Dear Duke Lothario,
If you are receiving this correspondence, it is because you have successfully stolen Degas’s The Bellelli Family from Musee D’Orsay in Paris and have found our note taped to the back of the canvas. Congratulations, monsieur, on your successful heist and be assured that our fence, Madame Noir, shall be by tomorrow at midnight to take possession. This note, however, will be stolen off your person by tomorrow morning by the one and only Chat Mauve. Do not try to stop him; you will only embarrass yourself.
Why have we gone to such lengths? It is to inform you of an unparalleled opportunity developing in the United States of America. As you may have heard, inveterate fool and consummate imbecile Donald Trump has managed to achieve the White House (thanks, in no small part, to our meddling, we assure you – your service fees at work!), and now, friends, our true work begins. A golden age of kleptocracy is about to begin in the US of A, and we would love for you to be part of it!
Let it be known that we are contacting every hustler, grifter, sneak-thief, footpad, brigand, con-man, cat burglar, extortion artist, cutpurse, second-story man, bandit, robber, and pickpocket in our network that, once Trump takes office, we are declaring open-season on any and all American goods, artifacts, or government assets. We are buying military equipment, real-estate, physical assets (e.g. gold), and artifacts. Grab all you can carry – we are absolutely certain that the FBI, NSA, and CIA will be entirely too worried tracking down Hispanic farm workers with unpaid parking tickets to bother stopping you from filching weapons-grade plutonium from a government lab. Their eyes will be so fixated on signing unassuming Muslims up on some fascist database that not a single person will notice if the Washington Monument goes missing. Trump isn’t even living in the White House, so the whole damned place is basically unoccupied except by those glorified rent-a-cops in the Secret Service and, let’s face it, you are just three or four high-end strippers away from having the run of the place!
Just to give you a taste of the things we’re looking to purchase off the ambitious villains willing to pull it off, here is an incomplete list:
- The US Constitution (an easy grab, since we doubt it will be seeing much use)
- The Declaration of Independence (note: do not look for any secret treasure maps)
- Lincoln’s Head from the Lincoln Memorial (rest of statue optional)
- The VA Hospital system (the whole thing–no partial buys)
- A Commissioned Aircraft Carrier (deliverable to our offices in Arkhangelsk, Russia)
- Minuteman missiles (for our mad-scientist clients–demand is high, so prices are too!)
- Trump’s Toupee (careful–it might bite)
- Mount Vernon and/or Monticello
- The US Interstate Highway System (suffering from some disrepair, so be delicate)
- Mount Rushmore (Teddy Roosevelt only)
And on and on and on…
Friend, the possibilities here are literally endless, but act quickly – Trump’s minions are going to be pawning a lot of this stuff off soon, so supplies are more limited than you think!
Good luck, Duke Lothario! Remember: your success is our success!
Financial Operations and Underwriting Limited (FOUL)
Dear Doctor Monstrosity,
This is an important notice regarding your Hero liability coverage in your FOUL Insurance Policy. You must read this document immediately and in its entirety, or our coven of witches currently on retainer will place a hex upon you that will result in you no longer being able to absorb fluid without vomiting, which means a painful and grotesque death by dehydration will await you. Feel free to take notes. Please eat the message when you are done, as that will guard against the curse. As usual, please understand this is meant as a safety measure to ensure your privacy, our privacy, and the privacy of our other customers.
Notification of Policy Change
As of this writing, FOUL will no longer cover the costs of heroic interventions against your operation that are perpetrated by orphans of your former enemies.
Furthermore, any pre-existing coverage offered for orphans created by accident or negligence are likewise null and void.
FOUL will also be increasing premiums by 50% on any liability coverage for heroic acts of revenge stemming from the loss of even ONE parent to your actions.
Finally, FOUL will disallow any further coverage against liability as a result of actions by those persons who believed they were orphans until they discovered you were, in fact, their only surviving parent.
Statistics have shown that those who have left the progeny of their foes to live have a 65% greater chance of being undone by those self-same offspring, even after an intervening period of apparent calm for decades. It seems apparent that the loss of parents is in some way traumatic (we are as surprised as you) and stands to create a kind of manic obsession with revenge which has proven costly. The claims FOUL has been forced to bear as a result of our clients’ own sloppiness has seriously tested our financial security as an organization.
So, some quick do’s and don’ts:
-DO NOT abandon your enemies’ offspring in a wasteland or in the midst of a storm and expect them to perish.
-DO NOT expect the power of love to crumble before your overwhelming might and grandeur.
-DO NOT, under any circumstances, sell your victims’ progeny into slavery of any kind.
-DO NOT gloat over the child of an enemy or underling or endeavor to teach them any kind of lesson whatsoever.
-DO encourage your underlings to bring any and all errant children to you for re-education.
We at FOUL are happy to serve you for any of your evil financial needs and hope to do business with you in the future. Just try not to create orphans anymore.
Hi folks – I’m back! And by “back” I mean “I’ve got somebody to cover for me today as I recover from jet lag.” Allow me to introduce Bishop O’Connell: friend, author, and apparent Irish ecclesiarch. He’s here to talk about villains and, as a frustrated super-villain myself, I can tell you that you ought to listen to his advice, because he knows what he’s talking about. He also has a series of urban fantasy novels out, the most recent being The Returned (I’ll let Bishop describe it for you at the bottom). For now, read his post. Then read his books. Then hack into and read his e-mails (they’re hilarious).
Wait…never mind that last part. You didn’t see that. Ummm…errr…just read the post, okay?
Interview with a Villain
Villains are important. Every book has one, in one form or another. No, I don’t (necessarily) mean a Blofeld-esque villain who lives in an active volcano, on a skull shaped island, laughing as he strokes his beloved cat.
I’m talking about the antagonist. While the story might not have a true villain per se, there is always an antagonist. I learned early in my writing career that if I wanted my stories to be compelling and interesting, I’d need to spend at least as much time on my “bad guys” as I do on my “good guy.” It’s true, not every antagonist is a person, it can be an environment, a society, or anything else. But for those times when it is a person, here are some things I’ve learned about making a good counter to my protagonist (main character):
Goals – “What’s my motivation in this scene?”
Every antagonist has one, and no, “because they’re evil” only makes for a sad caricature of a villain.
I’m not saying their motive has to fit with societal mores, but it does need to be believable; it has to make sense for that character. I could ask myself what my character wants, but better to ask them directly, and better style to ask them why they want it. I’ve found this can actually be incredibly helpful, especially if you pain the full picture. I imagine the scene where I’m meeting my villain. What is the character wearing? Is she waiting for me, or am I waiting for her? If he is waiting for me, does he stand when I arrive, or even acknowledge my presence? Who chose the venue? Are other people there? If so, are they staring? If they are, how does the character react? The more detailed the imagining, the fuller the character will be to me, and thus (hopefully) to my readers. As an example—since you might not know my work and to prevent potential spoilers—let’s take a villain from a story just about everyone has either read or knows about: Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. Apologies to Ms. Rowling for the butchering that follows. I hope you have a good sense of humor.
Voldemort met me at a popular London café overlooking the Thames River. His pale skin, serpent like nose, and trademark flowing, black robes made him easy to spot. He was sitting at a table with a view of the bustling river traffic, a cup of tea in hand, pinky extended. His now-famous wand sat on the table next to some kind of Asian inspired salad. I think he smiled when he saw me, it was hard to tell, and invited me to join him. A cup of tea was waiting for me, but since the wait staff was nowhere to be seen he poured the tea himself. I didn’t drink it.
Bishop: Thank you for meeting with me, Voldemort.
Voldemort: Lord Voldemort, if you please. I didn’t raise a dark army and commit mass murder to not use my title.
B: Apologies, thank you, Lord Voldemort, for meeting with me.
V: Certainly. I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t wait for you. They have the most exquisite quinoa salad here.
B: Not at all.
There is a moment of awkward silence as he takes a bite of his salad and a look comes to his face. It’s either pleasure or disgust, it’s hard to tell which with someone who looks like an escape from the Island of Dr. Moreau. After a moment he dabs the cloth napkin at the corners of his mouth and turns his attention back to me.
V: I’d ask if you want anything, but the wait staff is, well, indisposed at the moment.
He laughs, and it’s more comical than unsettling.
B: I’m fine, thank you. Let’s get to it, shall we? Lord Voldemort, tell me, what do you want?
He skewers some salad on his fork and looks bored.
V: I want to kill Harry Potter, of course.
B: Okay, I got that. I know that, you know that, Harry knows that, everyone knows that. But isn’t that kind of a simplistic goal? That’s kind of short term for you, isn’t it? I mean, what do you really want?
He chews the salad and a smile, or his version of one, returns to his face. He sets his fork down and pours himself more tea.
V: I’m so very glad you asked. No one ever really seems to care. My underlings are just trying to suckle at the master’s teat, and everyone else is just running for their lives. What I really want, and I know it’s terribly cliché, but what I truly want is to rule the world. My personal twist is that I also want to be the most powerful wizard ever. Harry Potter is really just an obstacle, the one who can best deny me those things.
B: Now we’re getting somewhere. Why do you want to rule the world?
V: Well, everybody wants to rule the world.
B: I had no idea you were a Tears for Fears fan.
V: Those are two of my favorite things.
He laughs and drinks more tea.
V: Seriously, though, I suppose I could say it’s the power I want, and I do, but that’s so simplistic. Power is a means, not an end. In truth, I’m a good old fashioned racist.
B: You’re a racist? That’s not something many people would openly admit.
V: I know. The word has such a negative connotation. The difference here is that my racism is based on genuine fact. I’m not biased based on anything as petty as skin color, birthplace, religion, anything like that. No, this is about magic. You muggles, quite frankly, are inferior to us wizards. In every way that matters.
B: Could you explain?
V: Happily. As wizards, we wield immense power. We have the capability to do things you only dream about by just saying the right words and moving a piece of wood through the air. We can violate your sad little “laws” of physics at whim. You are to us, what chimps are to you. We have flying cars, for crying out loud! Your scientists have been promising you flying cars since the 1950s, and yet the only ones I have ever seen are magical. Not that I need one of course, I can fly just find on my own.
B: So your racism is based on magical ability. Why are you opposed to muggle-born wizards and witches, or those from mixed families?
V: Just because the proverbial room full of monkeys with typewriters comes up with a play doesn’t make them Shakespeare.
B: Interesting analogy. Are you saying you admire Shakespeare’s work?
V: Not at all, I’m just using a comparison your small mind can grasp. To continue the analogy, you might find said monkeys an interesting oddity, but you’d never call them human. Likewise, Mud-Bloods, those wizards born from the horrible mixing of a wizard and a muggle, are just a sad half breed. While it elevates the muggle half, it pollutes the wizard blood beyond repair. Muggle-born wizards are just freaks of nature, abominations. No, it’s pure-blood wizards who can, and should, be the ones to rule. We’ve had magic in our families for countless centuries. We are the superior race, and I know it’s overplayed, but might really does make right.
B: It is a bit cliché.
V: Well, with rare exceptions, the one with the bigger club, and the ability to use it, wins. Your history has proven this over and over.
B: Okay, so you’re saying wizards—
V: Pure-blood wizards.
B: Sorry, pure-blood wizards should rule the world, and you being the most powerful, should rule them?
V: Exactly. You muggles, are an inferior species of the human race, like the Neanderthals—
B: Actually, I think it’s pronounced Neander-tal—
V: AVADA KEDAVRA!
And….scene. Obviously I had fun with this, partly because parody covers me from a lawsuit, but also because it kept you reading. Regardless, you see that he wanted more than to kill the kid with the lightning bolt on his face. It’s important as a writer to understand not just your villains’ immediate goals, but their long term motivations as well. When you go to the store, it’s not just to buy food. It’s because you have to eat to live, and odds are you don’t or can’t raise enough food on your own to sustain yourself. The disparity isn’t terribly complicated, but it has a big impact on the story. It doesn’t matter if the antagonist is a normal everyday person, or a scary, murderous monster. In fact, for a villain to be a monster, having a good motive is vital. Which is more frightening: A raving lunatic walking the street hunting people (insert generic horror movie monster here), or a true sociopath who is well organized, has a goal (however twisted), a detailed plan to achieve it, and goes about executing said plan in a cold, ruthless manner (Hannibal Lecter-esque)? Odds are you picked the latter. At least according to movie ticket sales, book sales, and cultural impact.
Tom Hiddleston, probably best known in the U.S. for his role as Loki in the various Marvel movies said, “Every villain is a hero in his own mind.” Hearing that quote for the first time was an “aha moment” for me. It made sense. Villains never think they’re the villain. Oh, they might recognize that society will see them that way, but THEY know the truth and it’s that truth that drives them. Look at your favorite book, movie, TV show, what have you, and think of the antagonist in it. I’d be willing to bet (but please don’t email me offering a bet because you found an exception to this) that they’re doing what they felt had to be done. It might be their own ideals, looking for vengeance (justice in their mind), because their dog told them, or anything else. Regardless, they have their reasons and they are meaningful to them.
No, villains don’t have to be likeable. But, if you make them understandable, and there is a difference, the reader will really love to hate them.
Bishop O’Connell is the author of the American Faerie Tale series, a consultant, writer, blogger, and lover of kilts and beer, as well as a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Born in Naples Italy while his father was stationed in Sardinia, Bishop grew up in San Diego, CA where he fell in love with the ocean and fish tacos. After wandering the country for work and school (absolutely not because he was in hiding from mind controlling bunnies), he settled Richmond VA, where he writes, collects swords, revels in his immortality as a critically acclaimed “visionary” of the urban fantasy genre, and is regularly chastised for making up things for his bio. He can also be found online at A Quiet Pint (aquietpint.com), where he muses philosophical on life, the universe, and everything, as well as various aspects of writing and the road to getting published.
Blog – https://aquietpint.com/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/BishopMOConnell
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/bishopmoconnell/
Amazon Author Page – http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00L74LE4Y
This is going to start with a gaming story and then will wrap up somewhere in the neighborhood of me talking about Star Wars, so set your Geek Shields to maximum, folks.
I ran an RPG once that was set in Medieval Japan. As the setting was ostensibly historical, I used the most realistic ruleset I could find, which was (and is) namely The Riddle of Steel. TRoS has a brutally realistic combat system, which I loved. I loved the idea of extremely high-stakes samurai fights. It was going to be so cool.
And then the samurai player took a samurai sword to the groin in his first fight (he engaged an armored opponent while wearing only a loin cloth, which was seriously cool and also really stupid), nearly died, and was laid up healing for the next few months of in-game time. He was also literally emasculated. Unsurprisingly, for the rest of the campaign all the heroes tried very hard to avoid combat with anybody. There were precious few samurai duels and way, way more “stab him from behind in the dark” kinds of things. Which was fine, but not exactly what I had imagined in my mind.
Because of its realism, TRoS basically robbed all main characters of their plot armor – that mystical force that makes main characters invulnerable to everyone but the really scary bad guys. This is fine if what you’re going for is gritty realism, but very much not fine if you’re trying to tell tales of high adventure. The more realistic you get, the fewer superheroes prove to exist. Batman gets taken down by a Saturday Night Special in the waistband of a punk he thought he put down. Inigo Montoya is out of action after that first knife in the guts. Han and Luke never make it off the Death Star.
I see a lot of people constantly ragging on Imperial/First Order stormtroopers for “not being able to hit anything.” It’s a constant meme at this point, and it kinda annoys me. For one thing, with the singular exception of the Battle of Endor (which, yes, was totally stupid), stormtroopers are pretty damned good at shooting things. They kill pretty much every other unnamed force they are faced with, from Geonosis all the way to Maz Kanata’s Tavern. It’s just they can’t seem to get many hits in on anybody who’s got a name. Why? Plot armor, obviously – you know it, I know it, everybody knows it. So why complain? Do you actually want Stormtroopers to be able to gun down main characters regularly? Do you want them to constitute a real existential threat to our protagonists?
If the answer is “yes,” then you’re asking for Star Wars to tell a different type of story – one less about pulp novel heroics and more about grim, gritty “cost of war” kinds of stuff. Less John Wayne and more Oliver Stone, right?
If the answer is “no,” then consider what stormtroopers, for all their inability to hit anybody with a name, add to the story. They make it bright and loud and exciting. Even though we know the stormtroopers won’t kill our heroes, they might get injured (Leia!), might have their ride destroyed (Poe!), might have to be rescued at the last moment by a friend (Finn!), and so on and so forth. They are an important plot device, one that forces the heroes to run, to fight, to undertake heroics, and so on – it’s what we want out of the movie. Stop being so dismissive of their point and pretending they’re inept when they aren’t actually portrayed that way at all.
Now, I guess you could just use them more sparingly and set things up so the heroes are harder to hit or something. Or maybe we can watch our heroes be more stealthy. But, in the immortal words of the late Han Solo: “Bring em on! I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around!”
Which pretty much sums up exactly what the audience thinks, too.
Dear Mr. Bigtime LaMorte,
Thank you for your interest in Financial Operations and Underwriting Limited (FOUL) and our contract killer service. Take your time reviewing the material, but understand that, in order to guarantee confidentiality, the material in your possession is radioactive and will result in radiation poisoning and death unless returned to its lead-lined briefcase in three hours. The briefcase will then destroy the documents inside and the case is yours to keep as a token of our esteem.
While this is not an exhaustive dossier of all our operatives, it does give you a general overview of the kind of professionals we tend to employ.
El Cazador, Sniper
El Cazador is a good, mid-rate sniper available for reasonable fees. He is discreet, professional, and never misses his target. He is, however, a bit slow. He stalks his prey methodically over a period of weeks and then, when he decides on the perfect place to take them out, he will camp out for sometimes several months waiting for the right moment. Birds have been known to nest in his hair.
Thanks to his slow metabolism, El Cazador does not need to eat very much, which keeps his rates reasonable. He also never moves faster than a casual walk. Never. You should see him play Capture the Flag – he’s legitimately awful at it. Still, he is very reliable, assuming you’ve got the time.
Oh, and he takes his damned time cashing his checks, FYI.
Ke-blammer Sam, Mad Bomber
Sam is the best explosives man on our staff, even though none of us have actually met him. Well, to be more specific, everybody from FOUL sent to meet him gets blown up. He blows up cars, trains, airplanes, toilets, lunch boxes, cigars, spare change, and once managed to render a burrito a WMD. In short, he blows up everything, all the time. Accordingly, he has no problem blowing up anybody you want blown up. Assuming you don’t mind the distinct possibility he’ll blow you up, too. Our intelligence suggests he’s even blown himself up a few times, though how he’s survived this is anybody’s guess. We don’t imagine he’s entirely stable, you know?
But he is pretty darn cheap.
Master Doom is one of our staff of Mad Scientists. He doesn’t go by the name “doctor” because he never technically earned his PhD, though he did explosively dehydrate his thesis advisor which, in our world, is tantamount to earning the degree.
Master Doom specializes in the esoteric assassinations – poisonings, accelerated aging, getting somebody bitten by a genetically engineered cobra, liquification, swallowed by a giant frog, etc.. If you have an elaborate or intricate death planned for your enemies, this is the man to call.
One warning, of course: in order to avoid becoming victim to Master Doom’s more unusual experiments, please refrain from touching him, drinking anything he gives you, eating anything offered, making eye contact, brushing against his clothing, borrowing clothing from him, meeting with him at his lab, driving with him in a car, or engaging in any kind of physical or electronic correspondence. If you want him to do something, let us know, and we’ll send one of our interns down to give him the message.
You will be billed the cost of training another intern. This is built into Master Doom’s fees.
The Bullet Man
The last, and arguably most expensive, assassin on our rolls is The Bullet Man. A former US Marine, Navy SEAL, Green Beret, SPETZ NATZ, and French Foreign Legion Commando, the Bullet Man is an expert in every single weapon ever invented and is seemingly immune to all injuries. We have seen him gun down the entire armed forces of Honduras with a single machine gun and all he walked away with were a few scratches across his pectoral muscles that, somehow, only made him look tougher. There is not a stronghold on this planet that he cannot walk up to, grunt some kind of one-liner, and proceed to blow up with whatever weapons are available. Seriously – once he destroyed an American nuclear submarine with an antique musket and a rusty Roman gladius. He is easily the best of the best. However, if you want to hire him, you must sign a waiver stating you will not do any of the following:
- Steal his woman.
- Kidnap his daughter.
- Murder his partner (especially when his partner is nearing retirement – we can’t stress this enough).
- Laugh at him. At all.
- Kill his dog.
- Hire his rival (The Blaster Supreme) at the same time.
- Challenge him to a game of skill.
- Allow your goons to make eye contact.
- Lie to him in any way, shape, or form.
- Call his bluff.
- Try to force him out of retirement by blowing up his mountain cottage/seaside retreat/mom’s house.
Again, these assassins represent just a sampling of the vicious killers we are willing to contract to you for a modest finders fee. Please make your reservations quickly – 2016 is shaping up to be a very busy season for untimely deaths, and we are likely to develop a backlog. Also, your body isn’t getting any less irradiated – being decisive at this juncture will prevent all manner of health complications a few years down the line.
Good luck, and happy hunting!
Welcome, prospective Evil Henchman! We here at Financial Operations and Underwriting Limited (FOUL) have designed the following aptitude test to select the best possible candidates for our Henchmen Training Program. Please answer the questions to the best of your ability.
Please note: The large countdown clock at the front of the room will announce at periodic intervals how long you have before your exam will self-destruct in a flash of white phosphorus. The burns will be quite disfiguring (assuming you survive) so we encourage you to complete the test with some dispatch. Please understand that this is part of the test. Henchmen that cannot work well while a giant loudspeaker is counting down to their demise are not the kind of henchmen we train and not what our clients have come to expect.
#1) You hear a strange noise while patrolling the perimeter of your facility. Do you:
- Ask “who’s there?”
- Shrug and move on.
- Shoot indiscriminately into the bushes.
- Call for backup.
#2: Your current employer expresses a desire to destroy your home town with an orbital doomsday weapon. Thoughts?
- Oh no! I’ve got to call my mom!
- Surely there must be better targets! I will suggest them, because my boss is open to that kind of feedback.
- Finally all those suckers at Tuscaloosa High will get what’s coming to them!
- <Maniacal Laugher>
#3: Please describe the way you would scream if tossed off a cliff or shot off a balcony.
- Other (please explain in a short essay):
#4: One of your fellow henchmen draws the ire of the boss and is to be put into the Ultra-pneumatic Torture-tron. Do you:
- Let him make a break for it when nobody’s looking.
- Shoot him to spare him the anguish.
- Promise to tell his wife he loves her.
- Ask if you can have his watch.
#5: Does Might make Right?
- I don’t understand the question.
- No, Might can make you turn left, too.
- I want to punch the egghead who writes these questions.
- According to Rousseau, Might is a physical property, and thus there can be no moral quality attached to its effects.
#6: When using a gun, what is the best policy?
- Full automatic, spray left to right.
- Controlled bursts, carefully aimed.
- Fire mostly in the air while shouting.
- Single shots, aimed to make the coolest ricochet noise.
#7: If I tell you a tattoo of a burning eye on your forehead will make you invincible, do you:
- Ask if the needles are properly sterilized.
- Research my claims by consulting the internet.
- Worship me as a god.
- Inquire as to whether you will get to learn kung fu.
#8: Captain Courageous is pummeling three of your friends at once. Explain your next move:
- Jump on his back and pull that stupid hood over his eyes.
- Wait until your friends have had a chance and then attack him by yourself.
- Run away screaming for help.
- Shoot them all.
#9: What is more appealing: Actual military training or badass neon outfits with face masks?
- Facemasks. And laser guns.
- Military training; evil is serious business.
- Why can’t I wear my street clothes?
- Anything that shows off my pecs is cool.
#10: The boss decides to use your body as a human shield. Do you:
- Accept your fate as the inevitable reward for your life of evil.
- Struggle to save yourself, thereby knocking the boss into an acid vat/alligator pit.
- Beg for the hero not to kill you and show him or her pictures of your kids.
- Enjoy this sense of closeness and trust with your employer and look forward to deepening your relationship.
#11: Your prisoner claims to be sick. Describe your reaction.
- “Don’t worry! I know first-aid!”
- Call a doctor.
- Open up the cell, crack your knuckles, and resolve to teach them a lesson.
- Feign deafness.
If your hoverscooter is chasing Lady Lightning through the rainforest and another friendly hoverscooter is behind you, please explain how you would attempt to dodge vines and trees, shoot Lady Lightning, and keep from foiling your associate’s attempts to slip between those two trees that are really, really close. Please show your work. Drawings are encouraged.
What are the odds, expressed as a percentage, that you would go into a dark alley to get a look at the evidently mostly-naked and attractive woman hiding therein? Furthermore, what are the odds you will have your keycard on you at that time?
You ever notice that we tend to like the bad guys better than the good guys? I mean, let’s face it – Darth Vader is way cooler than Obi Wan or Luke. Luke only gets cool when he starts wearing black and force choking Gamorreans who piss him off.
Same goes for comic books. Who’s your favorite: Wolverine or Cyclops? Everybody picks Wolverine. Never mind that he’s irresponsible, violent, rude, and bloodthirsty – Cyclops looks smug. We can never forgive smug. Batman Vs Superman? Clearly the violent vigilante trumps the boy scout in blue. Every single time.
In The Oldest Trick, I’ve got a pretty bad guy as my main character. Calling Tyvian a “scoundrel” is putting it very mildly. He’s a petty, conceited, manipulative narcissist who thinks nothing of throwing other people to the wolves for the sake of his own comfort (comfort, mind you – not even his safety). You really ought to hate his guts.
And yet we don’t. From Frank Castle to Hannibal Lecter, from Dexter Morgan to Lucifer himself, we’re always willing to give the jerks, the creeps, the psychos and the villains the benefit of the doubt. Weird, isn’t it?
Here’s my thinking: Antiheroes (and I use the term loosely, as it can be defined in many ways – here I basically mean someone who is an amoral, immoral, or ‘dark’ protagonist) appeal to us in three major ways.
They Do What We Dare Not
Have you ever wanted to spill coffee on someone because they were being a jerk to the barista? Have you ever wanted to chew out your boss in front of everybody? Have you ever wanted to smash flat some jerk in a BMW who ran a red light and almost killed you? Well, guess what? The bad guy will do it for you.
In a world full of petty (and not so petty) frustrations, there is catharsis in those who simply break the rules to inflict what we see as justice on those we dislike. We refrain ourselves, of course – unlike the villainous personality, we are functional members of society – but we do so enjoy watching the wicked get a taste of their own medicine from those even worse than they are. Heck, this is the entire underlying theme of the Saw franchise, right? Those jerks deserve what they got on some level. We show up to watch them get it.
They Make Us Feel Like Better People
There is also a certain joy in realizing you are a better person and a better judge of character and situation than these otherwise exceptional people. For Example: Hoo, boy – are we ever glad we aren’t Walter White, right? Man, I mean, he’s pretty awesome and what-not, but he just keeps making decisions that’ll get him in deeper, doesn’t he? Were it me, I woulda walked away way, waaay earlier than that. I could do it. There has to be a way, right?
Shakespeare trades heavily on this notion in his tragedies. Iago and Othello keep digging themselves deeper and deeper and deeper and, oh man, you know what’s going to happen, right? That’s what makes it awesome. The good guy – the guy who keeps doing the right thing – he’s dull (or so we think). Captain America is never going to lie to his girlfriend. That makes us feel inferior. You know what the most common criticism levied against Superman is? He isn’t “identifiable.” This I take as code for “he wasn’t a fuck-up in high school.”
Sure Supes is identifiable. He grew up as a farmboy in middle America. It’s not his Kryptonian heritage you find alien. It’s the fact that he never set his dad’s car on fire while trying to re-enact a Jackass stunt. With Batman – brooding, obsessive, loner Batman – you never have that problem. You got it together compared to that nutjob.
The Hope for Redemption
This last one is a bit rarer, but it comes up a fair amount. We all love a good redemption story. We like to think that those crazy villains that we (secretly) admire can, one day, clean up all their bad habits and become good people like us. The whole of the existing Star Wars movies, for instance, is just one long story dealing with the fall and subsequent redemption of one Anakin Skywalker. We eat that up. Likewise, the journey of Tony Stark from playboy to superhero is the most compelling aspect of the MCU at the moment. His character’s personal journey is the one we love best.
See, as much as we enjoy the antics of those antiheros doing what we dare not, we also realize that their lives are not happy ones. Batman is a tortured, tragic soul in many ways. Wolverine is fundamentally alone. Conan the Barbarian lives an empty life. That sad music played at the end of every Incredible Hulk episode for a reason, guys. Being the antihero sucks. Even Lucifer has a rough time of it.
So we watch in the (sometimes) vain hope that they can pull themselves together. That, even in their tortured hearts, the darkness can be pushed back and good can prevail. Even if only for a moment, before they plunge back into shooting mob bosses and blowing up corrupt politician’s cars.
As you know, if you read this blog, I will be attending ITVFest in Dover, VT on September 24th-27th where I will be giving a talk about World Building in Fantasy and Science Fiction on Saturday, 9/26, at 11am. Go and check it out!
Also, The Oldest Trick will be coming out in Mass Market Paperback on September 29th! Pre-order your copies now!
Finally, watch my Goodreads page for the possibility of a giveaway of some The Oldest Trick e-book copies! I plan on doing it as soon as I figure out how!
As I’ve mentioned many times before, I spend much of my time watching Frozen. As of a few months ago, my five-year-old’s interest was finally waning, but now the 2-year-old has gotten into it and, well, let’s just say I might never stop watching Frozen. I wonder, honestly, if this is how my parents felt about Star Wars.
Anyway, since I watch the damned movie all the time, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing (over-analyzing, really) the world of Arrendale as portrayed in the film and, at the end, I have come to the following conclusion: The Duke of Weaseltown is not a villain. No, scratch that – the man is actually a courageous patriot and defender of his people and they should make goddamned statues to him, whereas the rest of those diplomats and heads of state are mealy-mouthed cowards who are selling their people’s well-being up the river in exchange for their own safety and comfort.
Now I know what you’re saying: That guy?! He’s an absurd, cowardly, underhanded weasel!
First of all, calling them “weasels” is racist, you Arrendalish bigot, you. Call them Wessels, please. Second of all, the Duke is the only guy in the whole damned movie who seems to understand what is actually going on in Arrendale with the advent of Elsa’s powers and he is the only person who acts to prevent what will, eventually, result in the complete reordering of their world for the worse as a result of Elsa’s sorcery.
I’ve written about this before, but just to reiterate: Have you considered just how terrifyingly powerful Elsa is? If you haven’t, think about it. This is a girl who is able to freeze a salt-water harbor by accident by merely touching it. That is an incredible amount of energy. The number of joules of energy needed to freeze a swimming pool volume of water is about 10.5 Gigajoules. How many swimming pools of water would it take to freeze an entire harbor to the thickness of ice we see in the movie? We are talking atomic bomb levels of power here – all without Elsa even exerting herself overmuch. Terrifying, terrifying, world-unbalancing stuff. For a country that clearly relies on trade as its primary means of prosperity, a super-power Arrendale could spell disaster for Weaseltown and Wessels. Something has to be done, and the Duke is the man to do it.
It is my considered opinion that the Duke’s entire purpose for attending the coronation is to assess the possible threat Elsa poses to his home and to the region in general. The whole “I’m a greedy goofball” act is just that – an act, designed to throw off suspicion from his true purpose and, given Weaseltown’s reputation, one that everybody buys without question. He uses it to get close to the queen, and the queen is his primary objective.
It is clear from the film that this kind of sorcery is not unknown – when the trolls ask Elsa’s father whether she was “born or cursed” with her powers, he immediately answers “born.” He doesn’t need to think about it because he knows. This power is passed down in the blood, clearly. It is rare, of course, but not so rare that the king and queen aren’t aware of it and know where it came from – not a curse, a bloodline.
So, when Weaseltown hears that the King and Queen of Arrendale have shut the gates and kept their eldest daughter in seclusion, the Duke gets suspicious. When the opportunity arises for him to be in the young queen’s presence, he leaps at the chance. It is telling that the Duke is the only guy to bring muscle to the festivities. These goons aren’t armed with swords or overt armaments (as a pair of soldiers might be), but are packing crossbows – assassins’ weapons – for the possibility that they will need to shoot Elsa dead.
Sure, it all sounds very dire and not-very-heroic, but consider what is at stake here. The world of Arrendale shows us a quiet, prosperous, and evidently quite peaceful region (none of the diplomats save the Duke come with bodyguards, remember). This would seem to mean that things are pretty well balanced – each nation has its place in the Big Dance, nobody is capable or inclined to conquer their neighbors, everybody is similarly wealthy and well-off. It is, from what we see, a little slice of utopia just south of the Arctic Circle.
Think of what Elsa being on the world stage does to that little picture. Arrendale becomes inviolate – nobody can invade, nobody can deny, nobody can do anything to Arrendale if Elsa doesn’t wish it. Elsa can, upon a whim, destroy any one of the surrounding kingdoms. No navy and no army could be marshaled against her and live. Basically, an Arrendale with Elsa places the rest of those peaceful, prosperous nations at Elsa’s feet with no prospect of rising again. That is bad for regional stability, bad for the liberty and self-determination of the surrounding nations, bad for trade, bad for everybody. Hell, it’s even bad for Arrendale – Elsa, who is not shown as taking criticism well, can and very well might just kill anyone or any group of someones who defies her.
So, the Duke does his damnedest to nip this in the bud – he stirs up mistrust for the sorceress, dispatches his assassins to kill her, is the first to criticize Prince Hans when he is pro-Elsa, and is the first to back up Prince Hans when he becomes anti-Elsa. He does all of this in the name of peace and regional stability. It may seem cruel, but it is realpolitik at its most basic. Sure, Elsa might seem (or even be) a nice person, but does her life outweigh the thousands of other lives she could ruin on a whim if she is allowed to become a head of state? You’re all pro-Elsa now, but how might your attitude change when her army of snow-monsters marches into downtown Weaseltown and starts slaughtering innocents? Or what about what happens when the Southern Isles pardon Prince Hans for his (stupid) plan and then *poof* – here comes the Snow Queen to lock them in winter until they decide to hang their little brother from the city gates by his thumbs.
The thing that really clinches the Duke’s status for me is at the end. Prince Hans on the frozen fjord, standing over a prone Queen Elsa, sword in hand. On the battlements of Arrendale Castle are all the foreign dignitaries, the Duke excepted, watching the drama unfold. They are too far away to hear what is said, so all they know is that Prince Hans is there to kill Queen Elsa like he is supposed to, as she was responsible for her sister’s death. Now, granted, it seems as though Anna is actually alive, but she is clearly freezing to death and, in actual fact, does become an ice-person. Hans seems to have lied from their perspective, but doesn’t seem to have lied that much. So, what happens when Hans is kept from doing the duty that all those guys agreed to? They cheer. Why? Because they have just switched sides to the side of the winner – the side of Elsa, their new Empress, whether they realize it or not.
Only the Duke has the integrity to stay just as anti-Elsa as he always was. He never applauds the new Queen. He never says he’s sorry for trying to have her killed. He says he was a victim of fear, sure, but that’s true. What he doesn’t add is that his fear is entirely justified and wise. What pleading he does at the end is to attempt to salvage a trade deal with Arrendale, which he does not secure. This, of course, is devastating news for the Duke, and not because he loves money, but rather because he loves peace. If the new superpower in the region won’t deal with Weaseltown, war is coming to Arrendale. A war they can’t win, know they can’t win, but will have to fight anyway. Thousands will die. Weaseltown will become a starving shadow of its former self.
If only the Duke had acted more quickly or, perhaps, even more ruthlessly, all of that could have been avoided. Alas.
You are defeated! How foolish of you to dare challenge me, the Dark Lord of Evil, in my quest for ultimate power! Now you understand as you grovel before my might.
Well, perhaps not grovel, per se, as you still look rather defiant, but nevertheless, you are certainly taken aback and perhaps temporarily cowed by my display of unholy power, yes? Certainly that.
Soon, however, true despair will grip you when you realize how your friends are now dead and your puny rebel armies crushed beneath the heels of my zombie ogre legions! Granted, the rebels are not, strictly speaking, crushed as yet. However, even the most conservative projections place my victory somewhere north of a 75% likelihood, and that is surely enough to allow me a bit of a head start on gloating, my timetable being what it is. I mean, if I waited, I might have to forego gloating at all, and what fun would that be?
All that being said, I have appreciated your capacity to resist my dark power for so long. Seriously, it’s been some good work by you and your team. Therefore, I offer you one last chance to spare your puny existence: join me! Together, we could rule the universe, side-by-side! Think of the power we could wield with our skills combined? All I ask is that you give up everything that currently makes you who you are and become the opposite thing.
Did I mention I’m offering a competitive benefits package? Quite generous of me, actually.
Fool! Now, there will be no saving you! Let me just place my Amulet of Power on this card table next to the Pit of Oblivion, and we’ll get right down to blasting you into dust.
First, however, I feel it is only fair for me to explain to you why I’m doing all this. I feel I’ve been pretty consistent in my message, and my zombie ogres have done a capital job of dispersing my talking points to the local kingdoms, but in case it has been unclear thus far, my opinion is pretty simple: I am a superior form of life and you and your vermin are constantly bothering me. So, it only seems natural for my to eradicate you all or bend you to my will. On the plus side, I offer humanity an eternity of stability and as much blood-sport as they can stomach to watch. All I ask in return, really, is that you idiots leave me alone in my Palace of Despair and do exclusively what I say.
And then, of course, there is that benefits package I mentioned. The donation-matching on all retirement plans I feel is pretty…
What? What do you think you’re doing? Trying to fight back? Even now, when all is lost? I mean, I blasted you pretty good back there – right in the face and all. Granted, rather than it reducing you to bones and dust like it does everybody else, it didn’t even quite manage to mar your rugged good looks (and, seriously now, who is your stylist? How can a man traipse through the woods for months and still have such lustrous locks?), but even without the whole dust-and-bones routine, you’ve got to be hurting. Anyway, how about a taste of this!
Yes! Now you feel your irrelevance! These beams of doom, even weaker than that last one that didn’t even scratch up your nose overmuch, will now kill you slowly, so slowly that I might relish your screams from now until eternity. This is quite fun, I must say. I dare say it’s enough to make me belly laugh. Generally I wouldn’t find this so much comical as downright inefficient, but just at this moment I really feel a good, long guffaw coming on….
What? A puny rock? What do you think a puny rock will do against my immortal power?
Oh…you threw it at the card table. Well…shame on me then.
Possible Game of Thrones spoilers ahead. Be ye forewarned!
I’ve been watching Game of Thrones recently. I’m significantly behind, but never fear – I read the books years ago, and I know everything that happens. More than many of you, probably. It has, however, been a while since I’ve read the first three books. I just finished watching the second season, which puts me somewhere in Book 2 (though where book two ended and book three began is unclear to me, since I read them back-to-back). One of the things I’m remembering as I watch is just how many awful people there are in Westeros – Cercei, Tywin, Joffrey, the Boltons, the Freys, the Greyjoys, the Mountain, and on and on. So very often, the end of each episode leaves me feeling sad or depressed. So very rarely do the bad guys get what’s coming to them.
This is, essentially, what we want, right? We want the bad guys to get what’s coming to them. Oh, sure, we’ll wait for it. We’ll wait for a long damned time. Hell, I read all five books waiting for it, always hoping and praying that the payoff, when it comes, will be oh so sweet. I want Arya to shiv Cercei. I want Sansa to push Littlefinger out the Moon Door. I want Danerys to cross the goddamned Narrow Sea and bathe Westeros in cleansing fire.
Do I get any of these things?
Well, put simply, no, I do not. In fact, I’m beginning to lose faith that I will. Oh, sure, bad things happen to the bad guys sometimes. Joffrey’s death was especially satisfying, truly, but for every bad guy that gets his, there’s a dozen good guys who unjustly meet their end. If I’m honest, I’m getting a little tired of it.
There’s something very Anglo-Saxon going on in Game of Thrones. Those old barbarians – the guys who brought us Beowulf – were all about death and loss. Beowulf itself is basically a love-story to the idea of death. They knew we all had it coming to us, so for them what was important was how you faced it. Everything good in your life – all you had built, all you had done – was just one asshole with a sword away from being ruined. It happened all the time, and the Anglo Saxon skops wouldn’t let you forget it. See this passage from Beowulf:
…and soon it stood there, /finished and ready, in full view, / the hall of halls. Heorot was the name /[Hrothgar] had settled on it, whose utterance was law. / Nor did he renege, but doled out rings / and torques at the table. The hall towered, / its gables wide and high and awaiting/ a barbarous burning. That doom abided, / but in time it would come…
Lines 76-84, Heaney translation
You can’t even get one line past the description of the beauty of Hrothgar’s hall before we are told how it all was going to burn down. Dark stuff, guys. You can’t have nice things, because the world is full of awful people. All you can do is learn to roll with the punches and find a way to survive, just like Sansa has.
For me, this frustrates me. I’m reading fantasy fiction, and so I want my cathartic victory to come along. I want somebody to ride in and kick some ass in the name of decency, if not righteousness. Maybe this is overly simplistic of me, and I by no means am taking away from the emotional power of Martin’s story – he knows how to kick a reader in the guts better than anybody I’ve ever read. It’s just that sometimes, as much as the pain and the pathos is fun, I also want to get up and cheer. I don’t do that enough in Westeros, and I’m beginning to wonder if I ever will.
In the end, if the villains get away with it for long enough, the audience at some point will become inured to their faults and crimes. They will become not monsters, but the norm. We will stop caring about the arrival of justice or even vengeance. This is what happened to me by the end of A Dance With Dragons – acceptance of the world Martin has created, in all its warty glory. I don’t expect much out of it; I won’t get attached. He’s lost me. There’s only so many times you can be abused before you move on, right?