Writing villains under Trump

(Content notice: this post contains a description of being followed by a street harasser.)

So it’s been a Month, nationally speaking. Right now, every website I go to is screaming at me about the Paris Accord. My brain is kind of always screaming about the Paris Accord, so it’s nothing I’m not used to on one level. And hey, as of this writing, nothing’s official-official. Maybe we’ll stay in? And if we don’t, then at least that means we won’t be sabotaging everyone else?

Yeah, I know, not much of a bright side. But it’s all we have to work with right now. That and constant constant constant constant political pressure from all of us. Miles to go before we sleep and all that.

Hmm. Thus far, the tone of this blog post is a little wearier than I intended it to be. I am tired, but I’m nowhere near giving up on believing in all the things humanity is capable of achieving. I’m honestly not. Like, this is not a bad zombie apocalypse drama. The answer to “but do we deserve to survive?” is still a resounding yes. It will always be yes, and the people who believe in that yes will always keep fighting. Listen: there are a lot of us, in my country and everyone else’s. We’re tired, but we don’t give up.

Of course, there are those other people. The ones who necessitate the fighting. A couple of months ago, I wrote about good guys and bad guys. I was focused on the former, but man there have been a lot of the latter hanging around lately, haven’t there? Big-time bad guys in charge. Small-time bad guys coming out of the woodwork. The other week, a man followed me in his car and called obscene things out the window at me. When I detoured away from him, he waited for me to reemerge so he could continue. His voice was very, very calm. After the second time I turned, he didn’t follow. A block later, the feeling returned to my fingers as I stopped hyperventilating.

Of course that could have happened under any other president. But that experience just felt like it fit into a pattern. Even now, I want to downplay what happened: he didn’t get out of the car, he didn’t touch me, he didn’t follow me home. So no big deal, right? I probably wasn’t in real danger. But as brief as that encounter was, it felt like real danger, and that was the point. That man tried to scare me, and he succeeded.

I don’t get that. I fundamentally don’t understand what it feels like to want someone to be terrified. I also don’t understand what it feels like to have access to a whole world’s fear — fear of environmental degradation, fear of crushing poverty, fear of escalating wars — and just not care. What is it like to see someone who is afraid and not want to comfort them?

Don’t get me wrong, I know how it happens. I know there are a million different sociological and psychological forces that can bleed the empathy out of a person. A man who takes pleasure in scaring a woman doesn’t empathize with that woman because he fundamentally does not see her as human. Insert a bunch more isms, blow it up on a national scale, and you have a group of rich, white men who don’t care about the fear of everyone else in the same way that I don’t care how the huge spider who hung out in my apartment for a few days felt. I just wanted it to leave me alone and not interfere with my life.

But knowing how people become that way is not the same thing as understanding what it’s actually like to see other people as inconvenient spiders. I guess their lack of empathy is the limit of my own. I can digest and comprehend all of the sociopolitical reasons, but on a purely emotional level, I still keep coming up with “but why?

Honestly? I’m okay with that. I do think it’s absolutely important to be able to intellectually understand the forces that drive the people who do harm in the world. Hiding from that will never be a good idea. But I don’t think gazing into the abyss necessarily requires diving in headfirst. I’m not going to be playing Donald Trump or scary-car-guy in a movie any time soon.

I do, however, write villainous characters. The main antagonists of THE CHILDREN’S WAR, MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES, and middle-grade story are different in a lot of ways, but they all essentially boil down to hunger for power. I’d be interested to hear if anyone ever wrote a bona fide villain who didn’t. (I do know that some antagonists are motivated by other things, but of course not all antagonists are villains.)

So I’ve made these people up. I know their backstories. I know the sociopolitical forces (and grievous personality flaws) that have made them who they are. But I don’t emotionally connect with them the way I do with all of my other characters. I don’t feel what they feel. I don’t know how.

In MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES, one of my characters is an empath who literally (like, on a brain chemistry level) feels the emotions of everyone in his immediate vicinity. (It’s one of the crueler things I’ve done to a character, though there is some steep competition in that regard.) Spoiler alert for a book that doesn’t exist in the world yet: the antagonist does wind up in his radius at a certain point. Actually, now that I think about it, he also is around street harassers in another scene, so he fits this blog post doubly well. His reaction to both of these situations is total scorn.

Of course, I’m just guessing, because I can’t do what he did. I can’t emotionally get inside their heads. But I stand by my guess. Power-hungry villains are interesting because of the effect they have on other characters, but I don’t think they’re very interesting in and of themselves. Donald Trump does not fascinate me. If you can kind of think of the president as the protagonist of the country’s story, then the plot is certainly off the rails, but the character development is shit. How does a character grow if they don’t care? How am I supposed to get invested in a character who is not invested in anyone else?

Waste of time, if you ask me. Maybe that means my villains will be flat. I hope not: I work hard on their dialogue and try to make them compellingly menacing. (Based on Trump and scary-car-guy, maybe I’ve been putting too much thought into the dialogue. Neither of them really seem to.) But the interesting people are the ones who care. So go forth and be interesting.

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