Earlier, I wrote this praising post of Dennis Lehane's The Given Day (recently noted on my 17 Notable Books of 2008).
That particular post revealed my interest in bad guys. In The Given Day, Lehane does a solid job drawing a portrait of a real live villain, the gist of which is that he created his villain in the image of society. The villain did not seem unreal, a monster.
In Shutter Island, Lehane's 2003 thriller--which I finished reading earlier this week and soon to be released as a Martin Scorcese film staring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and my favorite actor of all time, Max von Sydow--Lehane is, I believe, less successful at drawing bad guys. But here's the thing: this novel is what many consider a "genre" novel. The genre = thriller. As a side note, I read somewhere, I can't remember where, that "genre" novels are the only type of novels that are actually growing in sales. Something to think about before you read further.
Now I don't use this word "genre" disparagingly. Not at all. I'm not one who rails against "genre" novels. In fact, I rather like "them." But here's the question: What's genre fiction?
Well, in short it's anything that falls into a category--mystery, suspense, fantasy, horror, thriller, science fiction, etc. Certain rules tend to apply. Take someone who reads mysteries, for example. They are aware of the tricks of the trade, I guarantee, and authors do well to study the genre and make sure they follow "the rules," so to speak.
Which isn't to say authors can't or shouldn't break the mold a bit. You should do that in fact. Always. But it is to say that you should be well versed in them, know what expensive china you're breaking before you break it.
I think the problem with genre--and why people disparage it at times--is that you can get lazy with it. I like Elmore Leonard, but if you read his Cuba Libre you'll end up, perhaps, feeling kind of empty when you finish. I did. It's kind of like snacking on peppermints instead of eating a real meal: you treat yourself but gain no real nourishment from what you just swallowed. This follows a view of mine that a writer should try to describe the world in new ways, ways that, through language, provide a taste of freshness. A new way of seeing and being. Cuba Libre hews too closely, I think, to the entertainment sort. If I wanted that, I'd watch a movie. In a movie you can do so much more with imagery. Things you see. On paper you have to rely on language, metaphor, association. Things you see only in your head. Cool stuff like that.
Anyway, back to genre and bad guys. One thing of note in a "genre" novel is the bad guys. They're usually a lot more transparent, often in black and white. And that leads me back to Shutter Island. The warden of this book, a minor character, assumes a bad guy role in a way that seems true to the genre but false to reality:
The warden spit on the ground near their feet. "You're as violent as they come. I know, because I'm as violent as they come. Don't embarrass yourself by denying your own blood lust, son. Don't embarrass me. If the constraints of society were removed, and I was all that stood between you and a meal, you'd crack my skull with a rock and eat my meaty parts." He leaned in. "If my teeth sank into your eye now, could you stop me before I blinded you?"
Teddy saw the glee in his baby eyes. He pictured the man's heart, black and beating, behind the wall of his chest.
I'll stop there. It's the second paragraph, the "black and beating" heart, that strikes me as an especially "bad guy" image. Bad men have black hearts, don't they? Well, they're bad, so they must. But no, hearts are not black unless it's a novel and the guy (or girl) with one is bad.
See what I mean? This is a trick of the genre, and kind of clumsy here actually. But it's not true to life. Unlike the bad guy cop in The Given Day.
So what am I saying? Well, in spite of this scene with the warden I really enjoyed Shutter Island. It's a thriller all right, and a pretty cool one, with a neat twist that’s become a staple in Hollywood flicks of late (think Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, etc.). So it's a successful thriller. But the characters, at times, adhere too closely to black & white representations of people--I'll call them "genre people."
And that doesn't strike me as real. So think about that, I guess, when writing your novel. What kind of characters are you making?