Sunday, 8 January 2012
In her splendid book Write to be Published, Nicola Morgan has some very straightforward and sensible advice about characterisation and character development. In the section ‘Cardboard Villains and Saccharine Heroes’, she writes; “A bad character sometimes benefits from some soft edges that test our judgement of them.” Similarly, she says, “Avoid the too-good... give your angels a touch of hell’s fire.”
Nicely put. My antagonist, I figured after mulling this over in the bath, has no soft edges to test the reader’s judgement of him. He’s a black-hearted misanthropist bearing all the hallmarks you’d expect of a top-draw scumbag. He’s murderous, filthy, hateful and, just in case you’re tempted fancy him, he has half his face missing after a nasty encounter with a wild dog. In summary - so two-dimensional he could double for a fireside rug.
I had an interesting conversation with a six-year-old Harry Potter fan – not yet old enough to read the books himself but currently having them read to him before bed and watching the movies as he goes. He’d had a tough night, his dad explained, plagued by bad dreams. The little feller was terrified and confused, having discovered that Tom Riddle and Voldemort were the same person. So it seems that denying readers the clear moral certainties of the cardboard cut-out villain – even by the introduction of limited backstory like this – makes bad guys more frightening; more real, somehow.
On New Year’s Eve, the punk musician Billy Childish was being interviewed on the Today Programme by the comedian and guest-editor for the day Stuart Lee. Childish, disdainfully assessing Oasis, said that the problem with stadium bands churning out power-ballads was that they did nothing but “project certainties” to mass audiences.
I suppose that’s what we do when we create these flat-pack bad guys; project cosy certainties about morality rather than give readers anything genuinely arresting or thought-provoking – anything that might give us nightmares.
So, a new year’s project will be to go back through ‘Sleepwell and Fly’ and get to know my antagonist a little better. See what makes him tick.
Who knows, I might give him his face back while I’m at it.