Friday, February 20, 2015

Creating One-Dimensional Villains - in real life and in fiction

I've been fascinated, lately, by reports of public shaming of one sort or another. Several months ago, the Vanity Fair article on Monica Lewinsky....

Be honest: when you read her name, did you Boo and Hiss? Even a little? Just about everyone does. I sure did. I read it, in large part, because of her infamy, and with a doubtful, gleeful eye toward what she could possibly say to redeem herself. It brought me to tears. Tears for her shame and tears for my shame that I was a tiny, crowd-follower part of it.

Monica Lewinsky's very name is synonymous with Every Awful Thing. And, of course, we all have Very Good Reasons for this. After all, she had sexual relations with a married man, didn't she? And not just any married man, oh, no: The President of the United States... who managed to come out of their affair relatively unscathed. When you mention Bill Clinton, it's bad form to connect him to That Woman, lest his wife - the possible Future Ms. President - be humiliated by the reference.

I'm not going to waste a lot of space, here, going on about how completely asinine that imbalance is. I'm not going to expound at length on the relative severity of misconduct in an affair between a young single girl who falls in love with her boss and the married powerful boss who has made promises to love and to cleave and to not sexually or romantically tempt his interns. I'm not going to detail my personal experience that tells me that the other woman is vastly less blameworthy than the oath-breaker husband.

All of that is irrelevant to the real point: in a few months of public outrage, we as a nation turned a well-rounded, talented young woman with a bright future into a one-dimensional villain. A hiss and a byword and the butt of late-night jokes.  We stripped her of the right to have good qualities because her one bad choice was forever going to trump any good quality she might try to muster.

Shame on us.

Now there is a new article about public shaming in the New York Times, and the author has a whole book coming, appropriately entitled So You've Been Publicly Shamed (available for pre-order). In the article (and, presumably, the book, from which the article is excerpted), the author details his experiences with others who were publicly shamed for relatively minor things--like a really bad joke taken out of context and spread throughout the world to the glee of trolls everywhere.

Last week at LTUE, I sat on a couple panels where I got to talk about my decade as a Public Defender. One comment I made more than once was that, when you're building a villain, you really must give him good qualities, too. Genuine ones, that any reader would relate to. I've sat across from murderers and rapists and drug dealers and all manner of society-defined Bad People, and there is hardly a one of them I didn't laugh with. Very, very few of them who didn't have family and friends in their corner, ready to stand up and swear in court that this defendant was, actually, a good person, despite the bad thing he'd done. They are fathers who love their children, mothers who will drop everything to help a friend in need, daughters and brothers and the truest of friends to someone.

And, yet, we as a society want to define everyone by their worst trait and stop the definition there. We don't want to look past that to the goodness that is always present. We bemoan our history of placing scarlet letters on offenders while gleefully slapping digital and rumor-driven red letters everywhere we look.

It's devastating in real life, and awfully boring in fiction. Mustache-twirling, top-hat wearing, love-to-be-eeeviiil villains are the stuff of melodrama. The kind we got off on in grade school. If we're going to grow up as writers or as a society, we need to be better than that.

There are some few troll-chased "villains" who are able to fight back, like my friend Larry Correia, who eventually dubbed himself the International Lord of Hate as a hilarious counter-punch to those who called him everything from a racist to a homophobe. Those who, like Larry, are firmly established on their public platforms with thousands of loyal followers are practically immune to public shaming. The shaming and thick-skin-building process may still hurt at first, but these few manage to eventually almost thrive on attempts to shame them.

Most of us aren't that famous. Most of us don't have hoards of people waiting to build us back up when someone tries to knock us down. Most of us have armies of supporters that are woefully outnumbered when the Society Hive-Mind decides we are Bad People. Most of us wouldn't survive our 15 minutes of infamy if our worst Bad Thing were ever made public.

Plenty enough lives have been destroyed by tiny black marks multiplied hundreds of thousands of times. We've had enough of the pillories and stocks and scarlet letters that deprive us all of the good that our fellow flawed humans might have done if only we'd let them.

Plenty enough fictional villains have perpetuated the fallacy that being bad definitionally excludes all goodness. We've had enough mustache-twirling and evil-for-the-sake-of-evil and antagonists that no good person will ever understand.

Let's grow up, huh? Let's fight badness by empowering "bad" people to slay their own dragons. Let's call off the wasted-earth nuclear air strikes that get launched every time someone makes a hurtful comment. Let's acknowledge that even people who hurt us badly can have qualities that any unbiased person would see as good.

Why do you think we're so addicted to the culture of shame?

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