Showing posts with label bad guys. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bad guys. Show all posts

02 April 2018

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth About Villains

Superman isn't a hero because he can fly or see through walls or bend steel with his bare hands. He's a hero because of kryptonite, the element that will render him helpless. That's how it is in mystery writing, too.

If you're writing a crime or mystery story, the villain drives your plot. Without a strong opponent, your hero looks weak because he or she doesn't really face a challenge. That's bad.

So how do you make your villain strong?

Remember, your Bad Guy explores alternatives, stepping over the line into the darkness to get something he or she wants, by whatever means necessary. If those means include lying, stealing, or killing, so much the better. The villain's goal is usually money, love, or power, and those are the issues that give your story high stakes. Without stakes, who cares?

The more your villain influences the story, the better. The hero/sleuth has to meet the increasingly difficult challenges.

That's comparatively easy in suspense novels that use the Bad Guy's point of view for some scenes. Suspense stories seem to be getting bigger and bigger now, and Armageddon needs a full-scale Ming the Merciless (Yeah, I'm dating myself)
to carry the ball. Sometimes those stories present the Bad Guy as a monster. Don't TELL us your character is a monster, though, a Joker, Snidely Whiplash, or Hannibal Lector, SHOW us. He has to be willing to kill dozens of people, dance with glee over starving kittens and scheme to bring back Disco.
He doesn't have to wring his hands and cackle "Bwah-hah-hah, my pretty" whenever we see him, and he doesn't need a pet cobra or a bullwhip. But we like to see someone enjoy his work and take pride in it. My favorite line in the entire Batman series is Heath Ledger as the Joker proclaiming, "When you're very good at something, never do it for free."

The best Bad Guys have redeeming qualities, too. They have a good reason (to them) for what they do. Revenge for a dead sibling or child, pursuit of a cause they believe is noble, a cure for tone-deafness. And except for some bloodthirsty little peccadillo, they may be great people. Hannibal Lector has superb taste and a sense of humor. In the early James Bond films, Blofeld often cradled a white Persian cat. If he likes animals, how bad can e really be? Well, come to think of it...

That's suspense. In mysteries, we can't be that obvious. We want the reader to wonder who the Bad Guy is. My villains seem like ordinary people until we discover why they do those nasty things. But my Bad Guys (or gals, I have several of them--I love subtle femme fatales) keep the squirrel running on the treadmill.

In Who Wrote the Book of Death? Zach Barnes is trying to find the person who threatens Beth Shepard.
Beth is the visible half of a writing team, and Barnes isn't sure if she's the target or if the Bad Guy really wants to kill Jim Leslie, who writes under a female pen name. He spends lots of time looking at both peoples' backstory to see who might want to kill them. In the meantime, Leslie nearly gets electrocuted in his own home. The killer tampers with the wiring, but nobody sees him. Beth is almost run down, but nobody gets a good look at the car. Later, someone shoots at her while she's presenting an author event at a bookstore, and nobody sees the shooter.

The villain is hiding, but his work drives the story. Even though we haven't seen him, Barnes must scramble to protect both people and figure out who the heck is doing all this stuff.

In The Whammer Jammers, several characters have nasty agendas. Someone stalks a roller derby skater, someone plans a bank robbery, and someone sets fires to a geriatric hospital, but we don't know who is pulling all the strings until Trash and Byrne solve those cases and find the common the very last scene.

Blood On the Tracks revolves around a cold case that comes to light when Woody Guthrie agrees to recover a missing audio tape of a 1991 recording session. Someone killed a man to steal that tape, and Guthrie has to figure out why a recording of a long-forgotten band matters that much. The tape is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a "MacGuffin," the gizmo that drives the plot, but the killer and his reasons are real. Guthrie has to understand how a twenty-years-old death links to three violent deaths in the present. That's a lot of influence by an invisible Bad Guy.

I put all these villains in plain sight and have them behave like decent people because I want to play fair with the reader. I give him or her information to unravel the mystery along with my detective, but I don't make my villain a weirdo or a demon or a cartoon. He or she is simply a person like you or me (But not as handsome or beautiful)
who made a really bad choice. Maybe that's what fascinates me the most about villains. Not all of them are monsters. There's a place for those, too, but it's not in my particular stories.

Unfortunately, opening the morning newspaper reminds me that we have enough monsters out there in real life.

25 February 2018

Bad Good Guys ~ Good Bad Guys

Noting that bad guys can be more interesting than good guys is neither new nor profound. Why else would Dantean classics courses consistently teach Inferno rather than Paradiso?
Colonel Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya)
From Russia with Love
Even as we aspire to the light of goodness and grace, often darkness muddies our thoughts and actions. Our limbs stretch toward the heavens but our roots point toward hell.

So it is with story-telling. Bad guys make or break a tale. Take the James Bond series. The best films feature the evilest of the nefarious. Huge and hulking may frighten, but sheer terror runs deeper.

Take a little five-foot-nothing Russian named Rosa, played by Lotte Lenya. Bring to mind Colonel Klebb with her spiked sensible shoes, and you touch the stuff that gave 007 nightmares. (Lotte Lenya’s husbands died– all of them– just sayin’.)

Bad guys must possess the potential to overpower the good folks. Take the battle of David and Goliath.
“It’s ESPN Sports Night here at the arena where the Philistines face off against the Israelites.”

“That’s right, Bob. The crowds cheer wildly here in Elah. The reigning champion, Golly G, is warming up and eating a… is that an ox leg?”

“It sure is, Dan. Looks like a mere buffalo wing in those massive paws. His masseuses, all ten of them, are working him over, broad shoulders to feet the size of sleds.”

“Bob, in fairness, we should turn our attention a moment from the big guy to his opponent, little Davy ben Jesse. He hails from Bethlehem, known for steel in its sinews. Young Dave’s oh-for-twenty-seven, but due for a break.”

“And a break he’ll find, Dan, if Goliath gets his hands on him. Gol’s real problem, same as Jordan has, little guys ducking beneath the legs and wreaking havoc.”

“The Israelites claim they’ve a real secret weapon in their Dave. Manager Saul says they’re prepared to kick Philly ass, and that’s a quote.”

“Dan, they’re pulling off the robes and I got to admit, not an ounce of fat on little David.”

“Nor muscle either, Bob. The big guy’s rolling his shoulders and… there’s the bell!”

“Two strides out of his corner… and Golly winds up his infamous ring-dat-bell strongman move and… Splat? That’s it?”

“What just happened? The highly-touted Davy is nothing but a little greasy spot on the canvas?”

“Two-point-two seconds, Dan. That’s got to be some kind of record.”

“Cut! That’s not sporting.”

“This has been ESPN’s coverage of the match here in Elah, sure to be a disappointment in the record books not to mention holders of those ninety-schekel tickets. Wrap it, boys. Can we still catch the bus to Jericho?”
We love it when an underdog wins. If Goliath had wiped out David, no one would have recorded the event.

Take the Fantastic Four movies. It’s hardly fair to pit four against one, no matter how fearsome that one bad guy is. It’s just not cricket. Michael Chiklis, yeah, he was pretty good in the original version, but it’s not enough to maintain attention. You’d have thought Marvel would have learnt its lesson in 2005, but ten years later, they made the same mistakes… only worse.

Day of Wrath / Game of Swords
Hungarian Historical

I came across an obscure adventure mystery movie making the rounds of internet television video distributors, presently on FilmRise and CoolFlix. Titled Day of Wrath, it appeared difficult to track down until I discovered it also went by the name Game of Swords.

IMDB awarded Game of Swords an unimpressive 5.6/10, whilst Rotten Tomatoes stamped Day of Wrath a hostile audience rating of 24%. Fortunately I knew nothing of this before watching.

“Fortunately” I say because overall I liked the plot, setting, and cast except for one key character, which I’ll return to.

Set in 1542 Spain during the Inquisition, the story follows a sheriff as he investigates the murders of nobles. The deeper he digs, the more he puts his and his family’s lives at risk, until he suspects some connection between his family and the conspiracy he’s chipping away at.

Lukács Bicskey
Lukács Bicskey Lukács Bicskey

The story line proves devious but neither contrived nor overdone. The thought-provoking plot wraps up with a couple of satisfying twists. The writers deserve high marks. As for cast…

The town is rife with bad guys, some you hate, some you loathe, and others… not so much. I introduce Lukács Bicskey who plays the part of hired gun, Miguel de Alvarado. His character translates as complex and nuanced, his glacier ice-blue eyes continuously appraising, evaluating. Meeting Bicskey is like coming across a wolf in the forest, one who knows its own prowess, utterly fearless, consummately lethal, and yet…

John Floyd Bad Guys Award
He’s dimensional, more than meets the eye. The Hungarian actor projects the same chill don’t-ƒ-with-the-psychopath as Lee Van Cleef and is maybe just as underrated. He won’t be making any more movies– he died in 2015– but in this one performance, I’d nominated him for the John Floyd Best Bad Guys Ever Award.

If the plot is great and most of the cast is superlative, why the low ratings? My conclusion traces the problem to the film’s star, a hero about as vibrant as Valium, looking like Fabio on a lank-hair day.

Who? American actor Christopher Lambert. He’s appeared in a string of US and European movies since 1980. He often assumes action röles such as Tarzan, Beowulf, and Connor MacLeod in Highlander. In this film, he plods through the part as if we interrupted his nap time. The man’s performance subsumes sole responsibility for extinguishing one or two stars from critics’ ratings.

Setting Lambert aside, I liked this underrated film a lot. Despite verbiage about American World Pictures, the movie is a Hungarian-British enterprise. The Hungarian actors performed well, certainly better than our hero.

For a well-plotted story with one of the most interesting bad guys in filmdom, see it. As mentioned earlier, it’s free right now on FilmRise channels like CoolFlix. Definitely worth the price.

30 May 2015

Rooting for the Bad Guy

A few days ago I found myself in an unusual situation. I was between books (I'd just finished reading one and hadn't yet started another), I was between stories (I'd just finished writing a mystery that I've since submitted and I hadn't yet started writing another), and I--for once--didn't have anything new from Netflix to plug into the DVD player. Since I was too lazy to move from my recliner and wasn't in the mood for Dancing With the Stars (I can't recall ever being in the mood for Dancing With the Stars), I fired up Apple TV and began looking for something to stream.
Atticus Finch Has Left the Building

What I found was Payback, a 1999 movie with Mel Gibson. I remembered watching it years ago, and remembered it mainly because he played a thief named Porter, a renaming of the "Parker" character created by the late Donald Westlake. This movie was in fact a remake of the 1967 film Point Blank, with Lee Marvin, which was adapted from Westlake's novel The Hunter. Anyhow, something like that sounded just right for both my temperament and my timeframe, that night. I remembered something else about the appropriately-titled Payback, too: its logline (the little teaser phrase that had appeared on the movie posters and the DVD boxes) was "Get ready to root for the bad guy."

Root for him I did. The casting helped, of course. Mel Gibson, like James Garner and Tom Selleck and Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds and George Clooney and Paul Newman and a very few others, is hard to root against--even when he's an outlaw and a killer. Beyond that, though, I found myself wondering if there might be a lesson in the plot, for mystery/crime writers. It seems that's it's okay for your protagonist to be a bad guy as long as (1) he has some kind of personal code of honor regarding right and wrong and (2) there are others in the story who are even worse than he is. Hoping that your readers will sympathize with your hero/heroine just because he/she is the lesser of the evils would appear to be a risky business, but it seems to work. Of the four short stories I have coming out soon (EQMM, Crimespree, The Saturday Evening Post, and an anthology), all four feature criminals as the main characters--and I think they were even more fun to write than if they'd had regular law-abiding protagonists.

The Good, the Bad, and the Questionable

As you might've expected, I've put together a list of some unlikely heroes that movie and TV audiences pulled for:

- Tony Soprano
- Michael Corleone and family
- Bonnie and Clyde
- Thelma and Louise
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
- Chili Palmer, Get Shorty
- Henry Hill, Goodfellas
- Vincent Vega, Pulp Fiction
- The cat people in Cat People
- Thomas Crown
- Danny Ocean
- Hud Bannon
- Cool Hand Luke Jackson
- Cat Ballou
- Walter White, Breaking Bad
- Verbal Kint (Keyser Soze), The Usual Suspects
- Most characters in any Quentin Tarantino film
- Most characters in any adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel
- Marion Crane, Psycho
- Fast Eddie Felson, The Hustler
- Abby Marty, Blood Simple
- Stuntman Mike, Death Proof
- The Man With No Name, Sergio Leone's westerns
- Jaime Lannister, Game of Thrones
- Those trying to get away in The Getaway
- Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, Top Gun
- Red and Andy, The Shawshank Redemption
- The three escapees in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
- The two stingers in The Sting
- William Munny, Unforgiven
- Django, chained or unchained
- Pike Bishop and his Wild Bunch
- Nancy Botwin, Weeds
- Frank Underwood, House of Cards
- The heated bodies in Body Heat
- Snake Plissken, Escape From New York
- Frank Morris, Escape From Alcatraz
- Ben Wade, 3:10 to Yuma
- Nucky Thompson, Boardwalk Empire

Two questions. First, can you think of any good "bad" characters that I missed? (I intentionally left out borderliners like Han Solo, Shane, Ferris Bueller on his day off, etc., as well as otherwise good folks who went bonkers like Norman Bates and Jack Torrance and Annie Wilkes. And I know you're probably saying to yourself that Maverick in Top Gun wasn't really a bad guy. You're right, he wasn't--but he was an unlikely hero for that situation. He was a reckless, Smokey-and-the-Bandit troublemaker, a loose cannon rolling around on the deck, and that's usually not the kind of guy you want piloting an F-14.)

Second question. Do you as writers sometimes use bad guys as your protagonists? If so, why? If not, why not? I read somewhere that Lawrence Block had a few misgivings before launching both his Bernie Rhodenbarr (burglar) series and his Keller (hit man) series--probably because of how hard it would be to make those protags likable and acceptable to the reader. Thankfully, he did it anyway.

The Rise of the Anti-Hero

I haven't counted them up, but I figure at least ten percent of my short stories have featured lawbreakers, or at least lawbenders, as the main characters. Almost any heist story or revenge story relies on that, and I've done a lot of both. In that regard, I'm always comforted by the old saying that law and justice are two different things. I think readers will sometimes accept and forgive illegal behavior if it's done for the greater good and if the end justifies the means. That's probably the sole reasoning behind the series Dexter, as well as the reason for its success.

The thing is, even when our heroes are basically good men and women, they're rarely perfect. Rick Blaine was an alcoholic, Inspector Clouseau an idiot, James Bond a stone killer, Sherlock Holmes a drug addict, Randall McMurphy a nutcase, Conan a barbarian. In our real lives we try to choose as our friends people who are sane and kind and honest and decent; in our fictional creations we (writers) try to choose as our characters people who are not. As Nicolas Cage said to Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona, this ain't Ozzie and Harriet.

Another quote. In an online article called "The Rise of the Anti-Hero," pop-culture enthusiast Jonathan Michael said, "Perhaps it's the darkness that reels us in, because we relate to the darkness. But even so, we hope for the light."

Tell that to Hannibal Lecter.