Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Scum and villainy

For today's Fiction Friday, let's consider: Bad Guys.

One of the problems I find with a lot of writing is that the antagonists are completely unbelievable.  Take, for example, the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings.  I know I'm stepping on hallowed ground by even suggesting a criticism of Tolkien, but have you ever asked yourself why the Orcs were so pissed off at everyone?  Now, I'm not talking about Saruman's Orcs, who were promised rewards; but just your run-of-the-mill, cave-dwelling, dull-witted nose-picker sort of Orc who lived in the Misty Mountains and who presumably didn't give a rat's ass who won the Battle of Helm's Deep.  They somehow still hated the Elves and all the rest, just 'cuz, and were willing to die by the thousands because of it.

Well, I'm not buying it.

That kind of villain becomes almost a Snidely Whiplash caricature, mwa-ha-ha-ha-ing over the predicament of the protagonist for no obvious reason.  And while this worked to comic effect in Dudley Do-Right, it kind of falls flat in a serious story.

Stories which carry some emotional weight -- which, presumably, is what most authors are aiming for -- need to have an antagonist with as much depth as the  protagonist.  To me, the best stories are the ones where you end up feeling some understanding for the antagonist.  You still don't want him/her to win, but you think at the end, "I almost felt sorry, there, when (s)he was ripped apart and eaten by rabid weasels."

Take Darth Vader, for example.  How much less powerful would that story have been had you not felt a little sad that he had taken the path he did, when he died in Luke's arms?

A writer I know, who shall remain nameless, suffers from the worst case of One-Dimensional Villain Syndrome I've ever seen.  Every story she's ever written has an arrogant, patriarchal, middle-aged white male as the villain.  Furthermore, these APMAWMs are always guilty of victimizing and demeaning women, but the women always end up Showing Them A Thing Or Two, leaving the APMAWM in question to retreat in disarray.  It's as predictable as clockwork.  The result, unfortunately, is that besides the stories appearing completely formulaic, it leaves us wondering about what the APMAWMs do in their spare time, when they're not looking around for women to degrade.  Nothing, is my guess, because these dudes seem to have no other characteristics than (1) the required anatomical equipment and ethnic group identification, (2) arrogance, and (3) patriarchiality.  They have no other motivation, no other personality traits, and (most importantly) no sympathetic characteristics at all.

Note that I am not objecting to this on the grounds of my meeting three of the above-mentioned characteristics of APMAWMs.  Nor am I saying that men who do those sort of horrible things don't exist.  (Much though I wish that were true.)  It's the fact that their villainy is all they have; there's nothing else to them.  For what it's worth, I respond with equal eyerolling when I read a story from the 30s or 40s which features the femme fatale stereotype.  I want to find out what these women do, when they're not lounging on the tops of barroom pianos smoking cigarettes in long holders, looking for na├»ve young men to lure into fornication.  What do they like to eat for dinner?  How do they pay the rent?  Do they get together with friends on Saturday morning to drink coffee and discuss how the fornication went that week?  Do they subscribe to Femme Fatale Weekly?

Saying that a character is evil "just because this character is evil" isn't enough.  What motivates him/her?  Power?  Revenge?  Lust?  Greed?  And why has this become a driving motivation?  Just as no one is evil "just because," no one becomes evil "just because."  An antagonist needs a backstory, a reason for their actions.

As my college creative writing teacher put it, "Always remember that all villains are the heroes of their own stories."

And they can't be thoroughly evil.  Sauron aside, no one is 100% evil.  Even the worst of the worst have some positive traits, and those can be used to set off the bad things they do, to heighten the tragedy of their characters and actions.  Maybe the bad guy hates his neighbors, but loves his dog.  Maybe she is greedy as King Midas but never forgets to send her mother a gift on her birthday.  Maybe he's a thoroughgoing APMAWM but has given everything to the family business, so he can pass it along to his children.  And so on.

Life is full of contradictions, and good writing reflects life.  This applies to the bad guys as well as the good guys.  Antagonists should be as richly three-dimensional as protagonists -- it's one of the hallmarks of deep, interesting, and believable fiction.


One of the most devastating psychological diagnoses is schizophrenia.  United by the common characteristic of "loss of touch with reality," this phrase belies how horrible the various kinds of schizophrenia are, both for the sufferers and their families.  Immersed in a pseudo-reality where the voices, hallucinations, and perceptions created by their minds seem as vivid as the actual reality around them, schizophrenics live in a terrifying world where they literally can't tell their own imaginings from what they're really seeing and hearing.

The origins of schizophrenia are still poorly understood, and largely because of a lack of knowledge of its causes, treatment and prognosis are iffy at best.  But much of what we know about this horrible disorder comes from families where it seems to be common -- where, apparently, there is a genetic predisposition for the psychosis that is schizophrenia's most frightening characteristic.

One of the first studies of this kind was of the Galvin family of Colorado, who had ten children born between 1945 and 1965 of whom six eventually were diagnosed as schizophrenic.  This tragic situation is the subject of the riveting book Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker.  Kolker looks at the study done by the National Institute of Health of the Galvin family, which provided the first insight into the genetic basis of schizophrenia, but along the way gives us a touching and compassionate view of a family devastated by this mysterious disease.  It's brilliant reading, and leaves you with a greater understanding of the impact of psychiatric illness -- and hope for a future where this diagnosis has better options for treatment.

[Note: if you purchase this book from the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


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