Sunday, October 19, 2014

Good bad people    
             Elmore Leonard said there was always something about his villains he liked.

             Some of the most memorable bad characters in fiction have admirable qualities.  Arthur Conan Doyle concocted Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty as a brilliant, albeit twisted, mind.  In Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson created the peg-legged Long John Silver to be a brave leader and a likeable rogue despite possessing a piratical heart, and we’re happy to see him get away in the end.  Stevenson’s ultimate good/bad guy, of course, is Dr. Jekyll, who is powerless to prevent his occasional forays into the shadows as Mr. Hyde.  Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (great title, that) is a scholar and a fine organist.  Thomas Harris endowed Hannibal Lecter with sophistication and an appreciation for opera, his only unfortunate bad habit being his penchant for dining on people.  And even Bram Stoker’s bloodthirsty Count Dracula was a non-smoker, at least. 

          Which one is the greater transgressor in Moby-Dick, though?  The apparent villain, a monstrous mysterious white whale, is really only trying to save his own hide from the vengeful Ahab, who allows himself to be driven mad by his own dark obsession. 

          Conversely, many a fascinating fictional protagonist (one of the few genderless designators we writers can safely use in this era of political correctness) is flawed to some degree.  James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic.  Superman better read all the Supermarket labels carefully to avoid kryptonite in his diet.  Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is a bit of a klutz and has an aversion to firearms, even for self defense, despite having to deal with a variety of tough guys.  Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple prevails despite all the indignities of advanced age, and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe has limited mobility because of obesity.  Lawrence Block’s lonely philatelist Keller is a hit man by profession, yet he’s still an engaging character.

          I think the reason such bad/good and good/bad characters come alive on our pages and screens is because nobody can really be a perfectly pure protagonist or an utterly evil villain, and we know it.  Like it or not, beneath our civilized veneers we are all complex characters ourselves, so we recognize and empathize with both the noble and ignoble in fictional folks.  We all have much in common.  We’re vulnerable to a host of things that can kill us, from raging weather to the laws of physics to microscopic viruses to fellow creatures.  We’re nurturers of our progeny, friends to the like-minded, stewards and consumers of earth’s flora and fauna and resources.  We’re relentless seekers.  Clever builders.  Astute observers.  Intelligent reasoners.  We’re also by far the most skilled and dangerous predators currently borrowing the planet.  (There’s a reason we name our sports teams for other successful killers like eagles and gators and wolves.)

          And, good or bad, who we are arises from what we are.


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