First one of the New Year; this time Dietrich Kalteis and I talk about the bad guy, the antagonist in crime fiction.
And we’ve got Peter Rozovsky to thank for another great noir shot from his vault.
MF: I actually use the word ‘guy’ for both Elton Johns and Olivia Newton Johns (men and women in other words), and the word ‘him’ for ‘him/her’ so I want to get that out of the way first. The topic of the Bad Guy is a strange one. At first, it seems simple. We all know what a bad guy is when we see him, read him, hear him, but what is a bad guy and what’s his purpose? It rather depends on the story and how long the writer wants him to continue. A short story, novella or movie can get away with a villain being someone who lacks dimension, but in my mind, a bad guy as a main character is someone who is the progenitor of negativity and nasty events and acts as a dark shadow over the other characters and the story itself. That’s probably obvious but a good bad guy is depicted as having another side, a more human side, Janus-like even. This makes for a complex bad guy, and the best bad guy of all, is one we root for when deep down, we know he’s a sack of rats.
DK: For me, the bad guy or antagonist light the fuse, and his/her actions sets things in motion, driving the story.
MF: For sure, without them, there is no crime novel is there? Bad guys come in many forms and some come across as being ordinary and polite, but others are obviously nasty. The most obvious vehicle that carries the damaged goods of a bad guy’s soul is dialogue. Do you have any thoughts about how dialogue can paint the bad guy on the canvas?
DK: I love dialogue and there’s nothing better than some foulmouthed bad guy to lend color to the page. Dialogue sure can reveal a lot about the character and can even help paint a picture for the reader of what they appear like.
MF: Yes, I know we have narrative and action, but dialogue, both spoken and internal is the line of sight into the soul of any character, not least the antagonist’s, but to make them come to life and convince the reader they are credible, it’s important for his traits, foibles, mundane behaviours to be brought to light. Someone once said something about the mundanity of evil and depicting a nasty character within ordinary settings can lend an added chill. ‘Oh look, he killed folk in cold blood but now he’s shopping for groceries and having a Frappuccino just like I do. What’s going on?’ is the kind the reaction I would like to provoke in a reader.
DK: I want my antagonists to be less than linear, not all one thing, maybe not really bad at all, just forced into some kind of situation. Sometimes clever, sometimes dumb or reluctant, always shady, but showing sparks of humanity. These kind of traits make their actions less than predictable, and that’s what I want, making for a more believable character and a more interesting story. As you said, Martin, without these traits they will lack dimension. And if the characters don’t come off as real, the reader is bound to lose interest.
MF: For sure.
DK: Anti-heros who are cool in the face of danger seduce the reader into rooting for them. And it’s interesting how we can forgive transgressions on the part of an anit-hero like Walter White of Breaking Bad, and who didn’t root for Tony Soprano? Bad guys we are meant to root for. When these villains show us their human side, we empathize. Maybe we just want to see someone step across that line of prevailing norms or go on that journey with them without risking anything ourselves.
MF: Walter White and indeed the character Carter Tomlin in Owen Laukkenan’s ‘Criminal Enterprise’ come to my mind too. Both started as law abiding, suburban ordinary working guys who through a dark alignment of circumstances, fell from grace and ended up descending into evil so far there was no clean or obvious way back. I found this aspect the most chilling. It makes me wonder if there’s a bad guy in each and every one us, just waiting to be woken by the right alarm clock. To convince the reader that the bad guy could have been you is something I like to convey in my own writing. Cornell Woolrich, the now largely forgotten, but no less wonderful pulp/noir/crime writer whose heyday was the middle of the 20th century, adhered to this principle too i.e. the good guy turns bad through a set of seemingly innocuous circumstances that set him on a road to hell.
DK: And sometimes we have a bad guy where it isn’t even his fault like in Stephen King’s The Shining.
MF: I think they’re the best ones.
DK: Some of my favorite bad guy characters over the years: In Out of Sight by Elmore Leonard the bad guy seduces the good girl and it ends up there’s grey area as to who’s the bad guy. In Pulp Fiction, it’s also hard to tell the good guys from the bad, it’s more like bad and badder. Which begs the question, what’s so wrong about rooting for the bad guys anyway?
MF: Nothing is black or white and one twist I adore as a reader is finding out that the good guy or at least one of them, has been a scoundrel all along later in the story. There’s nothing in rooting for a bad guy at all, but I wonder is it because deep down, we do so because we don’t really believe him to be a bad guy at all?
We’ll be back next week with another installment …