Being Honest about Villains

Many years ago, more than I care to calculate, when my third child was in elementary school, her teachers and classmates would send home requests for me to come tell them a story. I would ask what type of story they wanted and create something original for the occasion. Once they requested a ghost story. I responded with a story about a haunted river. That sounds original, doesn’t it?

The evening following the presentation of this story was Back to School night. While my wife and I were talking to the teacher, one of my daughter’s classmates, a fifth grade boy, tugged at my pants leg and asked, “Was it true? The story?”

Cuban rebel Che Guevara

I replied that, of course, the people, though imaginary, were as true to life as I could make them. The ghost? She was all imaginary, however, the story reflected very real facts about life and the consequences of good and bad behavior. Yes, I used more age appropriate words, but you get the meaning.

The young man seemed satisfied with my response and wandered away. When I turned back to the conversation with my wife and the teacher, I found them looking quite serious.

“The boy has leukemia,” the teacher explained. “He might die and he knows it.”

I could feel the color drain from me. “Did I do okay?” I asked.

Both women smiled and assured me that I had done just fine.

I’m not a famous writer. I’m not a commercial success. I don’t know if I ever will be. However, I’ve had other writers assure me that I’m a good writer and that my opinions about writing are valid. Thus, I am offering this opinion to any who are tempted to follow. Be honest.

It’s not easy being honest. Well, in truth, it’s getting easier with age. Yes, I am not proud of everything I have done or said in my life. But, what the hell do I care if you are offended by any stupid or offensive thing I may have done when I was a stupid and offensive young man. The regrets that cloud my conscience and the scars accumulated by past mistakes are just as much grist for my creative mill as are my occasional triumphs and flashes of genius.

Neither am I ashamed of my life. Yes, I am the hero of my own story. Fortunately, heroes aren’t heroic all the time. Think about it. One of the earliest heroes we ever heard about was Noah, and he was a falling down drunk at the end of his story. Also, one of the heroes of my childhood, the Lone Ranger, disappointed me by sending Tonto into town to have the snot beaten out of him before he rode to the rescue. That’s not very heroic, is it?

I believe that this is where most novelists fail when they attempt to create believable characters. Living, breathing people are neither heroic nor villainous all the time. Sneering villains stalking the stage, holding a black cape across their faces and uttering demonic laughs are the stuff of melodrama. They are laughable and we enjoy booing and hissing at them. But, they don’t make good fiction.

Try this exercise. Make a list of history’s greatest villains. Mine includes, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Che. Now, try writing something nice about them. Honestly, I believe that every one of them thought that they were attempting to improve the world. I don’t think, not for one moment, that any of them was motivated to “do evil.” The fact that they did evil was the result of misguided principles – or lack of principles – that motivated their behavior. I know that’s a hard concept to swallow.

I struggled mightily to be honest as I wrote Rebels on the Mountain. I know that some people will be disappointed that I dealt gently with Castro in my story, but I believe that he was well-motivated and acting on sound principles in seeking to rid Cuba of a government that was destructive to the life and liberty of the people as well as chasing off the rapacious American businessmen and gangsters who colluded with that government.

If my story continued into the years following the revolution, I would have cast him in a different light. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, on the other hand, was a critically flawed young man in my opinion. However, I could not have portrayed him as a realistic human being if I had simply flailed him with my words.

I had to find the humanity in him to make him a three dimension human being. Like me and everyone else, Che had his good points and his bad ones. I had to find both. I had to be honest.



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  • Maryann

    This is so true, Jack. Characters, like real people, are both good and bad. We as writers do a disservice to readers if we do not create characters with all their flaws.

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