Thursday, December 4, 2008

In Praise of Villainy

Last night, while reading Dennis Lehane's terrific new novel, The Given Day, I reached a particularly brilliant stretch of scenes that culminated in a head-on collision between one of the book's "bad" guys--and I'm talking bad as in Super Bad--and one of the book's "good" guys--a guy who's all the more interesting because he's had some run-ins with the law and he's even killed a man. Sounds like your average good guy, no?

The bad guy is a white cop named Eddie McKenna, and the good guy is a black man named Luther Laurence. Up till this point, McKenna was circling Laurence like a hawk circles a mouse before swooping down on it. Laurence had showed up in Boston rather mysteriosly, at least to McKenna's taste, and McKenna suspects foul play. He's right, of course, but we still hate him for being a jerk to Luther. I won't give anything away, but I will say that McKenna shows his true colors in this scene and presents Laurence with an ultimatum. It doesn't look good for him now, Luther Laurence, so I look forward to finding out what happens.

It's the hate in Eddie McKenna that makes him interesting.

The novel is set in 1918 Boston, during the time of a Red scare, flu epidemics, riots, war, and strikes. It's a story rife with conflict, in other words, and I love it! (My only quibble with it, and it's minor really, is that, to paraphrase Ambrose Bierce, there's too much space between the covers.)

Still, I'm reading this thing slowly, savoring it like a piece of milk chocolate on the tongue. Last night's passage reminded me of something that I thought I'd share in today's post. Every piece of fiction, as everyone knows, needs conflict of some kind. But what I was reminded of last night was this: Villains are good, villains are very good. As Washington Post columnist Dan Zak recently pointed out, bad guys are in these days. This is great news, I think, because great fiction is produced by the bad stuff bad guys do in a story.

It may be natural to try to show the "humanity" of all characters in fiction. But let's face it, you can be "human" and also a terrible person. And that's what Lehane has done so well in The Given Day: he's created a character who reminds the reader of a real hate-filled ogre.

What's to note, however, is that McKenna, while bad, is presented as a rounded figure. He's not a buffoonish bad guy, not one-dimensional. He's not the Joker. He's not some of the bad guys in Bond flicks. He wasn't put on this earth to do evil. He's a character who has been shaped by the values--yes, the values--in society to be the bad man he is. And that's the difference between a flat bad guy and a well-rounded bad guy: well-rounded bad guys still reflect the culture they live in. Because they do, they are far more compelling. You recognize them. You've seen them, you've met them.

One thing I haven't written about here, but I suspect I will have to in a future post, is "genre"--as in "genre fiction." A couple years ago, when Lehane published a collection of short stories, Coronado, he was roughed up in reviews for trying to write "literary" fiction. I didn't understand that criticism, and I still don't. Why isn't what Lehane writes literary? Is writing a "bad" guy in your story un-literary?

Genre fiction is often disaraged because its practioners present good guy vs. bad guy scenarios. Sometimes it's terrible to read that stuff, and embarrassingly bad, but this is true of so-called "literary" fiction as well. For my money and time, though, I'm happy to have villains to read about--just as long as I recognize them.



Anonymous said...

I think this is a fascinating post on a number of levels, Kyle. As writers, too many of us often think of our fiction in terms of "conflicts" instead of "villains," as if the latter term was something that should be reserved either for classic literature (Dickens, Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, just to pick three random names) or for genre fiction of some kind. A villain helps to focus things; a conflict too often become vague. The former enlivens a story; the latter too often diffuses it. (And I write this struggling with my own novel, where there is no clear villain, where things become soft and murky at too many points.)

The second point is, of course, about genre. And I have to say how surprised I myself was when I found Lehane's latest shelved in the mystery section at Barnes & Noble. Write one mystery and be stuck there forever? Well, Lehane's proving it just ain't right.

Serena said...

Set in 1918 Boston, sounds like a great read to me. I love novels with bad guys. One of my qualms with recent Vampire fiction has been that the main vampires are goody-two-shoes...lamenting their plight. What happened to the real bloodsuckers.