Saturday, February 6, 2010

One girl to envy

(Guest blogger Pamela Ridley)

Pamela Ridley is an author who has published three novels: Between Tears, Lies Too Long, and Another Memory. Readers fall in love with the depth of characterization, the fast-paced writing style and the surprising plot twists entrenched in every story. Her body of work also includes short stories and flash fiction published through various e-zines.

Villains need camouflage in order to keep their nasty little secrets. The key question is what allows a villain to walk among regular folks largely unnoticed? The answer: aspects of their personalities that people find appealing or useful.

In 2005, The American Film Industry compiled a list of noteworthy villains. The top five? Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Darth Vader, The Wicked Witch of the West, and Nurse Ratchet.

This is not exactly a group to hide their light under a barrel. I took my own poll and asked people how those five characters managed to get away with so much before they were stopped. Here’s a sampling of what I got back:

Hannibal Lecter, like a cobra, is seductively and hypnotically brilliant.

Norman Bates may be a psychotic gynophobe, but he’s also a lost young man, who appears harmless. It probably helped that the Bates Motel wasn’t located on a major highway.

Darth Vader is power-hungry, and at the same time sympathetically dutiful.

The Wicked Witch of the West is grumpy, covetous and cruel. Not much camouflage there, but like Norman, the place she lives is hard to get to.

Nurse Ratched is a vengeful, repressed megalomaniac, but from the distant view of the hospital administrator’s office her ward looks well run. Even the most recalcitrant patient seems to “settle in” after a while.

Most villains have some redeemable traits or certainly they can have if a writer paints them with finesse; a stroke of this, a bit of stippling here, some blotting there. With the correct shading, texture, and perspective, our villains spring to life with a job in addition to murder in our fictional worlds.

A brilliant person with at least minimal social skills can develop multimillion dollar enterprises from scratch. Throw in seductive and hypnotic and all bets are off—whatever she/he undertakes is doable. This person can be an author, run a string of funeral homes, or create a one-of-a-kind legacy like Hannibal Lecter.

An overprotected and dominated character could also be a gentle, unassuming person, who smiles a lot while working at the tollbooth, as a CPA, or in the hospitality industry—until she/he snaps and turns into a Norman Bates. You just never know.

Someone who thinks a job title gives them power to execute directives, facts notwithstanding, could be a police officer, a CEO, or a Darth Vader.

A no-nonsense, tough-minded person who advocates the desired values of the day could be the go-to community organizer, the chairman of the chamber of commerce, or she could be The Wicked Witch.

Someone who recognizes her worth, refuses to be taken advantage of, and struggles to suffer people who continuously defy her wisdom could be a presidential candidate, the coach of the soccer team, or she could be a Nurse Ratchet.

I have a particular villain on my mind these days, and this is a spoiler alert. If you’ve got Lies Too Long on your To Be Read pile, or it’s likely to end up there shortly, and you hate knowing who the villain is, you might want to skip the rest of this blog, and go directly to checking out my books at my web site.

That villain on my mind is a manipulative, narcissistic control freak, but that just means she’s insightful, wants things done right and she needs to be seen in the best light while doing them. All the characteristics that make her a great car salesman also make her an awesome event planner. Her events always feature vengeance.

She is the type of person who clogs up a former boyfriend’s tail pipe and adds cream of tarter to a classmate’s dish during cooking class just to be the one who always comes out on top. And, oh yes, she has a personalized plate that says 1GRl2NV. (One girl to envy.)

How does she get away with all of this? She’s slender, light-skinned, and has long straight hair. Capitalizing on her looks and intelligence, she worked her way through college, got connected with the “right” boyfriends and the “right” social network and the “right’ job with the good income. She’s successful selling cars and she’s the president of her sorority – the post graduate chapter, and she's on the lookout for the "right' man. All she needs to complete the picture is a couple of “less than” underlings, women who are less than she is and will be certain to appreciate her.

She adapts (being the person others need her to be when it suits her purpose); she survives (refusing to take crap from anyone) and she takes matters into her own hands even when it means she has to do some remote control mischief, using other people to do evil deeds for her.

I think that, given the right set of circumstances, most people could commit evil. Can’t I perform “morally bad” things if I’m protecting my life, family, home or country? What if there is no other means for me to gain justice? My villains, in their minds, have a justification for what they do. Their rationales are outside of what the judicial system allows, but they are always heartfelt. Does their kind of thinking cross the line separating the sane from the insane? I don’t know.

It’s two sides of the same coin. The same negative aspects that make a villain memorable, also benefit her. Cloaked in a deceptively functional job, your villain can, literally, get away with murder.


Michele said...

I think we inherently have the ablity to do harm - from stomping a spider to tailgating a slower driver because they're in your way. We have all done little things that for others turn into much bigger.

From killing spiders to killing mammals or people.
From tailgating to running them off the road on a blind corner on a lonely stretch of road.

We can justify killing a spider, THEY can justify killing a person.
We can justify that little bit of intimidaiton as showing them their speed and driving skills are not appreciated. THEY justify it by saying they got rid of a bad driver.

So, yep - we all have a dark side. Sometimes the dark side blots out the sun within.

Wendi Zwaduk said...

Great post Pam.

This reminds me of an episode of Criminal Minds in which the bad guy causes harm because in his mind he can't rationalize why his mate was taken from him. If she was still around and he hadn't gone through the traumatic event of losing her, he wouldn't have murdered.

Anyone can do something harmful to someone else, but part of it has to do with the fine line of what's acceptable and what's not. As Michele says, killing a spider cause it creeps you out it's BAD, but to an animal lover, it's murder. Same as someone harming another person intentionally. You and I see it as murder. To the person doing the act, it might be the thing to do.

It's all a matter of getting in that person's mind--but that said, there are certain minds I would rather leave alone.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Pam. You bring the villain into everyday light. They are out there among us, and yet we don't know them for what they truly are inside. Quite possibly, that's the scariest thought of all. And it sure makes for one great page-turner!

Marianne Arkins said...

I believe the best and scariest villains are those who aren't purely evil. And, I think they are scariest because they make us see that anyone can do something truly awful, given a particular set of circumstances.

Wendi brought up "Criminal Minds" which is a show I love to watch because of how it shows the WHY and also that many people aren't simply evil. It's seldom that easy.

AND... this is why writing a good, believeable villain isn't always an easy thing to do.

Good post :-)

Kealie Shay said...

Great post, Pam. I would have to say that it's the well-done/written/portrayed villains that are the hardest to completely hate. And like Marianne said, they are the scariest, because you can "see their point". It's the ones that you can look at and think, "That could be my neighbor!"

And isn't that how they get away with what they get away with. When a serial killer is caught, everyone from the Pastor down to the Girl Scout who sold him cookies says, "But he was so quiet and helpful!"

Again, great post, and some definite food for thought.

Pam said...

Hi Guys,

Appreciate you all stopping by!

Michele and Wendi,

There seems to be a consensus; given a circumstance that triggers, even the meekest among us can rise up and earn the label "villain."

A person's values and perspective will, I think, provide some parameters for some folks, but even so, what people can justify is endless.

Lisa, Marianne,and Kealie, I totally agree that the villain who appears "closer to normal" is the scariest, cuz he or she is you or me, and we don't want that to be true!

Anonymous said...

Great insights, Pam. I'm sure we all knew these things, but you wrote these details so eloquently. Crafting a good villain should be easier now, with this explained. Oh, and I like the "license plate" touch for your villain. Nice one!