Tag Archives: politics

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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Being Good

So I’ve been thinking a lot about good guys and bad guys this week. It sure seems like there are a lot of the latter these days, with more popping up in the news every day. Bad guys in high positions of power, bad guys passing unjust laws. So does bad leadership and bad laws make a country — well, bad?

As I said in my last post, I know what I believe when I’ve written it, so I have a couple of answers to that question. They both come from THE CHILDREN’S WAR (a.k.a. story). The first, which played on my mind a lot as the refugee ban went into effect on Holocaust Remembrance Day, is a synthesis of two reactions from two of my protagonists upon reading about crimes against humanity that their empire has perpetrated. One character refuses to believe this information is true; the other knows that it is. Paraphrased, their reactions, respectively, are: “If that were true, then we’d be the Enemy!” and “It goes against everything we stand for.”

These statements contradict each other, but they’re both true. I always knew I was writing about my own country when writing story, but I also always thought I was exaggerating at least a little bit. Now it seems that I’m not. Right now, America’s bad leadership and bad laws have made my country a force for bad in the world. That is true.

However. It goes against everything so many Americans stand for. Elsewhere in story, another character explains that he has struggled to put his country above the people he loves, because the people he loves are his country. You can’t serve one and neglect the other at the same time. “America” is not an independent entity, a personal god with its own wishes and personality that demands worship and fealty. America is Americans. Some of them are awful. Most of them are not.

That’s not unique to America. I totally reject any notion of a country being the “best country in the world,” because all countries are made of people: some awful, most not. That’s just the general demographic of every group of humans in the entire world. Unfortunately, the awful ones are great at grabbing power. To stay there, they try to exploit any latent cruelty they can find in others, because we’re all microcosms of our species in general. A little bad, mostly good. That balance can tip if we let it. If we give into the easiness of willful ignorance, the comfort of a false persecution complex (pro-tip: real persecution never feels comfortable), or the thrill of fear for the other, then we’ll wake up to find that we’ve joined the ranks of the bad guys. The more privilege you have in your society — so if you’re American, if you’re white or male or straight or financially stable or cis or able-bodied or neurotypical (and I’m a fair few of these, so I’ve got to be careful) — the easier this process is. It must be resisted.

So remember what you stand for. Don’t accept anything that goes against that. Remember that the balance of people in the world is still and always will be “mostly good.” Remember that that’s true of every group of people you’re supposed to fear.

Explicitly: remember that that’s true of Muslims. Remember that refugees are refugees because they’ve already suffered under the bad guys. Don’t be another bad guy making their life hell. Oppose those who do.

I know that “bad guy” and “good guy” are flat and unnuanced terms, but the reason they’ve been on my mind is that the Muslim refugee ban is, flatly and without a shred of nuance, bad. It is wrong. It is evil. It is the Enemy of the good guys. It is, currently, American.

But the ACLU is American, too. So are a whole lot of Muslims who’ve never done anything to deserve the hatred thrown their way, and have instead added to this country’s aggregate goodness (and some of them are writers — you can find and support their work by looking up #muslimshelfspace on Twitter). Your Daily Action is American, which has become my favorite activism resource. Wall-of-us, Color of Change, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Indivisible Guide are also great American resistance resources. The National Parks Service and the Taxi Workers Alliance and millions of protesters and Teen Vogue and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary: also American.

Of course, there are plenty of non-Americans in the groups I’ve just mentioned, too, because American goodness is not just American, but human. Our good people are not better than anyone else’s good people. We don’t have to be. Goodness isn’t a competition. Greatness isn’t a competition, either, as much as some people would like you to believe that it is. Greatness is the combined goodness of many. Goodness and greatness are both a hell of a lot of work, and I’m trying to learn how to do that work, from all of the people mentioned above and more. Check out those links. Take care of yourselves. Learn and work. Be the good guys.