Confession time: I’m writing a novel. (All the cool kids are doing it. And by ‘kids’ I mean, people who could be doing otherwise very productive things with their time, and by ‘cool’, I mean… well, not really that cool. Haha.)
Anyway. I’ve been scribbling away in my exercise book and tapping away at the keyboard, writing different scenes and going over plot holes and making notes about different points I need to research. That’s the thing when I write longer stories: I don’t write chronologically, but I do write to a general plot. Mostly. But sometimes, I get stumped. I hit an unsurpassable chasm and I have no idea how to traverse it, and so it is with the story on which I’m working now.
I spent some time discussing this with the Handsome Sidekick over tea and cake the other day.
‘My problem is,’ I said, ‘I can’t seem to figure out the motivation for the Baddies to do The Bad Thing. What is the point? Nothing seems realistic.’
‘Money! Power!’ he exclaimed. ‘Aren’t these things that people do terrible things for, now?’
And I realised he was right. I was trying to think of a valid reason for committing atrocities, but all I need to do is look at history to see that people will do absolutely terrible things for seemingly very mundane reasons. Scratch that, I don’t even need to go back in history! I can just look around, right now. There are lobbyists who use their money and influence on politics. There are governments who will back a rebel group in another country for their own gain. People spread rumours about acquaintances or colleagues to gain favour with other acquaintances or colleagues. Murders and assaults take place, sometimes simply because there is a misunderstanding or because of wounded pride.
Wow. Humankind. What nasty pasties we can be.
It’s not like I’m oblivious to all of this. I do watch and read the news and interact with other people, and I like to try to keep myself relatively well-informed. But when I’m creating a world of my own, going down the evil path is not where my brain first takes me. I guess I am just not cut out to play the super-villain, right?
It struck me in trying to think like the super-villains in my story, that this might be a problem in our society, which allows the villains among us to get away with some of their truly dastardly deeds.
Our experience of the world is highly subjective–it has to be, because it’s how we work. We can try to empathise with others and imagine what they are thinking or feeling, but in the end, how we react to other people is based on our own interpretation of events. So if a person is devastated because a loved one died, or delighted about a new job, we can empathise with those emotions, and we can empathise even more if we’re able to base our reactions to these people’s experiences on those we’ve had ourselves. And even if we’ve not had exactly the same happen to us, most of the time, we can still find common ground in order to connect with this fellow human.
But when it comes to villainy, it’s not something I can really connect with, in that way. I just don’t even consider it as something people would choose to do. Oh, of course, I can be as cynical and dismissive as the next person. I know that wrongdoing goes on, and that at times, precious little happens to stop it. However, I’m generally trusting. Ultimately, I expect the best of people, and usually they deliver. So when I hear about real-life villainy (as opposed to the imagined kind), I am completely taken by surprise. I do not see it coming.
I think it’s mostly because I just don’t expect people to be quite so audacious. I expect people to keep their promises. I expect boundaries to be respected. I imagine that people will think, ‘I have enough’ and not try to bleed everyone else dry for a little more money. I just expect that people will do the decent thing.
I read a story the other day about a farmer who’s been fighting a mining company which wants to divert a creek that runs through his property. The company wants to mine underneath the creek. The farmer gets half of his water supply from this creek, and there is a risk that the creek and surrounding area will be contaminated for decades. The farmer, Garry Reed, and other members of the community, say that originally, the mining company claimed that the creek would not be touched; in fact, it promised to conserve it. Now, it wants to mine there, and Garry Reed’s appeal in court has been dismissed, and because of this, he must pay the legal fees of the company. He risks losing his farm. Mining under the creek will extend the mine for a mere six to eight months.
Oh, and the government said the mining company didn’t need to provide an environmental impact statement. And… the owner of the mine donated over $100 000 to the campaign of the current government in the last state election. I can’t be sure that there is a connection here, but it’s hard not to suspect one.
The man who owns this mine is a billionaire. I cannot fathom that kind of wealth, but what’s even more unfathomable is how one could build such wealth through risking environmental devastation and pollution which will last several lifetimes. Possibly, that’s one reason why he’s a billionaire, and I’m not. It’s why I find it hard to work out why the villains in my story would do what they do.
In my imagined world, the Baddies can concoct all manner of evil designs, and I worry about whether it’s realistic. In the real world, I’m astounded at the scale of greed for power and money and resources. In my imagined world, I want the Goodies to win. In the real world, I wonder: how can they possibly do that within the constraints of what we have built? How do we put a stop to actions which are lawful, but which seem so unfair and reprehensible? How do we tell, who are the Baddies and the Goodies?
How do I think like a villain, without becoming one?