Victims and Villains

Well… Last week and into this one, I’ve had the Cold From Hell. Since I didn’t

My Constant Companions

 even leave the house for the better part of last week, I fear I don’t have anything fascinating to recount. I’m also somewhat muddy in the thinking department.

Therefore, this week’s wandering is an expansion on a piece I wrote last spring for Magic and Mayhem site. They’d asked me to write about victims or villains in my fiction. I was rather shocked, since I didn’t think I wrote either. I’m actually rather passionate about the subject. So here’s what I gave them instead.

I try not to write either victims or villains. When talking about the characters in my books, I don’t even use the words “heroes” and “villains.” Protagonists and antagonists, sure, but not villains and never victims.

Yes. Some characters in my books become victims within the unfolding of events. Perhaps the character I’ve been given the most grief over is Citrine. I will admit that in the course of the “Wolf Series” (also known as the “Firekeeper Saga”), Citrine goes though a really bad patch.

As for villains, I’m a firm believer that no one, not even historical figures – like Stalin or Hitler – who were responsible for the deaths and torture of many thousands of people, gets up in the morning, rubs his or her hands briskly together, and says: “Ah-hah! I think I’ll do something really evil today.”

For this reason, in my novels you’re not going to find any glowing eye in the sky brooding over a devastated landscape. If characters dress all in black with skulls for jewelry, they’re into Goth fashion.

What you will find in my novels are people who commit completely heinous acts (like having their own child’s finger chopped off) and yet still manage to believe that what they are doing is all for the greater good.

Yes. I do believe in evil, but I also believe in the capacity of intelligent beings of any type to justify their actions so they come out as the “good guys.” Read interviews with serial killers. Most see themselves as the victims. The same goes for leaders of genocidal armies, mass suicides, or even professional torturers. It’s all the other guy’s fault or, at creepy best, a bit of fun that got out of control.

I’ve never been one of those writers – and I know some who do this – who deliberately create a character to serve as a victim in order to manipulate reader reaction. I’ve heard writers brag about doing this: creating the cute kid or kitten or whatever that is meant to die and so bring tears to the reader’s eyes.

When I hear this sort of discussion, I have to dig my nails into the palm of my hand and force a polite nod. I really despise such deliberate manipulation as sloppy writing and abuse of the reader.

If a character in one of my books is harmed, I feel it. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve wept for these fictional people. When I had to write the scene where Changer loses his eye – a scene that had to be “on-stage” – I wrote around it until I could get up the courage.

So, victims and villains. You’ll find them both in my works, but I never think of them as such. To me, they’re all people, doing what they do because that’s how the world has worked out for them.

Note: A version of this piece originally appeared on the blog site Magic and Mayhem in March of 2010.

15 Responses to “Victims and Villains”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Well, hope you get to have a happy Thanksgiving, regardless of how you feel at the moment.

  2. Patrick Doris Says:

    I believe I have read all your novels and I agree with this assessment you do write about people who act in very believable ways . some of your character would fir the role of a victim but they do not think of themselves as victims just as people who have things that they need to work out. If any of your character approach embracing victim hood it would be Brena Morris. Two of your character would fit the standard definition of victim (Firekeeper and Mira) but neither of them have the sense of being treated unfairly the way Brenda does from time to time.

  3. janelindskold Says:

    First, Happy Thanksgiving, to you all.

    Heteromeles, I am happy to report that my sense of taste returned in time for me to enjoy the meal. This was very good since, in addition to the usual, we had homemade ravioli AND Pati Nagle brought two of the BEST pies (pumpkin and pecan) I’ve had in a while.

    Patrick, I really like your thoughtful comment. It’s interesting, but I never thought of Brenda, Mira, or Firekeeper as victims — potential or otherwise — but I absolutely see your point.

    Mira and Firekeeper are victims of circumstances beyond their control, but react to them as if they are normal.

    Brenda also is hit by circumstances beyond her control but — you’re right — she does whine more.

    Maybe it’s the age difference? Mira and Firekeeper were both very small when their worlds transformed. Brenda was a college student with expectations of how things “should be.”

    Anyhow, you’ve given me a lot to think about and I thank you!

    Again, Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Neal patel Says:

    I agree…….hitler was the biggest closet Tolkien fan there ever was. I also have it on good account that George Bush is one of only six people to actually make it through the Simarillion.

  5. Patrick Doris Says:

    I make 2 so who are the other four?

  6. heteromeles Says:

    Re: the Silmarillion. Ummm, me? And my dad? Perhaps the decimal place is off on that two?

    On a more serious note, I was goofing around and made a pumpkin pie with yogurt in the filling and butter in the crust. It tasted quite good.

    It also attracted a certain cat, who would not be put off until she got her (very small) share of the pie. She loves yogurt and cheese, about a teaspoonful at a time. We think she’s lactose-tolerant, but she might be just a little weird.

    Glad to hear you had a good T-Day, Jane. I’m back hammering at my NANOWRIMO project, just to see if I can finish it after starting five days late.

  7. janelindskold Says:

    Jim (my husband) has read the Simarilion, too. He says it makes perfect sense as an origin story, if not as a novel.

    I may get arount to it. It’s odd that Tolkien was brought up here, because my current recorded book is THE TWO TOWERS.

    I hope that all of you are joining Heteromeles in having creative and relaxing Thanksgiving weekends. Yesterday, we made cannoli… from scratch. Second batch.

    Mom’s visits inevitably become excuses for the three of us to goof off in the kitchen. We treat it as a low stress craft project where you get to eat the end result!

  8. Paul Says:

    The earliest villains-for-villany’s-sake I remember, from grade school days, were Oil Can Harry in the Mighty Mouse cartoons, and Dr. Sivana, “the world’s maddest scientist,” in the Captain Marvel comic books. Your books are grown-up fiction.

  9. Rin Bryan Says:

    Hiyao Myazaki does something very similar in his stories and quite honestly I think it happens to be the better form of storytelling.

  10. Thomas Thompson Says:

    I agree with you to a certain extent on this subject, although I do reserve a certain fondness for noteworthy villains, like Alan Rickman’s “Hans Gruber” or Gollum. In the course of human history, given one’s perspective, one man’s victim can easily become another’s villain. Stonewall Jackson or Heinz Guderian could be either, depending on your point of view. I think your characterization of villains who perceive themselves as victims is very valid. Poe’s “Cask Of Amontillado’ easily comes to mind.
    However, manipulation of the reader seems to be the device of the day for writers now. It is sad that the craft of the taleweaver has become as commercial as the art of the muse. The works of the Zelaznys’, the Clarkes’, the Simaks’ call forth a profound sadness from my soul in their absence.
    In the meanwhile, we shall hold out for a brighter day with each new generation of younger writers finding their way. Pax Romana, Madame.

  11. janelindskold Says:

    Gollum is, to me, the classic combination of Victim and Villain…

    He probably wasn’t the nicest person before he found the ring, but once he did, he became its victim.

    Rome’s peace was great for Rome, but many of their subjects might not have agreed.

  12. Thomas Thompson Says:

    Oh, I agree. Pardon my not so sly valediction, but I was trying to incorporate the subject of discussion in my goodbye. Yes, if you were an emissary of Rome and you needed the benediction of “Pax Romana” to pass through, maybe not so friendly territory without fear of danger, then it would be a good thing, but if you were a member of the fiefdom under duress then it was just another reminder of your oppression at the hands of the empire. The implication being, of course, if you violated the tenet, the repercussions could be dire. Sorry, I have digressed from my point a bit.Our history from the beginning is a very repetitive cycle of victim, victor, and villain. The same dynamic has driven almost all forms of advancement for centuries, but while there may be some positives, i.e. science progresses because of innovations learned in war, without exception, we have not tried to explore alternative avenues of conflict resolution. We have gone to the moon and back, but we still fall back into that same, He done me wrong”, mode, when there is a issue at hand. Even if a writer creates characters and a scenario as far removed from conflict and it’s resolution, or not, as possible, I think, as you mentioned in your original post, people identify, I think almost automatically, with a victim, even if it is just a victim of circumstance.
    I guess, I am asking, can you or any writer, craft a tale that draws you into, either sympathy, empathy, or antipathy towards the protagonists without, at least, implying a bit of the victim-victor-villain mode? Are there scenes where the players move through, at least, a story, where they are as just different forces at play with out the taint of victimization.
    Sorry for dragging this out, I have the idea in my head, but I can’t quite conceptualize it enough to put it to paper. Thank you for the post and your prompt and courteous reply. I like this idea, but to grasp it fully might be beyond my abilities as a writer. Once again,I thank you.

  13. janelindskold Says:

    Hi Thomas,

    Yes. I think you can manage to have a story without relying on easy victim/villain modes. However, this involves showing clearly the points of view of both sides.

    Melina Shields is a good example. In THE DRAGON OF DESPAIR her POV shows her as seeing herself as a dynamic figure, eager to do anything for the advancement of her family — even if that means some nasty things happening to those family members. She doesn’t see herself as a villain.

    A good Civil War novel — I’m thinking of P.G. Nagle’s GLORIETA PASS — can also do this by showing how each side is striving for what it thinks is right.

    So, yes, it can be done, but it takes more effort…

  14. Thomas Thompson Says:

    Thanks for the references, I will check those out. I think Isaac Asimov accomplished that in the Foundation trilogy to a certain degree, with a great deal of success, in my opinion, as well as Clarke in Childhood’s End. In the Clarke example I think he initially hinted at a perceived victimization that revealed itself in the end to not be so. Thanks for your time and the very pertinent advice.

  15. janelindskold Says:

    My great pleasure… Good luck with your story.

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