Sunday, September 09, 2012

Beliefs Empowering Evil

Just wrapped up an on-line writer's course.

Near the end, I got a question:

 "...what is your opinion of Ben Bova’s recommendation to authors that their works not contain villains? He states, in his Tips for writers: "In the real world there are no villains. No one actually sets out to do evil. Fiction mirrors life. Or, more accurately, fiction serves as a lens to focus what we know of life and bring its realities into sharper, clearer understanding for us. There are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds. There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them."

My first reaction was frankly emotional:

Sorry.  I had a guy in custody who cut open a two-year-old baby's belly with a tin can lid and raped the wound.  Mr. Bova is talking about his world, not mine.

I don't mind emotion sometimes, but it's not that useful.  So:

think I was unfair in my first answer to this question.  Let me try it another way. No one believes that they are evil.  Not Stalin, not Hitler, not Pol Pot, and not some bastard who rapes babies.  Every last one of them has a justification.  My emotional reaction to Bova's
statement was this-- just because some  rapist justifies his actions to himself, that in no way causes me, and shouldn't cause anybody, to buy into his bullshit.  Justifications are not real and the story you tell yourself doesn't make actions good and when people pretend that raping a baby is... "only people with problems, struggling to solve them" they have no idea how encouraging and useful rapists find those words. It does far more to encourage crime than the author can possibly know.

So, let's take an example and, given the audience, the example is writing fiction.  I assume that you do it because you love it, that it makes you feel alive.  It may be the most important thing in your life.

What if 99.9% of the world decided it was wrong?  No-- it was evilYou are, after all, lying.  Telling and selling lies that doom impressionable young readers into believing that there are really heroes and true love and soulmates!  You need to be stopped!

Would you give up writing?

That is how some of the process predators (the ones who commit the crime for the pleasure of committing-- serial killers, serial rapists, conmen, certain assaulters) see their crimes.  The best thing in the world and the benighted, ignorant masses in pure prejudice are trying to put a stop to it.

Others just don't care or grasp that other people have rights or feelings.  One rapist/murderer told me that as a man, I should understand.  He always asked first and he only raped the ones who said 'no.'  Where did they get the idea that a mere woman had the right to say no to him?

A pedophile who didn't understand the difference between his shoes and his daughter.  He could do what he wanted.  That's what 'his' _means_. He thought we (society, the courts...) were completely unjust not to understand that.

There was a high-profile disappearance a while back.  Not sure how much I can share, but her father had been molesting her for a long time.  When the neighbor asked for a turn, daddy said, "I don't share my meat."  Exact quote.  So the neighbor later abducted, raped and murdered her.

One of the most violent felons I dealt with told me, "I just do what everybody wants to do. The rest of you just don't have the guts." The highest-end predators honestly think that they are better, stronger and smarter than the rest of the world.  And they prove it to themselves by doing things others won't do.  It's fallen into disfavor, thankfully, but remember the push to increase children's self-esteem a few years ago?  The highest self-esteem scores are consistently found in violent criminals and if you raise that esteem, you raise the violence.

In each case, these guys will have a story where they are either the good guys or the victims.  All respect to Mr. Bova, it's just a story and it's bullshit and it empowers them when we buy into the myth.


Kai Jones said...

This is the kind of thing that makes me understand the specific definition of "privilege" used by feminism and other movements.

David Kafri said...

I understand Bova's suggestion a bit differently (and maybe this is not what he meant): if you write a character, write her/im as she/he think of themselves, not as "The Villain" or "the Hero". If you write about a child molester, go as deep as you can into this person's mind and make the reader UNDERSTAND how that person feels and thinks and acts. That would make the character much more believable.

And scary.

On a totally different note, Rory, still thinking of your seminar in Israel and how to relate what you taught to the Israeli street. Allot to think about, and waiting for your next time around.



Miriam said...

Maybe what he means is that these people are just "sick" ? The question is if really "sick" people can be considered guitly and responsible.
Of course society has the right to protect itself from these people but not sure we can judge and punish them for being sick.

if said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nomad said...

It's ok. Tell us what you really think ;)

Anonymous said...

I don't think that human predators are 'sick', because I believe they can't be cured. It's not really a disease. You can't 'cure' a lion. He will always crave and eat meat. I do agree that they shouldn't be punished (would you punish a lion for eating a gazelle?), but they must be stopped from preying on people. And hell yes, we can judge them, in the old sense of the word. We can measure how dangerous they are, and decide that what they're doing is wrong and must be stopped.

Because most people aren't predators, and have compassion, and have decided (thank goodness) that everyone has feelings and rights, we don't usually kill human predators as we might man-eating lions that make off with our family members. But there does come a point where you have to wonder how many lions are we going to keep in prison for the rest of their lives ... and to what purpose? Unfortunately there are no easy answers to this one.


Steve Perry said...

161 yetsblBack in the dawn of time, I submitted a story to Bova, when he was editing Analog. The villain was a Catholic priest, and in the days when such men were way more trusted than they are now.

He came unglued rejecting it. Big taboo.

I'm with you -- evil exists. I think the advice was for writers not to take the easy way, the stereotype, when offering up a bad guy. Easy to create mustache-twirlers, harder to show somebody who really IS evil, but doesn't think of himself as such.

You don't have to make such a character sympathetic, but if you can get a reader to understand why he does what he does -- Yeah, I guess I can see why he got bent that way -- then the portrait is richer.

Doesn't mean you excuse what the guy does. And it might be that the only reason the reader stays there is to see him get his in the end, but one of the cardinal sins in writing is boring your reader to the point s/he puts the book down.

If you are going to write fiction, you have to have more truth in it than you'd think.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Mr. Bova was saying that any kind of crime is acceptable just because someone thinks that what they are doing is right, I think that is more like he wants you to write a more believable villain.

Don't just write "Jhon the child-eater likes to kill children because he is evilll!", instead try to enter inside the character head, show the readers how he justifies his actions to himself, sometimes making the reader see the dark side of human nature can be much more scary instead of saying "he is evil because the writer says so".

Readers of fantasy are tired of bad written villains, they want a villain that they can love to hate, a believable villain.

Of course, I may be wrong here, but I am been trying so very long to create "good" villains that when I see this kind of advice, I only see "Write a believable villain for the love of god, otherwise the reader will get bored, and when the reader gets bored bad things happens".

Sorry for the bad English.

On another thing, Will you write another book about violence for writers? Loved the first, good stuff.

Justthisguy said...

Yup. Have a look at

Those guys can be right scary. I will say, that one of them posted an excellent recipe for Red Velvet Cake.

What was funny was seeing the back-and-forth between the sociopathic owner of the blog and an Aspie (just the opposite) in the comments to a post there.

I think they agreed that if there were a sure-fire way to guarantee trust between socios and aspies, an alliance of such could conquer the world.

Ain't never gonna happen, of course.3

Amb said...

I'm pretty sure the writing teacher you mentioned had never met a guy who raped babies. Sampling bias, if you want to call it that. His 'write villains as people who are trying to solve their problems' kinda applies, even to that, but it's hardly the sort of violence that comes up in most fiction.

Your hypothetical question, though 'what would you do if the thing you loved most was generally considered vile and loathsome?' is a good one. Some people give up what they love because the group despises it. Some don't. And most people who are never faced with that decision probably can't imagine what it's like. They'll pick the answer that lets them continue to feel like a good person, and never give it a second thought.

But in the corners of the internet that I frequent, the idea that you can't give bad people reasonable justifications, because you're encouraging them, is everywhere. And I'd really like you to explain why you believe this in more depth, because it doesn't make much sense to me. And until now, I'd only seen it coming from people who have an irrational, knee-jerk horror of violence.

As I see it, anyone who breaks society's hard taboos isn't letting the fact that 99% of the population hate them for existing* stop them. They could be legally executed or incarcerated for life, and that doesn't stop them. They're running tremendous risks, none of which are ameliorated if some writer fails to shake their literary fist at them.

But everyone shies away from being that writer - the one who's writing their bad people as whole human beings, with reasons for what they're doing. Their reasons can be deeply flawed. That's realistic. But making monsters that no one can understand, I think, just makes normal people less likely to recognize danger signs, because they're expecting a caricature of a murderer or a rapist, and in real life those are in relatively short supply. And it makes life more difficult than it needs to be for everyone who's been victimized, because they can (generally?) see that the one doing it was a person. And that's not what our culture's stories prepare us for.

*I'm not talking discomfort and ostracism here. I'm talking about the fact that some very violent people consider murdering pedophiles and ilk a public service.

Rory said...

Amb- Part of your question is a long talk over coffee. Not sure where you live that breaking the hard taboos means execution or life imprisonment. Certainly not in the Industrialized West. It's gotten a little more honest, burt remember that until very recently (and I just don't have the numbers for recently, it may be better or worse) "Life without the possibility of parole" averaged out to a little under 20 years. A tiny fraction of the people sentenced to death are ever executed... and that's in the US which has far harsher punishments than most of Europe.
To the core of your question-- violent criminals are extremely and universally (not universally skilled, mind you) extremely manipulative. When you give them justifications, they don't believe in them. The criminals have reasons (raping children feels good and is easier to get away with) they don't need justifications (genetic theories or etiologies of pathology or...) But they know most people can't handle that the reasons are so simple and they know they can use our beliefs in justifications to manipulate us and mitigate their responsibility.
Almost every sentence their is an hour's worth of conversation about sources and experience, but that is the basics. The justifications do not explain the behavior, they are used only as enabling tools to mitigate consequences. And the criminals do so consciously and deliberately.