Mirror, Mirror

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What causes a villain in a piece of fiction to be indelibly stamped upon the memory of a reader? Who are the notorious villains who worm their way into the psyche? What makes them reappear in daydreams, wandering thoughts, and nightmares?

In the movie Unbreakable, the character of Elijah Price who is otherwise known as “Mr. Glass” explains that in the comic book universe there is always a polemically paired hero and villain. The area of the hero’s strength is the weakness of the villain and vice versa. Because one exists the other exists. In the movie, it is easy to feel sympathy for Elijah who is exceptionally fragile because of a rare bone disease that makes it easy for his bones to break. You feel for him when he is shown to be taunted by the other children, when he does not want to leave the apartment for fear of breaking, and when he does venture forth because his mother rewards him with comic books. I have always had incredibly conflicted feelings for the character of Elijah Price. In the comic book universe he never chose to be afflicted with his bone disorder or to be a villain. He never chose to be the opposite of Bruce Willis’ David Dunn character who is unbreakable and the hero. Elijah Price has made more of his life with the deficit of his disorder and lived far more heroically than David Dunn who shies away from the gift of his abilities and is in a dysfunctional marriage. Elijah Price is the one who searches for and creates meaning. He is proactive and a heroic agent who shares his enlightenment. And defines himself as a villain and derails trains in the process of looking for his destined other half.

Villains can be mustache twirling, black hatted bad guys who tie limp damsels to railway tracks for no other reason than the sheer fun of it, but really they are there to provide the conflict, create the story, and illuminate the hero in his glory. Judas Iscariot was essential to the resurrection story. Harry Potter was in many ways created by Voldemort. Dudley DoRight would have been nothing without his arch nemesis Snidely Whiplash.

Shakespeare was a master at creating memorable villains. Would Othello’s weaknesses have come forth without Iago’s plotting? Was MacBeth a hero or a villain? He conquered a weak king and brought his strength to the throne but then was undone by his love of power. What of Shylock? Was he a simple villain demanding a pound of Antonio’s flesh or a rich and proud man of the Jewish faith who could no longer bear the discrimination heaped upon him? Was Tybalt a villain for killing Mercutio? Was Romeo a villain for killing Tybalt?

Villains are the heroes of their own stories. They have their own motivations and histories. They cause stories and they move stories forward. They define heroes. They are the mirrored image of the heroes and one cannot exist without the other. The point where the hero and the villain divide into two identifiable personalities is the point where the conflict and the story begins. Just as heroes can be inspirational, villains can make one stop and reflect. Villains offer the chance to meditate on one’s own beliefs and morality. Can you identify with them and, if so, does this make you uncomfortable? If it gave your life meaning to help you rise above your affliction would you become a villain? Could you sacrifice your reputation and your love for a friend by betraying them? For what gold? What if it helped them to achieve a greater destiny? If the only way to attain prominence and rise above a powerless social status was to become a criminal, would you? Could you handle the power of absolute rule? Would you be able to set aside anger and a sense of injustice and accept losing after years of being downtrodden?

I believe that what gives villains life is when they are created fully and sympathetically and we can relate to them and their circumstances. I believe they are memorable and haunt us quite often because of the tragedy of the choices they make and because often if we lived in their skin we might make the same choice. The knowledge or denial of this gives them life in our minds.

New Fantasy Elements Challenge: What is taking over Detroit?

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Detroit in decay

The movie Wizards is a movie that I very much like because it broke some of the stereotypes of fantasy and created new combinations. I have decided that I am tired to death of the old fantasy tropes. I am bored with reading about the faeries of European folklore transported into an urban environment virtually unchanged. Tolkienesque fantasy to me feels very outmoded.

Time magazine’s latest issue is about the disaster that is Detroit. The unemployment rate as of August 2009 was over 30% and the population is dwindling. Or is it? What could be claiming Detroit? Gremlins were invented in the last century. They were not traditional folklore. What new spirits haunt Motown and shuffle to the old beats? What wheels are turning? Who is drinking the blood of the whitetail deer in the metroparks? How is the foliage overcoming half burnt out and deserted crack houses who creak under the burden of the Virginia Creeper? What hammer taps are heard and who is making them?

We are the dreamers of dream and the voices to bring forth the new from imagination. We can create anything.

What if there is a rust flake who pisses on parked cars and causes the undercarriage to rust?

What if the green goddesses’ youngest children have been listening to the anger of the streets and are rising up with thorned arms and tendrilled fingers? Dancing to a more raucous beat than the quiet hush of meadow grasses.

What if every time you hear the sound of breaking glass another dozen shrieks are born that run off to incite violence to quench their blood lust?

What if the will-o-wisp has evolved into a screaming blue and red flashing symbiote that assists a nightcrawler who dons the uniform of a policeman and together they ride the night looking for isolated couples who they can prey upon?

Just some ideas. Up to the challenge to create more? Mine are just off the top of my head.

All in the Details

Reaching in my pocket, I pull out keys, a Burt’s Bees lip shimmer in the shade of rhubarb, a pink coin purse, and a to-do list that includes 1. organize writing reference materials; 2. fill out forms for housing/call about housing; 3. crit something on critters; 4. print out comments on caper and begin plotting the heist/look for holes and ways to avoid guards and technology; 5. work on space android story; and 6. walk to library to get items on reserve.

The contents of my pocket speak volumes if someone is paying attention. The specific details give insights into my character.

I am going to write two different versions of a cluttered room and see if I can give a reader a complete idea of the character of the occupant.

Version One

Muted light filtered in through the thick glass windows and cast elongated trapezoids across the heavy wooden table and the wooden floor. Upon the table a pair of bird’s wings lay inert as though ripped from a passing cherub. Slender sticks of vine charcoal rested near several leaves of ivory parchment that showed drawings of fantastical beasts, serene women, and flying contraptions. A brass astrolabe pinned one corner of the parchment to prevent it from curling. A silver goblet with the ruby remains of the previous night’s wine held the far corner. Spirals cut from parchment hung from the heavy beams of the ceiling and twisted on a draft. A framework made of light, carved wood mirrored the stretched structure of a hawk’s wings set to glide on an ocean updraft. Drawings depicting the unholy dissections of corpses were nailed to the timbers of the walls. The young priest inhaled deeply, closed his eyes, and made the sign of the cross to ward off the unholiness present in the room.

Version Two

Sunlight streamed through the double hung window and was fractured by the mulleins to stretch rectangles of illumination across the heavy wooden desk. The dark, water ring pocked writing surface of the desk was only visible around the pile of haphazardly discarded bead bracelets, a pile of magazines whose slick covers had caused them to shift in a disarrayed fan, and several papers left in a disorganized path. A collection of books slumped at the back of the desk held upright by a massive tin can packed with pencils on one side and a book flopped on its side on the other end. The Complete Rhyming Dictionary could be read on the spine of one volume through the stand of a podcast microphone. Handbook of Poetic Forms, The Synonym Finder, and Chambers Synonyms and Antonyms were visible behind a bottle of rubber cement, a knocked over picture frame, and a tube of sandalwood scented hand and body lotion. A letter taped to the wall at the back of the desk read: “Thank-you for your submission. We regret to inform you that we cannot use your short story….”

I could have just written that the room held a table or desk and that it was cluttered.

Villains: What is the nature of evil?

Stories are spun from elastic band-like tension. Conflict is the axis upon which a story revolves. The conflict may be internal — one of ideas, conflicting responsibilities, or emotions. The conflict also may be external. At this point in our history, it appears as though literary form requires depth to our conflicts. There is no such thing in modern literature as pure evil.

Consider that our comic book heroes and their nemesis have all acquired complex characters and bad guys no longer simply do things because they are evil. Villains have to have tortured pasts that give rise to unique obsessions and the desire to inflict harm. Even in our everyday reality, serial killers no longer are simply an evil walking the streets. They are former abused children whose sense of humanity has been severed and hence they take a gruesome pleasure in killing and inflicting harm.

Recently, as in last summer, I reread Paradise Lost. Despite the difficulty of the text, it is by far one of the most glorious pieces of literature ever written. And the passage where Lucifer rallies his forces in hell is stunningly beautiful. Lucifer is seductive. His words are a flow of sensuous poetry.

Evil has to have an allure. Or it has to have some complexity. Or it simply isn’t believable because it is lacking real power. Perhaps, in a different age when the audience for written works was more trusting and wanted to believe and be swept away by the adventures of written stories, evil could be without depth. However, now it has to have more life than that depicted by wide brushstrokes and the designation of villain.

This leads me to thoughts of what really constitutes evil. I do think evil walks the streets. But it is not a personification. It is choice. The choice of those who would choose to do harm.

I do not think carelessness is evil. Selfishness can be depending on the circumstance. Thoughtlessness is also grey.

Is a person who robs automatically evil? No. It’s complex.

Is a person who hits another automatically evil? Not necessarily. Again, it could be complex.

In addition to the the choice of the person committing evil there is also the evaluation of others and the context of the situation.

What to your mind makes something evil? How would you construct an “evil” character?