For the past two weeks, Lee Allen Hill has discussed literary Heroes and Villains. Now let me inject a word about heroines.
Middle aged heroines are showing up more and more in popular fiction. Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, Iris Johansen’s Eve Duncan, and now C. Hope Clark’s Carolina Slade are a few of my personal favorites. They’re strong, competent women with real flaws, real fears, and real supporting characters.
Writers, let me give you a word of advice. If your next heroine is a middle-aged powerhouse who looks like she’s just stepped out of a Sandals ad, you won’t find a female reader out there who is going to care if her marriage has imploded and she’s reduced to rebuilding her shattered love life with a suspected international jewel thief while juggling self-doubt and a career as CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
And here’s why. Women, even very young women, react to the role models they’re offered, and not always in a positive way. A recent University of Michigan study published as “My Fair Scientist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls” reports girls aged 11-13 years old who heard about successful female scientists wearing dark clothing had higher expectations of taking college math (5.57 on a 1-7 scale) than when hearing about scientists who wore makeup and pink clothes (4.04). The study concludes that unattainable role models aren’t inspiring, they’re threatening.
How does that uniquely female response translate to real life? Personally, I’ve ruled out ever going on a cruise or vacationing at a tropical resort. Television and print ads make it clear in their visuals the female guests spend six hours a day in the gym, are blessed with the facial features of a beauty queen and have endured more body work than a restored ‘57 Chevy.
I’m assured I’m completely wrong; the advertisers are simply idealizing the experience. Nope. That’s not what my female brain tells me. Oh, they want my average money, but all the while they proclaim average looking women are not up to their standards. I know that because there isn’t an average looking woman in any one of their ads. Pay attention, Madison Avenue. You might lure bored husbands with the promise of a poolside floorshow, but their wives know they can’t compete. Remember: Unattainable role models aren’t inspiring, they’re threatening.
Now, if that’s the reaction they evoke in me, someone who writes fiction everywhere but in the Page & Spine check register, how can we expect the mature, grounded, female reader to identify with a plagued paragon of perfection? I’m not saying her teenage daughter has to be pregnant, her twelve year old son has to be in drug rehab and she has to have some devastating disease to battle. I’m suggesting that her waistband might be getting a trifle tight, the crows’ feet aren’t responding to that extra dab of moisturizer, and the lady, however bright and competent, knows she’s forever stuck in middle management and is not real happy about it. Sort of like the readers you’re trying to reach.
Once your readers have made that emotional connection – she’s just like me – then it’s time to spin the fantasy. But first, keep it real.
Several years ago I came across a list of the 50 Greatest Villains in Literature. The list was interesting both for its in- and exclusions. Among the surprising inclusions were Moby Dick, Creulla DeVille, and The Joker from Batman fame. Oddly overlooked in this eclectic crowd were Grenouille, from Perfume, Stephen King’s Randall Flagg, and Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter.
All-Time lists are always great fun and terrific argument starters, but this one did very little to inform as to what are the attributes that elevate one villain over another.
One thing is certain—a whale trying to save his own blubber is not the embodiment of evil. The truth is, ‘embodiment of evil’ is really a poor scale by which to judge any villain that doesn’t come out of a cartoon or comic book—with, I think, one notable exception: Mr. Edward Hyde.
You see, I believe Robert Louis Stevenson was actually intent on ‘embodying evil’ when he created this character. That was the whole point of his story. Evil is embodied in all of us. The dark as opposed to the light. No, Mr. Stevenson wasn’t splitting any hairs here, he was splitting us—right down the middle. Oh, there are plenty of villains who have longer list of heinous crimes than Mr. Hyde, but none so eloquently fit the phrase ‘embodiment of evil.’ The closest I have come across is The Judge from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
I find the number and nature of crimes to be unsatisfactory yardsticks of a villain’s villainity. Crimes are vanilla—at least in the world of evil. Lying, cheating, murdering, raping, beating … it’s all so much blah, blah, blah on Blofeld’s resume, or Iago’s to-do list. If we were to rate villains by the size of their crimes, the numbers of people they murder I suppose both Typhoid Mary and Harry Truman need to make the list.
Which is why many of the best writers present us with bad guys who are bad pretty much for the fun of it. Oh, there are often historical, societal or psychological window dressings slightly parted so the reader might peek in and discover an ‘explanation’ for gleeful depravity, but we know in our heart of hearts there can be no explaining away Shakespeare’s Claudius, or Chandler’s Helen Grayle/Velma Valento. Which is another reason I keep coming back to Edward Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson explained his creation, but offered no excuses for his nature. That’s my kind of villain.
I have other favorites, too.
Another Stevenson creation, Long John Silver absolutely tickles me with his dual personality. Likeable, humble, funny, but as duplicitous and self-servingly refined as they come. Iago with a peg-leg, and the aroma of grog.
I will always have a hard spot in my heart for Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. In many ways he provided the template Ian Fleming used when creating his parade of villain one-up-man’s-ship. Now Blofeld is the template for a new generation.
Among the women I love to hate (I already mentioned Helen Gayle from Farewell, My Lovely) is the Marquise de Merteuil from Le Liaisons Dangereuses. Claire Quilty from Nabokov’s Lolita almost steals the hisses from this tale so rife with moral corruption.
I believe every hero/villain pairing has its roots in the Old Testament, so don’t be shy about borrowing from Genesis. Read Steinbeck’s East of Eden if you don’t know what I’m alluding to.
ABOUT LEE ALLEN HILL
Writers: If your hero doesn’t come with a few warts and a bagful of secrets; if your villain sneers and snarls as if he missed the humanity train … well, do yourself a favor and hold the presses. Pure good battling pure evil is as interesting as bringing peanut butter to New York, but leaving your jelly in L.A. Your sandwich and your characters are going to be pretty dull.
Think of oil and vinegar as good and evil. Bring them together and you’ve got a very tasty dressing or marinade—because at their heart, they clash. And that’s the key! In the end, the best characters are marinated in the same human broth. They just handle it differently. Heroes and villains are always more interesting when they can see themselves in each other. They will never come to terms—like oil and vinegar—but. And being the creative writer you are, you’re going to give your two characters opposing agendas just to give them something to fight over. Oil and vinegar do fine alone, but that’s why God invented writers. A strong plot helps, but oil is oil and vinegar is vinegar. That, my friends, is where the heart of your story lies.
Good and evil is a brain thing. If you want to write a good story, you need to fill it with heart—the heart of your reader. The more emotions you stir in your characters, the more you will stir in your readers. And it is my experience that writers want to be stirred.
Now, I don’t know exactly when or how this white-hat/black-hat, good-versus-evil myth originated, but it is clearly an American concept born out of an improbable revolution, and a naiveté that could only take root in haphazardly populated country built on tenets that drew newcomers like milk and honey draw ants.
Enter the second Great American Revolution. Film. Okay, I’ll drop the pretense, and just say movies. Movies are to film, as books are to literature.
Aye, that’s where the Great American Good vs. Evil myth found life—in the incendiary incubator called Hollywood. Forget that the rest of the literate world already read and understood Hugo, Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Shakespeare. The huddled masses who reached these shores were promised streets paved with gold as well as liberty and justice for all. So, the concept of good triumphing over evil at the end of every reel was irresistible. Even if it rarely actually happened no matter how many black hats and white hats fired blanks and first-draft dialogue. Still, the myth itself was plenty strong enough to fill movie houses.
We shouldn’t forget the origins of Hollywood. To use modern terms, the early film industry grew out of a handful of technical nerds meeting up with some forward thinking venture capitalists. Sound familiar? Most didn’t know much about telling stories, so they told them in black and white, just like their medium. Their mistake was they thought they had to keep it simple for us. They were proved wrong again and again.
I can think of only one true, untarnished, yet wholly human hero in all of American fiction--To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch, though I’m certain he would eloquently decline my sincere nomination.
I know I’ve come the long way around the barn to say this, but I hope you’ll always pay as much attention to the scars that represent your hero’s flaws, as the attributes you truly admire. Give your hero a break—given him a breaking point.
Next week, with N.K. Wagner’s permission, I’ll be back to explore some of the great hero/villain combinations in film and literature.
Oooo! Permission? Is someone asking permission? Oh, I like that! In fact … hey, you’re kinda cute. Ever consider adding a title to that pretty name of yours? Like Creative Director? We happen to have an opening.
Wha …? No, I’m not high. That’s incense. You really think I’d let Mary Jane in here? Then who’d get this rag posted? Huh?
Well, you think about it and let me know.
Goodness, he has the prettiest eyes.
N.K., thank you, but I must decline your dubious offer. Ambulances, Babs, and L. Oliver Bright all the scare the Saltines out of me.
I do know a gal named Fritz who might be interested. She used to be a lion tamer.
- Lee Hill
ABOUT LEE ALLEN HILL