Book Stuff, Writing Life

*Bad Guys

Over the last year, in searching out books to read aloud to my younger daughter, I’ve had occasion to think about bad guys.

Let me step back a bit to talk first about reading aloud. We’ve had lots of fun reading picture books together, but as she got to be 7 and now 8, I wanted to share the pleasure of a longer book. I should have known, from my own experience in choosing passages to read at readings, that it wouldn’t be easy. Books that I enjoyed as a kid (Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, Little Women) didn’t read well aloud.

I found two series that worked, but the problem is, well, the bad guys. You see, my daughter and I have different opinions on what is scary. The Harry Potter series is delightful to read aloud. It has the combination of inventiveness and simplicity that works. But my daughter finds the suspense excruciating as it gets to the climax, even though she already knows the outcome. And twice now, just before the end of each of the first two books, she has insisted no more Harry Potter ever. After a night or two of fearfulness and trouble sleeping, she braved the end. But I’m hesitant to move on to the third book.

On the other hand, we have C.S. Lewis. A year ago I started reading The Magician’s Nephew to her and the evil of the uncle and the (later to become) white witch scared the crap out of me. I read the whole series as a kid. But the twisted manipulativeness of these characters just felt all too real and all too evil. Their ability to dissemble and confuse those around them is something that I’ve seen and I just couldn’t stand it. I told her it was too scary for me.

Lord Voldemort on the other hand, is a simpler type of bad guy, like the bad guys in The Lord of the Rings. They come with signs that say “bad guy here” and their brand of evil is obvious and straightforward. The good guys can’t be fooled. To me what is scarier than facing the bad guys is not knowing who they are.

So in my first novel, I chose to write about a straightforward kind of bad guy, the bully who is overtly a bully, and to make it even easier, he is not terribly bright, and the pain that has led him to this place, the emptiness and the longings are ones that I could imagine. And I did imagine them in order to write about him with recognition of his humanity. Interestingly, even so, almost nobody who has interviewed me or written to me or asked a question at a reading has ever referred to him.

In my second novel the bad guy is more pernicious, more akin to the uncle and the witch, but quite a minor character. And though I’ve known people like him, one reader somewhere online objected to his unremitting nastiness.

In the novel I’m finishing now, the bad guys are smart and carry out their badness under the guise of respectability. And there is no Aslan to finish them off. Only us.

But we can be enough.

They get theirs. I promise.

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8 thoughts on “*Bad Guys”

  1. I can see that it would be a challenge to find just the right books to read out loud to your daughter — and also a challenge to find just the right way to characterize the bad guy in your own writing.

  2. I love this – bad guys are infinitely fascinating to me. And consider the third type of bad guy, the one who is (maybe) remorseful and now telling the story. That’s the one I find the most fascinating (from a literary standpoint, in real life this is the type that scares me the most), the one who wants to convince the reader of their goodness…or that they deserve forgiveness. Putting that dilemma before the reader is something I really enjoy trying to work out.

  3. I guess she’s too old for Roald Dahl? My dad read those to me and I loved them. Interested to hear more about the bad guys in novel #3. And I agree with you about the uncle and the white witch. The movie was pretty scary too.

  4. I am very interested in villains too, Lilian, and I was intrigued by yours in The River Midnight precisely because he was rendered sympathetically and therefore wasn’t altogether monstrous, though he did a monstrous thing. It’s that exact complication that Capote also explored so unforgettably in In Cold Blood: a bad guy’s history affects his humanity.

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