The Substrate of the Purely Villainous

Any true aficionado of the villainous–of antagonists in film, literature, interactive media–knows that the truly diabolical are not those with mundane or even sympathetic aims. They are those whose reprehensibility is alien to us, unnerving in their capacity for estrangement from the normal motivations which occupy our species. We, as consummate consumers, eventually tire of plot after plot instigated by the villain’s lust for power, vengeance, wealth or just plain lust. What retains the ability to frighten is rather what we cannot understand save as an abstraction, something so insidious that its mere existence is an affront to our conception of reality.

Indeed, only these antagonistic forces evoke the sort of mortal terror that not only puts the protagonist’s goal at hazard, but also their soul. Doubly so if the metaphysics of a soul are not implied by the narrative, for then these villains alone transmogrify physical danger into the metaphysical. They embody forces of nature more than they inhabit real people or mortal coils. If anything, their mortal coil indicates that something is very off about them. Their appearance is of one who has a too perfect understanding of how to clothe oneself in the trappings of everyday humanity. An idea of clothing not as an expression of the self, but a shell to inhabit for the simple fact that one must inhabit a shell in order to inhabit the world. One cannot go nude. If one goes nude, one is a monster. Horrid and bare to the world. These villains we are concerning ourselves with are not monsters, or at least not by conventional definition, but something else. What they are is perhaps best drawn from what they represent: Quandaries and Intrusions.

Each one of these characters holds in common that they are just human enough to evince some ephemeral link to a rational world. But they are closer to aliens playing dress-up than they are to real people you might meet out in the world. However, neither are they sociopaths or chameleons. Again, their purpose is to cast doubt on their human nature while also maintaining a distorted approximation of it. The element of their horror is drawn from that fact, that they are tangentially related to normal everyday life while at the same time occupying the underworld, in some ways the True World, that is its substrate. It is this heraldry from another domain that unnerves us, a domain in which the mundane concerns are transmuted into their most absolute incarnations. This is what makes them Quandaries, this transmutative property, and that they pose such a question to the nature of human existence itself. Put simply: They offer the most horrible decision point for the human question. Put simpler: they are the rock amid the river of human experience.

For instance, and perhaps most notoriously, No Country For Old Men is defined by primary antagonist Anton Chigurh’s fatal obsession with the outcome of a coin toss. He is the personification of inevitability, of misfortune and, in some ways, death itself. But his relation to normal things, such as the character Carson Welles, and the comparatively normal world of bounty hunting moors him to our real world and so exemplifies his difference from it, transmutes him into something almost inhuman. We are left with the dual sense that he is certainly human, but so perverted as to become something like a force of nature. His insistence on the chance of a coin toss brings this to the fore by offering the grounds for a seemingly peaceable encounter that gradually becomes understood as representing the incipient obliteration of the self if not navigated correctly. All the while the Quandary is expressing horrifying calm and certitude. It is disconcerting to say the least.

Perhaps no other character in creative media inhabits this concept more than The Cowboy in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. We are not even given a name or the slimmest backstory to this advent in the film. But he is strictly human. His appearance is strange, but readily understood. His manner is strange; but surely there are strange enough people in the world, not least in Hollywood? What really grounds him is his relationship to the story at large, his insistence that one particular girl be cast in the film (and not Naomi Watts) that lies at the center of the plot. A seemingly mundane concern that in any other movie would be given enough exposition to justify his connection to it. But not so here. In fact, it is this absence, this only tangential connection that transmogrifies his conversation with the fictional film’s director into something more than a binary choice over the casting of a lead actor. Before they even reach this demand, it is heavily implied that if Justin Theroux’s character doesn’t wisen up, something very bad will happen. Something that goes beyond the ordinary, something on the order of the total obliteration of the soul.

Indeed, the entirety of Mulholland Drive is this way. It showcases the intrusion of the unreal into the mundane, which is perhaps Lynch’s finest quality as a filmmaker. Those in the know will also be aware of the infamous diner scene. However, I don’t consider that representative of a Quandary, but an Intrusion. Much like the Mystery Man in Lynch’s Lost Highway, this scene does not represent some sense of absolute moral judgement, but rather the absolute meaningless of the mundane world in the face of an otherworldly and almost Platonic truth. Twin Peaks famously embodies this quality, with the Black Lodge being literally cast as intruders into the normal world and order of things, albeit brought about by human error. And unlike Quandaries, which force us to confront the ineluctable and the inevitable, Intrusions remind us that there is a world both within and outside our own that renders our struggles and connivances and frustrations as the petty flailing of moths about a flame.

Together these characters personify two concepts that are present in nearly everyone’s day-to-day life: the fear of death and its moral judgement or accounting for one’s deeds; and the knowledge that there is a secret world which permeates or exists outside our daily lives. The one is responsible for bringing to the fore all that which haunts us and forces us to reckon with it, hence the Quandary they represent. The other is responsible for the things we would rather not think about or contemplate, the scope of which would perhaps drive us mad, hence their Intrusion into our world. That they act as avatars for very existential threats and fears that are recurrent throughout our lives elevates these villains into something timeless and pure, empowers them to reach deeper into our psyche than any common creature or killer. True fear cannot exist without true evil, and true evil is only invoked by that which we cannot understand–only recognize as dim constructs of our own souls.

Where Is Everybody?

Ok. State of the Union here. 1 book published, 1 book in the can, 2 nearing completion (I hope). A lot of revision to be done. And where am I? Not very far, but then I didn’t expect to be much farther. I *hoped* I would be much farther, but didn’t expect it. In fact, I expected exactly what I’ve got.

What I did not expect was how cloistered the author community is on social media. Authors buying each other’s books, lifting each other up, and soliciting each other’s support. Which is good. Or would be good, if it wasn’t for the fact that it wasn’t just to other authors. Which is an inherent problem, as they have their own books to sell and trumpet. And let me tell you, there are enough authors out there or people trying to become authors that their followers are frighteningly stacked with each other. Again, which is fine. We need each other. I support each and every one of you.

But the problem yet remains. In sum, we are selling books to authors trying to sell books to authors trying to sell books to authors trying… And so on. It is an ouroboros of grift. And when I say grift here, I don’t mean it (not entirely anyways) in a negative fashion. There is a level of grift in any job. I grift any time I jump into someone’s group self-promo thread. I grift when I post a book announcement. I grift when I try to sell myself so that I can sell my books. Few of us, I think, are *really* (or ubiquitously) interested in one another or in one another’s work. It would sincerely become tiring if we maintained that level of interpersonal investiture. And besides: why should we?

It’s a strange thing, and it happens no less in traditional publishing. Outside of a few big names who draw their own self-sustaining audiences, the rest of the culture relies on itself to pass the same list of names around in hopes of striking some imaginary gold mine. As if this award or that feature or interview will be the magical one to draw in that readership we all lust after. Sometimes it is. We certainly have our success stories in this regard. But we must regard it at some point as something of a myth. The “overnight success”, the “meteoric rise”. It often comes, when it comes at all, at the end of a long road or with the helping hand of a patron already in the scene. Even then the principle remains. We rely on outside factors to gain success. At best, we are Johnny Come-lately’s to the game. At worst, the game was rigged to begin with.

And it’s turtles all the way down.

The reviewers are tied in with the authors, the former relying on access to the latter to maintain the longevity of their relevancy and the latter relying on the former to maintain access to something resembling a prospective fanbase. But here again, that fanbase is largely other reviewers and authors! It’s why a fair few writers pick up award after award and you will never hear from them without tapping into this underground of online communities and review blogs. I have cruised the Speculative Fiction section at bookstore after bookstore for about as long as I’ve been alive and in recent years I have begun to only very rarely stumble upon anyone who, upon further inspection, is actually pretty big name or up-n’-comer in the genre. They simply do not exist in physical space much of the time.

Which is not to say any of this is necessarily bad. Any way to get ahead, I guess. But it does create a system of connections in which each individual relies upon the other so completely that their objectivity is called into question. It is hard to overstate how problematic this becomes when concomitant with a lack of any really invested fanbase or community beyond the authors and reviewers, even more so when we take human nature into account and the conflict that can bring. There’s a kind of tension. Things go unquestioned. The issues of the day are relied upon to draw an audience that otherwise fails to show up. Placating, pandering, whatever you want to call it, has become the mode of creating an audience and maintaining relevancy in some cases, submitting oneself to the dominant narrative and losing one’s originality to it.

But that is a much larger question than I can answer, if at all, in a blog post.

The larger issue is how do you not necessarily circumvent the above–which I don’t endorse, I enjoy being involved in this community–but tap into this kind of faceless readership that buys or otherwise consumes without interacting. There’s some bridge I’m missing, I feel. Some gap that I see, but can’t identify. It’s sad because I really want to try and connect with a readership, to make some tangible effort in this regard, as opposed to casting a net out into oblivion and hoping someone stumbles into it. Which is all that the above really is as far as I can see. Possibly. I’m not one to sift for gold or even really lace blasting charges across the landscape. But I am one for doing the work. Oh, man, I’ll do the work. Until my fingers bleed. But I’d really like to know what work to do.

In short, tell me where to find you! I hope I see you out there.

What Happens When They Give Up?

It is important to note the chief similarity between main and side characters. That is, at any point, a main character might become a side character and vice versa. Their lives could stop. This is what helps them achieve personhood, this imagining them as people with control over their lives and not bound to some linear quest. Ultimately, this is what we want for our own lives. Besides entertainment, it is why we consume culture. To live vicariously through the thankless decisions of another that we might in some way find answers to our own dilemmas.

I am often reminded, in telling stories, of a scene in the Kubrick/Spielberg picture A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. David (played by Haley Joel Osmet) is telling Joe (Jude Law) of his plans to keep looking for the “Blue Fairy”, a distortion of the Pinocchio myth that the rest of the movie plays on extensively. He hopes to become a real boy so that his adoptive mother will love and accept him. It is a heart-wrenching tale that, for me, always hit too close to home (much like the original Pinocchio). In the scene, Joe implores him to instead give up his quest. He tells him that his mother’s love is not real and never could be real, no deeper than her love could be for a pet. He suggests David just stay with him and await the incipient destruction of humanity from the safety of the robot-friendly city. The story could have ended here, and not progressed. Another character, the main character, in a revision of the script could have happened upon them. Weighted with their own past and destination, the pain of David and his strange friendship with the pleasure-bot Joe would have been only a pale reflection to the main thrust of the story.

Thinking of character and plot this way not only helps flesh out the side characters, but develops the protagonist. What if they didn’t proceed? What reasons do they have not to? What palpable will or necessity drives them on if the consequences of settling down into history are not really that dire? This method also performs the function organically. You’re asking true and genuine questions of yourself and of your characters, as if you were them, rather than sitting down with a sheet of paper and filling in the blanks.

Motivation: etc. etc.

Worst fear: etc. etc.

Traumatic origin: etc. etc.

You see where I’m going with this. Perfectly fine books are written following the fill-in-the-blank formula. Many of them. But I know from my own work that things feel more alive, the narrative more present, if I’ve done as much as I can to create things organically. Formulas produce expected results. They can be relied upon. But isn’t it sometimes more entertaining, for the writer and the reader, to fuck something up and watch an explosion?

Interuptions of Inference

It’s important not to interrupt yourself, but it’s even more important not to interrupt the other person. In writing or in speaking, interruptions can be disastrous. Reading isn’t any different, and the dialogue writers hold with their readers is (or should be) as sacrosanct as that which we might have with a friend or close family member. However, those two forms of dialogue hold little else in common.

Their modes differ and take on different forms. I, as the writer, cannot literally stand over your shoulder and tap you, the reader, on the shoulder and interrupt your meditative consideration of the page. We hope not, anyway. If I knew you, it would simply be annoying. If I didn’t, then it’d be creepy. But I digress.

The ways in which writers may interrupt their readers’ experience are many. From a slip in skill to losing the thread of their own plot, failures of craft only succeed in kicking the reader out the door. But, in my experience, there is a very subversive and subtle tick that can best be described as the writer opening the door in a snowstorm. Expected, if a little inherently irritating. You might not even notice it, except in the oblique way that the fluidity of the narrative – and by extension your immersion – is thwarted. Unless you’re paying strict attention, your eyes will just keep on tracking across the words and you’ll take them in but with a little less gusto than you did before.

I am referring to interruptions of inference, when the reader has to stop and unduly consider something the writer has expressed or an image they have attempted to craft. Clarity and elegance are usually the elements lacking. There are, of course, times when the reader must be expected to try and wrap their head around the text. That’s the prime enjoyment in reading literature, considering and digesting complex thoughts. There’s a whole argument to be made concerning the clothing of said thoughts in such wayward and dense language that most readers will have to rope a professor or two into the fray. But, for now, we’ll settle on refraining from the little speed bumps in narration and/or exposition that draw the reader out of the experience.

It’s a delicate art, giving just enough detail but leaving room for the reader’s mind to play in the background. It’s frighteningly easy to give too much and not enough, sometimes at the same time. It’s the description of a ruin without giving reference to the object that has been ruined until later in the process of describing an action in relation to said ruin. Convoluted? Assuredly. Nitpicking often gets convoluted.

So let’s break it down:

A group of thieves are scaling the ruin’s side, say. Finding this and that foothold, climbing to this and that promontory. Then they get to the top and tie themselves off to the temple’s minarets in order to scale down through holes in the roof. Temple? Minarets? Reading this, I would have to infer (read: fill in the blank) that this was a temple all along and its minarets were the true object of the climbers. I might even go back to make sure I didn’t miss anything else that was important about this structure.

Ideally, the author would detail the thieves’ struggles to climb with the weight of the coiled rope on their shoulders and shouted out the presence of the minarets before or during the climb. This gives the objects a precedent and the reader won’t have to stop and read back to see if they missed something or trust the author and quickly infer what the image they’re creating to get on with reading. In either instance, the reader has been booted out of the scene and has to try and get back in again. It’s like the doorbell ringing. Mild annoyance, but an annoyance.

Is this worth paying attention to? Is this nitpicky? Is this convoluted past the point of importance? You could make that argument. But I’d make the argument that the dividing line between good and great is paying attention to this sort of thing, whether from the get-go or in the final draft. And don’t feel like I’m shouting my sermon down from Mount Righteous. That example up there? From the rough draft of a book I’m going back through currently. I’m just as lost as anyone else.

Scene Geography

Where things are is almost as important as the things that are being said. Oftentimes it is enough to address objects or terrain or the layout of a structure as these are met by the character who is moving through them; sometimes, it is even necessary. Detailing the scene in sum before the characters have started moving through it can lead to the reader getting lost among all the corridors and rooms that the movement has not reached yet. Conversely, the same hiccup occurs if a writer does not efficaciously—if not succinctly—lay out one of those rooms or corridors in a manner conducive to the flow of the narrative and the movement of the characters. I like to call this “scene geography”, which I’m sure someone else has come up with in a much more thorough and technical style.

Usually it’s a slip of the mind, committed in the first draft and corrected in the second, but chances are if you’re reading this: you might not know yet to look for it. So let me do your work for you. Let me live your pain.

I’ve run into this a lot while going through some old drafts the past couple months, and it’s left me chock full of examples for this kind of thing. In my own work, it often happens in passing. I’ll be in the thick of some bit of exposition—describing the movement of a character through an alleyway, say—and suddenly something appears.

But not in the way that you might think. I don’t mean a thug pops out from behind the corner or a cat darts into the gutter. I mean the character opens a door that they were not said to be looking for and steps through, takes or searches for something from the gutter that wasn’t shown to be there, turns that undescribed corner at random and gets plowed with a club.

These are instances where the geography of the scene was not sufficiently solidified before the action in the scene took place. Instead, highlight the cat running into the gutter and then show the character searching for something in it. Show the character keeping an eye over his shoulder, hurrying for the corner, then getting clobbered for watching behind him when he should have been more careful about his blind escape.

Scene geography is all about giving precedent to action. Your precedents act as highlights for forthcoming action in the scene. I’m not advocating to give an exhaustive rundown of every item in the character’s vicinity. But if there’s a knife on the table that the character will momentarily be picking up to stab an intruder with, then show me the knife. Show me the money, in other words. Then put it in your mouth. I guess?