Thursday, 19 April 2012

Bad Guys

At the moment I'm doing quite a lot of childminding of my four year old grandson.  Like most small boys, he loves to set up bad guys which are resoundingly vanquished by good guys. At the moment, both the good guys and the bad ones are robots.  The bad robots look the part, but there isn't really much in their behaviour to distinguish them from the good ones: both sides are loyal to their own and ferocious toward their opponents. There is some token pretence of 'evil plans' (usually for world domination) on one side, but that's just an excuse for a lot of blam blam blam!

I hope that as my grandson grows up he'll find this Manichaean dichotomy a bit limiting.  I find fiction a lot more interesting when the good guys have to work at being good--that is, struggle to make moral choices in a difficult world--and I like my bad guys to be intelligibly bad.  A certain amount of moral ambiguity is almost required for literary fiction, but  I like it even in the stuff I read purely for fun. I don't mean that I want to root for the bad guy, a la American Psycho, but I want the bad guys' motives to be understandable. In too many novels and films they're like my grandson's bad robots: they're bad because the good guys need somebody to fight.  Blam blam blam!

Modern authors have come up with various ways to denote a character as bad.  At the moment the most popular is to make him an Islamic terrorist. (Fifty years ago he would have been a Communist spy.) Then there are serial killers. Real serial killers do exist, of course, but I'm sure fictional ones outnumber them ten to one.  Terrorists and serial killers have two advantages: they are automatically evil, and they automatically make your hero, however grubby, look good--because anybody looks good next to a terrorist or a serial killer.  OK, I can enjoy a book where the evil terrorist plot is thwarted or the killer caught--but there's always a certain uneasiness mingled with the pleasure.  I have been invited to disengage the sense of moral discrimination and sympathy which governs my ordinary life; real problems and real sufferings are being used to generate excitement without any attempt to understand their causes.  This may or may not be immoral--but it's certainly unrealistic, and, on the author's part, lazy.

Some authors--I'm thinking of Patricia Cornwall and her ilk, here--not only rely on serial killers, but use another substitute for motive: sexism.  Sexism and racism are certainly real and abominable, but in the real world they're normally negative: the victim doesn't get the job, the promotion, the contract; in a crisis they don't get the trust and support a white man would expect.  It's rare for somebody to actively work to ruin an innocent purely on the grounds of sex or race when that innocent isn't threatening any of their own interests: for one thing it takes effort; for another, it's illegal. I know it happens, when the perpetrator is crazy enough--but it isn't common.  Cornwall seems to have at least one sexism-motivated plot against the heroine per book.  Again, unrealistic and lazy--and boring. I stopped reading her because of it.

George Bernard Shaw once said that he tried to give the best speech in every play to the villain.  He wanted to make that villain's opposition intelligible, to deepen the moral dilemma and make the hero's choices more fraught and more dramatic.  If the bad guys are just robots, then the good guys are, too.

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