Writing Villainy

I’ve been thinking about villainy. I keep thinking about Tolstoy’s first line from Anna Karenina:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

What does that have to do with villainy? you might ask. Well, I’ve been watching the coverage of the results of the interviews/interrogation of the Boston bomber, whose name I simply cannot remember. Everybody wants to know why–what drove him and his brother? Why would they do this? What changed them from seemingly nice, normal boys to terrorist murderers? The answer seems to be coming down to radical Islamist ideology. To me, this is no answer. It’s cliche. It goes back to that quote above, only in this case, Terrorists are all alike; every non-terrorist is individual in his or her own way. Doesn’t work, does it? It seems to me that villains should be at least as complicated as non-villains. And reducing this sort of attack down to radical Islamic ideology is, in a word, a copout. There has to be more, even if we never learn what that is.

This brings me to villainy in books. Villainy is as much about who this person is and what he’s willing to do, as it is about what brought him to this point. What was his journey of pain and disappointment, frustration, rage, torture, or what have you? What is individual and unique about this person? Because that’s the heart of the story. Bringing this individual person up against a very unique and individual protagonist. Bringing them into conflict. Especially since villains don’t necessarily or even often think that they are villains. They think they are doing the right thing (even if they are deluded), the necessary thing (even if it is painful and terrible), or they don’t see the terribleness of what they do (like exterminating and entire people to cleanse the world–after all, those people are just vermin and cleansing the world is a good thing, right?).

Then you add in that being Islamic is not by definition a bad thing, even there are those out there who would say it is. It is a form of religion no better or worse than others. So I can’t see how it’s a motivation or an excuse, unless it is twisted into something else. But even if it is so twisted, it has to tap into something in a person to drive them to being a terrorist. There has to be a need or a desire or a hole in a person that that fills. So I wonder, for these two bomber brothers, what was it? I somehow imagine that the older brought the younger in and I imagine that their bond of brotherhood is what mattered to the younger brother more than the religion. I’m absolutely making this up. But as a writer, I think that the two are not alike, they are not similarly motivated, and that something triggered them, and in different ways. I wonder what drove a college boy that everyone liked and admired to becoming a killer. Was he a sociopath? Possibly. But like radical Islamist ideology, that is too reductionist and easy an answer. The writer in me says there has to be more, more that comes from each person.

And to quote from Earnest Tubb: I know my baby loves me in her own peculiar way. Which is to say, everyone has their own peculiar way.


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