I’ve finished the 12th novel in the Vincent Calvino series—9 Gold Bullets—and have been reflecting over the course of this series, how I have developed not only the character of the private eye but the villains who seep into each story. The contemplation has caused me to reflect on how a novelist goes about selecting, describing and using villains.
They can be a cardboard cut out, a cipher whose purpose is to wear the mask of evil. This kind of villain we know very little about except for his badness. The villain has habits, traits, morals, and beliefs we hate. We rarely have mixed feeling when such a person dies. We’re actually cheering his demise. Such a character, though common in many books, appeals to a basic blood instinct for violence and revenge. Books like this sell very well. That alone tells you all you need to know about the reflective qualities of many people. They don’t want a deep understanding of the bad guy’s world, a world where he is often an ordinary, good guy. They don’t want confusion or ambiguity. They wanted the villain in the black hat and want to cheer when he takes a bullet in the heart.
Governments know this psychological need better than writers. It brings in votes. There is a formula to brew up a villain.
It comes from understanding how the world around us creates a villain. First, you start with a decision as to whether the villain operates in a private or public sphere. Most crime fiction is about villains in the private sphere. A public sphere villain is the product of a mass-market creation, one intended to appeal across gender, class and ethnic lines. Villains bring people together. The political establishment, like a good crime novelist, knows all of the techniques needed to demonize those it fears, those who question or usurp their right to power. In private, we do much the same but with a huge difference—those at the top of political establishment everywhere have and exercise real power. They can use that power to turn dissenters into dime store villains. No novelist no matter how popular could ever hope to compete with the full force of the state channeled through the media.
Some villains are more difficult to manufacture. It all depends on the raw material.
If you want to create a villain among those who look, act, walk and talk like you, then you need to go full guns blazing to make that person someone outside the scope of society’s protection; someone who is evil, wicked, threatening, someone whose very presence raises fear and loathing. You need a way to turn friends into foes and make them evil demons whose lives, when taken, are used to reduce the level of anxiety by the authorities.
This is how the hierarchy protects and nurtures its own. People share an identity and part of that identity is the perch on which a person is assigned. Not everyone is happy with their perch assignment. From the view of many governments, a villain is someone who questions the legitimacy of the hierarchy by screaming unfairness abounds in who occupies which perch. Even the most liberal of people raised to defend and support the hierarchy find themselves willing to restrict freedom of speech when that speech raises unconformable questions about the fairness, transparency and accountability of members at the top. This translates as: If you have a high run perch, you will fight like hell to keep it.
Foreigners are much easier to usher into the villain corner. That’s why they are popular villains in fiction, too. Such individuals don’t share our identity. They look, dress, think and talk differently. They aren’t real people; they are walking stereotypes of what we are taught about such people. The bottom line is that foreigner outsiders. Those on the outside should expect entitlement to the same rights and benefits as even the mostly lowly members of the hierarchy. In Arizona the state legislature passed a law that allows the police to stop and demand papers proving nationality. Some have said the law is a coded way to repress illegal Mexicans in that state. Arizona sits on the USA and Mexican border and has a large Mexican population. Arizona politicians have used fear and suspicion and loathing as a basis for creating new police powers to separate citizens from that other—the non-citizen.
That is an example of the true face of power arrangements. It is an ugly face. The tribe gathers emotional resources and funnels the rage and blame at foreigners. Repressive measures like the Arizona law are a common response when the hierarchy feels an existential threaten from within. In such times, the official measures fall heavily on those who resist government repression—they become vilified by power holders—and once that message is officially sanctioned, a class of people become a demonized, and further marginalized. The worst of it, though, always falls on those who are the target of such repression. As foreigners in Arizona they have no countervailing political voice. The outsiders have no choice but to take the jack-boot aimed at their midsection or to rebel. The predominant message of such a society is the same—foreigners are told to accept their outsider status; they have no protection, no rights; and mostly, they have no choice or freedom.
Governments, I contend, do a much better job at creating mass audience for villains that novelists. They get a lot of practice. It is a way of life for them. To make a bestseller on the New York Times best seller list often means the writer has found a trapdoor and tapped into the public villain making enterprise.
What I have described is one explanation as to why villains, ones manufactured by the State, often turn out to be anti-heroes. We root for the person unfairly and arbitrarily singled out for a different kind of treatment from those around him or her. In such a struggle those exercising the repressive instrumentalities of the state are the villains.
In writing a crime novel, there is usually a villain. The hero is challenged in dealing with his adversaries’ skill, cunning and resources. The suspense is whether the hero is able to overcome a committed and determined opponent.
A reader of fiction decides by the books they buy what kind of villain and hero he or she demands, and what the relationship in such confrontations lead to. It is their dance of life and death readers seek to follow, but first must believe that the hero stands for something worthy, noble, a matter of principle and honor. That is the promise of good over bad, or right over wrong. As a reader you instinctive form a bond with a character who shares your views about what is the right thing to do. Once that decision is made, who is a hero and who is a villain falls easily into place. Very few can see the good and bad on both sides of the barricades.
In reality, though, I suspect many people pick their fiction like they pick their political leaders or candidates: They want a black and white confrontation. Years of indoctrination, within every culture, ensure a degree of uniformity on perception of who is a hero and who is a villain. The political structure has a huge vested interest in controlling the image of both. Official controls such as censorship and restrictive legislation, like the Arizona immigration law, are attempts to keep the purity of a myth from being tarnished even though the reality suggests this is futile.
There is another point worth noting. The greatest fear of authorities is the spread of discontent through the existing as people begin to question and criticize the fairness of the political structure. The classic response to this situation is for the government to demonize those individuals and cast them out in the category of non-human or non-us. As a rule of thumb, the louder the drumming of the propaganda organs to vilify opponents, the more likely is this is a signal, a precursor to slaughter.
Studies have shown that in modern war, the number of soldiers willing to shoot and kill enemy combatants is very small. The overwhelming majority of soldiers historically haven’t shot to kill; they have shot over their enemies of heads. And these enemies were outsiders, foreigners, those outside the scope of protection. Think how much harder is it for soldiers to kill another citizen. To do so, those doing the killing must be told and must believe the people they are killing are demons. Call them “communists” or ‘terrorists’ or ‘traitors’ doesn’t much matter; the effect is the same—they are outside the circle of the community to which humanity, justice and empathy are extended.