Real-Life Swashbucklers and the Challenge of Interesting Good Guys

Posted: February 6, 2014 in Books, Culture, Movies, Personalities, Pop culture, Videos, Writers
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This past Saturday, I attended my first meeting of Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers in a while. As I’ve mentioned (whined about?) in some recent posts, I’ve been really busy lately and a lot of things got put on the back burner.

The meeting is in North Jersey and it’s a nearly two-hour drive for me. But it’s worth it. The group is made up of a very talented, professional and dedicated group of writers, and I always take away something valuable.

At this meeting, the guest speaker was Teel James Glenn. The guy’s pretty much a walking encyclopedia of things I consider to be cool. He writes books that are intentional throwbacks to the classic pulp era of the 1930s, of which I’m also a fan. Some elements of The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report were intended as a homage to classic pulps, including the tough-guy detective hero and the gang of masked villains.

Teel is also a martial artist, professional stuntman, and fight coordinator for movies. He’s got a particular specialty in sword fighting. I picked up his now out-of-print (but not for much longer, as a reissue is on the way) Them’s Fightin’ Words!: A Writer’s Guide To Writing Fight Scenes. I know we’re not too far into 2014 yet, but that still pretty much made my year. Hell, he’s even into sleight-of-hand.

Check out his Website, The Urban Swashbuckler. (Come on! How freakin cool is THAT?)

Anyway, he said something about writing that really had a big impact on me, and helped me get past something I was struggling with in the novel I’m currently working on.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read articles, writing manuals, and critical think pieces about popular culture that stress the importance of two elements in fiction: A flawed hero and a compelling villain.

This is true. Flawless heroes just aren’t particularly interesting. And it’s hard to get excited over their adventures if they just coast on their perfection to effortless victories.

Similarly, fascinating villains add a lot to a story. At the very least, you want them to be formidable enough to serve as worthy adversaries for the heroes. Like I was alluding to back there in the last paragraph, an antagonist who fails to make the hero at least break a sweat just isn’t pulling his weight in the narrative. Sherlock Holmes’ exploits wouldn’t be very thrilling if Professor Moriarty was a dumbass, and nobody would be impressed with Beowulf if Grendel was a wuss.

So yeah, a fascinating and charismatic villain adds a lot to a story. But it seems to me that in recent decades, that principle has become so pervasive that the villains have just about eclipsed the heroes in popular fiction. Nobody enthuses about “Silence of the Lambs” by saying “Clarice Starling was awesome!” “The Sopranos” was an extended slog through criminality and depravity. And as Teel pointed out during his talk, even Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies were more about the villains than the heroes. Those are just a few examples.

Not trying to sound sanctimonious. I love “Silence of the Lambs,” “The Sopranos” and the Batman movies. I’m currently watching the final season of the wonderful “Breaking Bad” — which, for all its gritty detail and psychological complexity, is essentially an extended origin story for a criminal mastermind straight out of the 1930s pulps.

But it’s reached a point where the heroes — the good guys, if you’ll forgive the not-necessarily-applicable gender-specificity — are often a boring necessity, or altogether irrelevant. And I find that kind of depressing. Call me a weenie, but I want to root for the good guys.

I was also struggling with that in the novel I’m working on, which is intended in part as a homage to the classic pups. My heroes are flawed. The main one is a professional con artist. But they seemed a little too heroic. In the interests of quality literature, aren’t they supposed to be corrupt and ineffectual?

The villain didn’t seem like a fully formed human being, so much as an impersonal evil force. Did I have to elaborate on the unhappy childhood or whatever that made him that way? It didn’t seem consistent with the story, but wasn’t I somehow obliged to cram it in there anyway?

During his talk, Teel made an assertion that’s so basic, it’s almost mind-blowing. The villain in the story doesn’t have to be a sympathetic, nuanced character. He could just be the adversary that needs to be taken down. Sometimes the bad guy is just the bad guy.

Teel and I talked about it further at a post-meeting lunch.

It’s become kind of a truism in popular fiction that the villain is inherently more interesting than the hero. The hero, after all, is typically the plodding square trying to enforce the status quo. The villain is the unfettered spirit of anarchy, living out a universal wish fulfillment fantasy by forcing the world to meet his demands rather than vice-versa.

In Teel’s estimation, though, it’s a sign of laziness on the part of the writer if the hero is less interesting than the villain. Interesting villains are easy. If the hero’s not as fascinating,  that just means the writer has to sit down and work harder.

I don’t know if I necessarily agree in all cases. Sometimes, an exploration of a complex evil-doer is what the writer was going for. Still, it was nice to hear Teel say that. Refreshing. Inspiring, even. Maybe my desire to root for the good guys and make them win in my books isn’t a sign of a pedestrian artistic sensibility. Maybe that’s just what you’re supposed to do.

So I doubt I’ll give up my love of “The Sopranos.” At the same time, I don’t think I’ll go off on a digression about the unhappy childhood of the villain in my book.

What the hell. Sometimes the bad guy is just the bad guy.

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