When I was recently given the opportunity by the lovely folks at Orbit to suggest a guest post topic for the awesome MR Carey, I had to think about it a little bit. I loved The Girl With All the Gifts, and thought about some of the things that really got me thinking about the book, and kept me thinking about the book after finishing it. That said, I found the “villain” of the book, Dr. Caldwell, to be more than just black and white, and her motivations really intrigued me. So with that in mind, I asked if MR Carey would be willing to talk about complicated villains, Caldwell in particular, and in response, he gave me the below bit of awesome.
Enjoy, and be sure to enter to win a copy of THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS while you’re at it (You know the drill-fill out the Rafflecopter, and I’ll pick a winner on July 3rd/US/Canada.)
Sympathy for the Devil by MR Carey
I can remember as a kid reading the origin story of Captain America. It wasn’t the very first telling of that story by Simon and Kirby in 1941 (a year when I wasn’t) but one of many reprints and retellings of that story in later years. And at the point where the Nazi spy breaks out of the crowd and shoots Dr. Reinstein, the creator of the super-soldier serum that brought Captain America into being, I read this piece of timeless dialogue. Spoken by the spy: “Down with democracy! Down with freedom!”
As a kid I accepted that for what it was – very effective shorthand, telling me that this character was a bad guy and it was safe to applaud a few panels further on when Cap handed him his lower jaw.
Then later I started to write stories on my own account, and I came to hold that memory in my head as a sort of mental inoculation against writing two-dimensional villains whose laugh started with the syllable “bwa”. I told myself I was way too sophisticated to need or want that kind of shorthand. That my characters would be nuanced and rounded. Good or bad, they would be people.
(Okay, even later than that I read the diaries of Josef Goebbels – back when Goebbels had a walk-on part in The Unwritten – and discovered to my shock that Nazi intellectuals really were very open in saying that democracy and freedom were bad things. Nazi philosophy was part of the late flowering of German Romanticism: Goebbels yearned for a strong leader, a hero whose will would subsume his own and everyone else’s, making democracy irrelevant, and he felt that this was the best model for government. Hmm. Sounds cool. Wonder how that worked out for him…)
But anyway. Villains. How do you write them so they make sense?
Someone asked me this – or something like it – the other day in the course of a Q&A session. The question, as I remember it, was: is it easier to write sympathetic characters or bad guys? Despite having had this discussion a lot of times, in the heat of the moment I gave a really incomplete and misleading answer. I think it was partly because of the form of words that my questioner used, but also because I didn’t think it through before I spoke.
What I said was: generally it’s easier to write your protagonist, your hero, your point of view character than it is to write the people on the other side of the moral equation – the people whose role in the story is to stand against the protagonist and so provide the conflict that moves the story forward.
But I realised almost as soon as I came away that evening that there was a trap– not an intentional one, obviously – built into the question and that I’d fallen into it without even looking. The phrase “sympathetic characters or villains” is a false dichotomy. There’s no reason why a character can’t be both. And as for “point of view character”, well, apart from the Castor novels, which are written in the first person with Castor himself as narrative voice, I’ve always tended to try to show the point of view of pretty much everybody who mattered, wherever they stood in terms of their personal morality or their role in the story.
I think you more or less have to sympathise, as a storyteller, with every character you create. I don’t mean that you have to love them or cheer them on or take their goals onboard – I just mean that you have to write them from the inside and be capable of finding the point of view from which they’re not villains.
At the risk of stating the obvious, everyone is the hero in their own interior narrative. You can bet that Josef Goebbels didn’t wake up in the morning thinking “Time to give the good guys another kicking, ho ho ho” (sorry, “bwahaha” – only good people laugh with a “hohoho”). What he thought was “Germany’s gonna be great again and National Socialism is going to spread over the whole world and everybody will be blond or dead and hurray for us!”
Okay, it probably is still an easier task to find the emotional and motivational core of a well meaning and amiable man or woman or child than it is to do the same thing for a humourless fanatic with a genius-level intellect, a psychopath’s lack of normal affect and an unhealthy jackboot fetish. But if I was going to write Goebbels as a character in a prose novel (in The Unwritten it’s the dead Josef Goebbels who Tom Taylor meets and it’s sort of a different deal) I’d want to explore the tragic, insane flaw in reasoning and empathy that led him to poison his own kids rather than allow them to grow up in a world where Hitler had been defeated.
Your initial urge is to recoil from that horrific moment and look away – but looking away is prohibited by the writer’s equivalent of the Hippocratic oath. So the scene where Josef and Magda Goebbels put their kids to bed for the last time, sedate them with morphine and then push crushed cyanide capsules into their mouths would be one of the centrepieces of that story. It would have to be. And you’d have to try to show what was going on in Josef’s mind as he did that – how a father who trailed his children around behind him like show dogs and beamed with pride when anyone complimented them could get to that point.
But let me give you a real example rather than a hypothetical one. In The Girl With All the Gifts, my latest novel, the protagonist is a ten-year-old girl, Melanie, who carries a terrifyingly dangerous infection – lethal and worse than lethal. Some of the adult characters she meets are able to get past this fact and still see Melanie as a human being. But one of them, Caroline Caldwell, never manages to do this.
Caldwell is the scientist who is looking for a cure for the Hungry pathogen, the disease that Melanie carries. And for Caldwell, Melanie is not a child, she’s just a vector for the disease. She is the infection. Consequently, Caldwell feels entirely justified in dissecting Melanie and any of the other infected kids in her cohort in order to examine their nervous systems and see if there’s a clue there to the onset of the disease and a possible cure.
In a lot of very real ways, Caldwell is the most extreme evil character I’ve ever written. It’s hard to imagine anything more monstrous and unforgivable than killing children. But Caldwell is doing this to save the human race, most of which has been destroyed by the pathogen. If she doesn’t find a cure, probably her own generation will be humanity’s last strangled gasp – the end of the world, as we know and inhabit it.
Caldwell believes that this noble goal exonerates her for everything she does in the book, but it goes further than that. She’s also driven by a desperate insecurity and a desperate intellectual pride. She really wants to be the one to solve this riddle. Saving humanity isn’t just an abstract crusade, it’s a personal vindication and a form of immortality that she’s dreamed of her whole life.
So she’s a mess, and she’s a monster – or the closest thing the story has to a monster – but she made sense to me as I was writing her and I could align myself with her position when she spoke. There’s a scene that I put into the book quite late on where she gets to defend herself against the much more sympathetic and relatable Helen Justineau, who loves Melanie and despises Caldwell:
For a long moment, they’re face-to-face, almost squaring off against each other. It looks like Caldwell might go for it, damaged hands or not, but she doesn’t. it’s probably just as well. She looks bad enough right now that a stiff wind would knock her down, never mind a stiff punch in the head.
“You should examine the pleasure you take in intimidating me,” Caldwell says.
“No, that might spoil it.”
“You should ask yourself,” Caldwell persists, “why you’re so keen on thinking of me as the enemy. If I make a vaccine, it might cure people like Melanie… It would certainly prevent thousands on thousands of other children from ending up the way she has. Which weighs the most, Helen? Which will do the most good, in the end? Your compassion or my commitment to my work? Or could it be that you shout at me and disrespect me to stop yourself from having to ask questions like that?”
I’m on Justineau’s side in that exchange, but the important thing is that Caldwell does have a side. She has a world view in which she’s the protagonist and the centre of everything and the story that matters is the story of her great quest.
She also has a moment when – face to face with Melanie, the child she was going to cut to pieces in the interests of science – she is intellectually humbled and has to accept that she’s missed an obvious truth. That scene only works if you’re prepared to feel just the tiniest bit of empathy with Caldwell, so the beat is a tragic one rather than just an ironic one.
I think that’s the challenge you face when you write a character who could reasonably qualify as a villain. You have to know where they’re coming from, and you have to write from that vector when you’re with them. Easy or hard isn’t the issue.
The issue is bwahaha versus hohoho. “Down with democracy” versus “kids, here’s your medicine”. Outside versus inside.
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