I was doing a bit of research (OK, I was goofing off) following the bread crumbs wherever they took me. I started looking at events in 1941 and wound up reading a review of Saving Private Ryan written by a former soldier of the Waffen SS, those guys in black with the Death's Head on their caps. The guys who ran the camps. Yeah, those guys. Real nice. This old soldier's movie review is written as an open letter to Steven Spielberg and I'm doing fine with it until I hit this:

"...almost all the German soldiers seen in "Private Ryan" had their heads
shaved ... something totally in conflict with reality. Perhaps you were
confusing, in your mind, German soldiers with Russians of the time.

Or else, your Jewishness came to the fore, and you wanted to draw
a direct line back from today's skinheads to the Waffen-SS and other German
soldiers of the Third Reich."

The rest of the review is more anti-Jewish spew, inadvertently revealing more about the man than the movie and reinforcing all those negative things we thought about Nazis.

And that got me thinking about writing bad characters, the kind of person who would spend all day counting shoes at Auschwitz and then go home feeling like she'd done a good day's work, blind to their role in the evil that surrounds them.

If we're to write these people honestly, we have to climb inside their skin and walk around a bit. We have to know how they were bent as children in order to grow up so twisted as adults. When they say things that we find unacceptable, and there were plenty of things people said in 1941 that we would find grossly inappropriate today, we have to understand the context, right or wrong, because no one except Richard III has ever set out to be a villain. They rationalize. They accept the unacceptable. They twist things around in their heads so that they're right and everyone else is wrong. They're human.

See where following bread crumbs can lead you?

I'm curious how you write villains, if you'd like to comment. But it's Monday, so there's no pressure.

(Originally posted at A Dark Planet)

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You have to look within yourself a bit, I think. In order to write an effective villain, he/she needs to be human, as you said. Cardboard cut-out characters aren't very realisitc, or very disturbing, as you may want them to be. We've all had our less-than-perfect moments, but you really have to be able to examine yourself and your actions when those moments occur. OK, not all of us go around slipping a knife into someone's throat and then watch them die (or am I the only one?), but we've all hurt someone at some point. The trick is to take whatever motivation and whatever feelings you had and magnify it.

Writers can be grumpy pricks from time to time, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that we face the darker side of humanity on a daily basis, while most people try to avoid certain truths.
I think the key is to realize that the unacceptable to us is not the unacceptable to them. When I write villains I stop thinking of them as villains and/or using my set of ethics, morals and ideas on them. They do not think in terms of 'This is really wrong, and I have to rationalize that I am doing the right thing', they think in terms of 'this is what I do'.

The example you used of the concentration camp worker - she does not think about evil, she does not think about her work being wrong by a higher moral standard since her standard is right there. She is working in a set of morals given to her, she has permission to do as she does, command partly to do as she does. That is, possibly, why the example isn't too illustrative of a classic crime fiction villain since it involves the society the person is in at large, and a regular kind of murderer is rarely motivated by something like that.

I think of the villain as human with a certain set of needs and motivations and ideas in his mind that cause him to act as he acts. I rather refuse to think of them as twisted and bent, to be honest. Their logic might be irrational to an outsider, but it is rarely irrational and twisted to themselves or their group of people.
You know this is interesting, because I'm currently outlining a project, and have
been trying to pinpoint the emotional arc I want to follow. I think in mysteries
we have three basic choices: The Villain's, the sleuth's, or the victim's. To
degrees all three get in the story, but one will carry the main plot. It will be that
breaded trail the sleuth uses to answer that Why question the villain or maybe
even the victim put into play. Any one of the three could carry a plot, and for a
recurring sleuth there might be a subplot running through the series with it's own
emotional arc. ... So for me, in answering your question, Villains are one source for
that emotional edge in a story. And I agree with Steve that taking the emotional
content of our personal lives and "blowing it up" is an excellent way to touch base with
those darker motivations. ... Hmmm? Maybe a reverse NLP method would help--
though I seriously can't recommend anyone attempt it.
i often end up liking my villain too much. his actions have to be justified in his own mind, and that makes him not seem as bad. but if i pull back and keep my distance there's the danger of creating almost a parody.
and look at the terminator movies and movies like blade runner where the villain/robot is programmed to kill. scary as hell. at the same time, i think we're always looking for the humanity underneath.
These guys have already made good points - here's another way to spin it. Just imagine you're a guard working at a place where pedophiles are locked up. Think of how you'd view them, how you'd look on them as the lowest form of trash on the planet...

Then you just translate that to the guard as Dachau or wherever. Because how we see whatever it is we loathe - pedophiles being an obvious example - is probably comparable to how they viewed Jews.

Of course, with WWII one of the things people forget is that Hitler came to power in the early 30s and didn't start a war overnight - he had time to condition the thinking of people. When I was at Dachau I watched the film there, about this history, and you begin to realize it's a lot more complex than it seems from the outset. One of the things the Brits realized was that if the German youth weren't "reprogrammed" the same things would happen again, so exchanges were arranged bringing German youth to Britain to give them different exposure. Hitler was a master manipulator, and an expert at brainwashing tactics, really.
Let's not forget that the same thing could and can and is happening elsewhere in the world. Similar techniques are employed, similar things happen on a slightly smaller (? Africa, anyone) scale.

But then - I am German and possibly biased on that part of history (and I have no inclination to start a big discussion on the guilt, the evil or the shame of Nazi and PostNazi Germany here since it is not the place)
I agree this isn't really the place Nick, and I certainly meant no offense - rather, the opposite: To point out that it isn't as simple as people often make it. A great number of German people were deceived and felt horrid shame - people who lump the entire nation together and paint them as evil don't understand.

I was living in Germany when the wall came down.

And you're absolutely right - this is happening all over the place. I mentioned Germany because that was the example from David's post.
Sandra, thank you for what you posted above. One of the most intriguing books I read last year was Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans Massaquoi. His experiences as a young boy, teenager, and young man in Hamburg through Hitler's reign in Germany showed me just how what you say above was accomplished.

Like Nick says, this isn't the place for such a discussion, but I did want to mention this fascinating book. The cover shows Massaquoi--whose mother was German, his father a Nigerian diplomat--at age 8, standing in line with his chums, proudly wearing his swastika. There was nothing bent or twisted about this boy, or the man he grew up to be. He survived, and did what he had to do to survive, as so many others had to.
Thanks for the recommendation Carolyn - I'll look for that book. FWIW I grew up in a small, dominantly 'white' town and heard no end of racist commentary. I still remember my parents having a debate about whether or not to let me play with a Japanese boy who lived down the street. The town I grew up in was one of the ones that had a Japanese "internment" camp in it during WWII. We judge others and fail to take a good, hard look at ourselves and what we can allow fear to prompt us to do.
I think of writing characters as a kind of method acting. If we want to get into the skin of the people who populate our books, we have no choice but to try to understand them.

The best villains are those who don't believe they're villains. Who believe they're justified in what they do. I think all of us can indentifiy with that to some degree and the combination of that, along with our imagination, will go a long way toward creating such characters.
I've often thought that my years as an actor helped my writing. One, because memorizing lines written by Mamet, Stoppard and Pinter can't help but improve your dialogue and two, because it gives you the ability to get into that other person's skin. I know I'm not alone in this, but there are times when I'm writing a particularly sad scene, I'll be beating away at the keyboard with tears streaming down my face.

It's days like that when it pays to have an understanding spouse.


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