V is for Vice and Villains
Every story must have an antagonist who makes the life of the main character, the protagonist, as miserable and dangerous as possible. You’d think this would be such an easy character to craft: just imagine the most odious monster or the sickest loser and write him or her into your story. Story needs conflict – a sharp rock on the path, a venomous bite without antitoxin, a trap with no key, and a reprobate who fabricates all the obstacles to the final resolution.
Enter the Villain.
Consider the woman who cooks dog food to serve her guests. Pat Conroy used that idea in The Prince of Tides, when Lila, angry with her husband’s complaints about dinner, returns to the kitchen, dumps a can of dog food into a frying pan, stirs in a few other ingredients, and serves the concoction to Henry Wingo’s booming praise. But wait, nasty as that act of revenge might be, Lila is not the villain here. Henry is. Maybe not as bad as Vlad the Impaler, but he’s aggressive, controlling, violent, cruel, and intolerant toward his family. His family lives in poverty because he’s such a fool at business, like when he buys a tiger. Conroy’s memorable story tracks the father’s unrelenting, abusive behavior as it ruins the lives of several of his kids, and of how Tom Wingo, now an adult, tries to save his suicidal twin, Savannah. What makes Henry Wingo such a compelling villain is that he considers himself, a World War II bomber, to be hero and defender of the nation. He thinks he’s building strong adults of his kids, and he’ll never believe proof to the contrary. Conroy captures the nuances of the South, of dysfunctional families, and of the search for personal identity like no one else. If you haven’t yet read this book, skip all other responsibilities for the next few days and devote yourself to reading the work of a masterful storyteller.
Think about the town strumpet, eager for a tumble into the hay with any male, no matter how devoted to his spouse he may seem. She does appear in Gone Girl, but she isn’t the book’s true villain, she’s just a poor-sweet-innocent-young thing. Strumpet is a distraction to hubby. Amy, the missing, presumed-dead wife of Nick Dunne in the book by Gillian Flynn, is the victim through the first part of the story, a perfect wife who devotes herself to supporting her husband. Nick’s reserved behavior sets him up as the likely perpetrator of Amy’s murder, (husband first, the usual suspect) and while everyone searches for her body, his quirky self-defense plunges him deeper into suspicion. And he did have that affair with Strumpet. By the second part of the story, readers know Amy is entirely the antagonist, a manipulative sociopathic villain brilliant enough to fool everyone, murder without remorse, and hold her husband hostage to a vise like definition of loyalty and love. Lest you fear that Amy is one-dimensional in her evilness, you’ll have to remember her parents. The authors of a series of classic children’s books based on their daughter’s life, it’s clear they love her only for the income her childhood plights provided them. One of the many facile writing devices of the story is Flynn’s ability to portray believable unreliable narrators, a skill quickly turned to sawdust in the hands of less talented authors. When you finish reading Prince, lock your door and start on Gone Girl. No matter how much you think I’ve revealed, the story will stun you.
Imagine a filthy, backwoods, carousing lout of a man, ready to fight for – well, just ready to fight. Some people identify Lem Forrester, one of the drunken brothers in The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, as the villain of the story. He starts fights over petty issues, is never fair, steals everything in and out of sight, and burns down a neighbor’s house. Not much to recommend him, but I still think the real villain of the story is Poverty. Young Jody Baxter is enchanted by the beautiful Florida woods where his parents have built a cabin shortly after the Civil War. But the family lives in abject poverty as does every other family in the woods. The land doesn’t lend itself to easy farming, game is scarce, and though the place is verdant, not much that grows is edible. Limited economic resources mean almost no medical care, and hardly any food unless the inhabitants can grow it, hunt it, or scavenge it for themselves. Sickness and accidents are likely to result in death, pregnancy in stillbirth, meager crops in gnawing hunger. Poverty, indifferent to the goodness or meanness of people, is the stifling caul that forces absolute equality of horrific circumstances for every individual. Poverty demands that Jody choose between the life of the beloved fawn he’s raised as a pet and the welfare of his family. Even Lem Forrester is nothing but a frayed vine to Poverty’s steadfast noose on the people of the community. The Yearling is the very first adult book I read a second time as soon as I finished the first reading. It’s the book that made the young Sharon Bonin want to be a writer.
A story must tell of turmoil: internal or external, mystical or historical. Nothing worth noting happens if a villain doesn’t emerge from his den, claws poised for attack, teeth bared for the bite, his body of might and power far greater than the main character can muster. The main character must fight back, overcome, and win the ultimate battle, or die trying. If your main character cannot be the hero of the tale, what’s there to tell?
Image courtesy of genxpose.blogspot.com, from Google.com, public domain images, villains