The bad guy

Have you ever written a story whose hero is modeled after someone in your life?

Has that hero ever changed in the context of your story, becoming someone other than the person you admire in real life?

Has the hero ever become a villain?

Or has the villain in your story ever become the hero?

When one of my kids asks me, “Is he a bad guy or a good guy?” — referring to a particular character in a movie or TV show — I usually answer with something like the following: “Well, what he (or she) is doing right now is wrong. He’s hurting people, because they’re standing in the way of something he wants, and that something isn’t as important as the people he’s hurting. But in another situation, that same character might do something good . . .”

Which is why I love the pause button so much.

If we were watching the movie in the theater, I’d probably just whisper, “I’ll explain later. Shush.”

But where there is a pause button — and the will to use it — there is time to answer questions like these. At least, there’s time to make the attempt.

How would you answer the question, “Is he the bad guy?”?

Have you ever had to? What did you say?

In Tolkien movies — with orcs and goblins and wizards gone bad — the chief bad guys are pretty easy to identify. Other characters, though, are harder to pin down.

Will he do the right thing?

Will she abandon one dying character to rejoin her friend — or will she stay and save the guy she’s not supposed to love (someone whose fate is clearly more important to her than to her friend)?

Yes, I know. “It’s not in the book.” But I love it, anyway.

Will the comfort-loving hobbit risk his life to save the proud and prickly dwarf prince?

[Spoiler alert!]

And what about that dwarf prince? For those who’ve seen the last Hobbit movie, when Thorin Oakenshield’s mind was falling prey to greed, and he threatened the very friends who had so recently risked their lives to help him reclaim Erebor, were you the least bit worried that he wouldn’t do the right thing in the end and join the fight against the evil that threatened Middle Earth?

[End of spoiler]

We saw his grandfather succumb to the madness. We knew his father fled the battlefield, overwhelmed by grief. There was good reason to consider the possibility that Thorin might also fail his friends in the end — not simply because he was their descendant but because he shared the same nature.

Just as Aragorn was as human as Isildur.

And Gandalf was as much a wizard as Saruman.

If you can’t identify in the least bit with the villain or with the fallen protagonist — if you find yourself saying things like, “Why would anyone do something like that?! I know I wouldn’t!” — out loud, for everyone to hear, because you want everyone to know what a superior human being you are — please stop going to movie theaters.

And be prepared for someone to say, “Shush. We’re watching this. Save the commentary for your diary.”

I had a college roommate who would (often) say things like, “I just can’t imagine why someone would do that? I would never do something like that,” whenever she heard of something terrible that someone else had done.

“I just can’t imagine . . . ”

Really?

I know it can be dangerous to try to get into someone else’s head. It can definitely be uncomfortable.

Maybe you’re afraid you won’t be able to get back out again. You’ll be stuck in there, seeing everything from the “bad guy’s” perspective — and quite possibly doing things that only the “bad guy” would do.

And not being too sorry about it, either.

I think my roommate’s words irritated me partly because she didn’t allow herself to consider the fact that we’re all capable of evil.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we’re the good guys, and that we would never, EVER do what “that” person has done.

We want to be like those super good guys in the movies who can withstand any torture and survive a trek of any length through a barren wasteland or a savage wilderness — to do the right thing and save the day.

No one wants to entertain the thought that he or she is capable of great evil or, at least, of embarrassing weakness — given the right circumstances, and without the grace needed to resist the temptation.

Freely-given grace. Not earned or deserved. By anyone.

Without it, who can say what he might do when tested?

Ever heard the expression, “a moment of grace”?

A moment.

When that moment comes, in a story, it usually leads to some kind of redemptive action on the part of the protagonist or of the villain.

Without that moment of grace, though, . . . when things get bad for our hero (or our villain), the temptation to do harm in the guise of “what needs to be done” is too strong.

We like to think that we’d do the right thing — that we’d be strong enough to withstand any test of our moral fortitude. That’s what good guys do, after all. They beat the odds. And they beat the bad guy.

That terrible, horrible man — in the news or in a movie — is clearly a bad guy.

And that awful woman — who did the unthinkable — clearly belongs to a world apart from our own. What normal, healthy woman would even contemplate such evil?

And we can enjoy the movie, thinking, “No matter how strong the bad guy is, the good guy will beat him. Because he always does. Because he’s the good guy, and he would never do what the bad guy has done.”

The good guy can’t become the bad guy, right?

Except, sometimes he does. And sometimes, we do.

Have you ever been “the bad guy”?

My four-year-old has asked me, more than once, “Are you a good guy, Mommy?”

And all I can say is, “I hope so (but I haven’t really been tested).”

I’m alive, so there’s always hope that, if I’m tested, I’ll do the best possible thing. And there’s also good reason to be concerned that I might not.

What about your story characters?

Have you put them to the test? And did they surprise you?

Or did you already know that, of course, they’d do the right thing. Such and such would happen to Character P, and Character P would do XYZ, because he’s the good guy.

Why on earth would he even contemplate doing something other than XYZ?

Can you think of a situation where you were tested, and you were tempted to do something other than what you thought you might do under the circumstances?

Have one of your story characters been sorely tempted to do something that would make him the villain in a particular situation — or for the entire story?

Where did he (or she) go from there?

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