Going to the Dark Side ~ villains in the writer’s psyche

 

Going to the Dark Side ~ villains in the writer’s psyche

Having touched briefly on where heroes come from yesterday, my dark side felt neglected and asked me to look at the other side of the coin.

I like to think of myself as a good person. I might actually BE a good person, but that doesn’t make me the woman without a dark side. A couple of years ago, I got into a rather harrowing battle with someone I’d thought of as a friend; it knocked me rather badly at the time and when the issue was resolved (though the friendship was never restored) I found that though in my own head I was the hero, in the mind of at least one other person, I was the villain. That gave me a pause for thought. Every villain of fiction, film or history is the hero of their own internal story.

When it comes to villains on screen and in books, the more complex the nature of the villain, the more convincing that baddie is for me. One of my favourite villains of the screen is Scorpius from the TV series Farscape, because while initially he seems simply evil, as the story develops, it becomes clear that his evil is mixed with a fairly massive dose of good. He’s far from black and white, and his motivations in doing the terrible things he does are confusing. He’s possessed of some measure of pure altruism, of humanity. In fact, were the story told from his perspective(as indeed it is in one episode) he would be the hero.

For me one of the least convincing villains of book and screen is Lord Voldemort. I am aware that the books were originally written for children and the depth of all the characters increased as the series went on, but that said, even the mitigating factors for Voldemort’s nature were for me unsatisfying. I believe pure evil exists, but it’s incredibly rare, and Voldie’s descent to the dark side is too fast and too complete for me to accept it. At least Darth Vader’s evolution into the Dark Lord took some pretty awful things to bring it about; Voldie’s is unconvincing if you are an adult with some understanding of what makes people tick. You are expected to accept that he was born with a strong tendency to evil and little motivation to resist it.

So, the big question now. Where do villains emerge from? Well, in my experience, they come from my darker side. I feel a shiver of shame in even admitting it; I’ve had my baddies do things that I’d never do, but the fact that I can think of them is proof that perhaps I do have it in me to do terrible things. In one novel I crucified my main character, and I do mean, literally. He had no idea why he was being tortured, and for a guy like him, not knowing why it happened was a huge part of the torment afterwards. But for the villain who did this to him, the motivation was clear and almost pure; in his story, the hero deserved it. In another novel, the roles of hero and villain are deliberately confused for much of the narrative and it’s only in the second half that the real villain starts to emerge, brought to evil by thwarted love and a strange twisted sense of righteousness. Not one of my villains would see themselves in that way; they would always see themselves as the hero of the story.

For me, this fits with my world view that pure evil is a truly rare thing, and that much of it consists of ordinary people getting things wrong. Venial sins of selfishness, minor cruelty, omission of duty, weakness, addiction to power and others wrongs are usually what aggregate to be what we see as evil. Evil is not something that emerges fully formed and ready to roll; it’s something that grows. It was Edmund Burke who said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

Perhaps then this is what fiction is all about; the struggle between good and evil, the hero’s journey and everything else you find in fiction may be the writer’s attempt to understand the darker side within their own psyche and to integrate it in a creative way. I am told that Stephen King, who writes some of the most spine-chilling mainstream horror fiction is one of the nicest men you could ever meet. Many murder and horror writers are described as being lovely people, contrary to the content of their books.

I’d like to think that my own writing has been a journey into understanding and integrating my shadows, but I also hope that the tales I have created on the way with their heroes and heroines, villains and human monsters may help others understand their own psyches, as well as providing a good read or two on the way.

Soul food, mind candy and comfort eating…

When I am under stress I turn to various forms of comfort.

I often return to books I have loved and read over and over again. For some, this can be children’s books. Many people return to books like the Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings and various others. Books we know and love are safe and predictable in a changing world. I used to have nightmares that the makers of the film version of Lord of the Rings were going to change the story to fit Hollywood better; this is not so silly as it sounds. One of my favourite books is Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman; the film version was an utter travesty.

Some books I read at times like this are not fiction. I read Lark Rise to Candleford, my collection of herbals and even sometimes recipe books. I go back to poetry I haven’t read since I was an undergraduate, and to poetry that has been my constant companion much of my life. These books are part of my soul food collection. They feed my soul, to stop it starving. Other soul food books are ones that come my way from time to time and I rarely read again; they are the ones that spark thought and meditation and sometimes anger and upset. But the iron ration soul food books are the ones that are falling apart.

I also like mind candy. I like candy floss and seaside rock from time to time; and so my tastes in books and other entertainment can seem banal. I like a good “Boys’ Book”: you know the kind, the rollicking adventure with cardboard characters, high octane action, and implausible but compelling plot. Basically, beach reads for those who hate chick lit. They’re light and unsatisfying and after a few they all seem the same. But like candy floss, they don’t fill you up and they taste nice for a while. I wouldn’t recommend a diet of them; they don’t feed anything deeper and they rot your mental teeth.

Comfort eating is a harder one to describe; sometimes it’s books you have read before but usually it’s books by authors you like but haven’t read. I have read about half of all Dickens; but not all. Like Shakespeare, Dickens’ stories have become a part of national identity and have a comforting predictability running through. Jane Austen  novels  are comfort food too, though they stray into soul food too. You’ll know comfort books by their solidity; often great chunks of literature, swimming with a rich gravy of pithy wisdom, and laced with just enough spice to tempt a tired palate.  

I have a collection of books that I go back to and when they wear out, I buy another copy. I don’t put them all on the same shelves or even in the same room. They are different genres, different eras, different needs, but I know where they are. I recently misplaced my copy of TS Eliot’s The Four Quartets and I’m still mildly anxious about where it might be; thankfully I have a copy of the complete poems, but that neat little volume was so handy to stick in a bag.

If only I could get a handle on my real eating habits when under stress. When I am depressed, I eat for comfort, but when I am stressed enough, I stop eating  for days. There doesn’t seem to be a middle way. And since I am usually either stressed or depressed, my body doesn’t quite know which way is up sometimes.

There has to be a better way. Maybe I should start “eating” books more…