reality (no one goes to the toilet, no one gets a terrible itch in an embarrassing place at a crucial moment, etc.), so there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t really matter to the reader. Or is the sort of thing that only comes up as the last question in an Author Q&A by a particularly obsessive fan (“Is it true, Ms Rowling, that Wizards don’t pay any income tax at all?”).

But sometimes, you as an author, need that level of obsessiveness. It’s a clockwork universe for an author, and things have to be explained in an internally consistent way. If you start doing too much handwaving to warp your universe to meet your plot or character demands then the whole edifice can topple over under the weight of its own contrivance. The horrifying, if necessary, alternative is to retrospectively alter your painstakingly crafted writing in order to reflect the rules of the world that you have created.

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So my problem is that I had an idea in my head about the motivations of the factions in my book and these ideas are looking pretty simplistic when I examine real-life counterparts.The real world has incredibly complex dynamics of personal and group identity, economics, geography and external interference. If that sounds eye-glazing, it sort of is. But it’s this long chain that leads down into why people, organisations and social groups behave in the way they do.

To dive into a complex conflict zone is to stand on the rubble of a thousand battles, a hundred thousand bodies, a million recollections and a billion conflicting accounts and experiences, all of which feed into how individuals process the conflict and order their view of the world and other people within it.

A villain that does things for villainous or selfish reasons is easy to write. Personal revenge is even easier, as the circumstances that lead to the villainous behaviour have a clear cause-and-effect relationship. When the putative villains are actually processing a huge weight of history, identity and personal experience and this leads them to villainy, it’s more believable, but requires a detailed understanding of how all those factors intersect.

That’s grist to the mill of my plot, which is fundamentally consumed with issues of conflict, post-conflict and reconstruction. So does it matter if I take short-cuts and assume that people behave in certain ways and that certain circumstances coalesce because they’d make a more interesting story?

Shakespeare’s stories are somewhat famous for taking inspiration from worlds that he basically knew nothing about. The real-life Macbeth was absolutely within his rights to be outraged at old Duncan’s betrayal of Scots inheritance tradition by appointing his own son as his heir. Henry V is Pro-Tudor propaganda of the highest order. This does not detract from the power of the worlds which he created or from the dramatic intensity of his characters motivations within those worlds, and to nitpick on those grounds is one of the shortest paths possible to being considered a crank.

It may or may not come as a surprise, but I am no Shakespeare, and don’t have a huge amount of faith that panache and concentrated writing skill can carry the day. As in real life, as a writer I sometimes suffer from impostor syndrome, and am terrified of the accusation of being inauthentic, so I have to make sure that when I’m researching for fidelity to real life that I’m doing it to enhance my writing and not just to defend myself from my own  internal critic, which is the harshest foe an author has to face.

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