Your Bad Guy’s Mommy

I have recently finished two books, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter and World’s End by T.C. Boyle. I looked forward to reading Beautiful Ruins every day, hated putting it down to teach or eat. World’s End was the exact opposite. While it did capture me enough to finish it, I would look at it across the room and let out a sigh before picking it up.

Even though I enjoyed Walter’s style more, the difference wasn’t the writing. T.C. Boyle is a great writer and a genius at taking unexpected turns in a story. And the stories themselves were roughly about the same thing – ruined people.

The difference was that Walter made unlikable characters into people we rooted for. A movie producer with iffy morals, a wild child ruining his mother’s life, a hired goon. On spec, they seem unlikely to get our sympathy or care. But in Beautiful Ruins they do. Walter shook my distaste with well placed background, a humorous interaction, or sometimes a simple action I could relate to (scratching his calf with his toe). I begrudgingly, and then not so begrudgingly, handed over my care.

Boyle did the opposite. His characters were consistently selfish, awful, mean, and had very few if any redeeming qualities. They didn’t act like humans, so I couldn’t relate to them (enter your own joke here). I am not questioning Boyle’s skill or motivation, he is an immensely talented writer and if those characters came off like that then that is what he intended. But the result was that I did not give a shit about what happened to any of his characters. Not. One. (shit or character).

I grew up watching movies with a clear bad guy and a clear good guy. If you weren’t on Indiana Jones’ side, then you were a bad dude who kicked puppies and had no heart. If Arnie or Sly were against you, then you had no redeeming quality; you were simply evil incarnate. I can’t remember Arnie walking into a room where a drug lord or terrorist was doing a jigsaw puzzle or talking to his mom on the phone getting her recipe for Swedish meatballs. He was raping a pigeon or mutilating a kitty. I learned to hate the bad guys and root for the good guys. I wanted that pigeon molester dead and I knew that Arnie was going to make that happen within the next 65 minutes.

Stock bad guys in 1980s action flicks aside, I don’t think this sort of characterization really flies. To be totally invested in a story we should have some understanding of what motivates a bad guy. And when it’s done well, it really works. How is it that we came to actually care about Darth Vader or Severus Snape or even He Who Shall Not Be Named? We learned about their motivation, we saw their past, or we observed them being human.

It doesn’t take much (spoiler alert in this paragraph, so if you’ve been living on Pluto and haven’t seen the last Harry Potter, avert your eyes). In the last moments of the Battle of Hogwarts, Narcissa Malfoy asks Harry if her son Draco is still alive. When the really bad dudes confront the really good guys in what appears to be their finish, Draco’s dad Lucius calls him over to them. Draco, for his part, hesitates. He’s just fought for the good guys, who are his friends and classmates. Like most Harry Potter readers and viewers I developed a deep dislike for the superior, unlikable, evil Malfoys. But in the last thirty minutes of an eight movie series, I truly felt for them. It wasn’t evil Narcissa, but a terrified mother. It wasn’t Lucius, but a worried dad. And Draco was just a teenager who was torn and confused between friends and family. So many hundreds of hours of disliking three people was shattered in three interactions that constituted about six words, four of which were “Draco.” Damn!

I suppose my suggestion to you writers out there is understand why your character is such a prick and then make me understand it. Or make them do things I can relate to. Have him call his mom when he’s sick or feed his cat; have her order waffles in a restaurant and then excitedly await them. If you do that I will look forward to reading your book and I will pick it up, sans sigh.

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