I'm not a "black hat" or a "white hat" kind of guy.
As a child my Dad used to enjoy watching Westerns. I remember him describing the plot of one such movie when he pointed to one character saying, “he’s the baddie.” I wondered how he could tell, aside from the fact that he’d probably seen that movie fifty times since his youth, when he added “He’s a bad-guy because he’s wearing a black hat, but that guy on the horse with a white hat is the goodie.” It may have been said to stop me being a distraction, but those words of wisdom stuck with me.
I developed an innate ability to spot ‘black hat’ and ‘white hat’ markers in every movie I watched and I was damn good at picking them too. The hats extended to other markers, like scars and limps. Give me a seemingly well intentioned movie character with a scar or a limp (or a black hat) and it seemed inevitable that he’d demonstrate his true bad self by the end of the movie. Cowboys or not, I could spot the good guys from the bad no matter what I was watching. It was fun, until I was summarily banned from family movie nights and cinematic outings. Apparently what was painfully obvious to me wasn’t appreciated when shared, and I got tired of having to explain my reasoning.
Does that make me a better writer? No. Far be it for me to think that not having familiar characters is going to mean I’m a better/good writer. I just don’t want to write predictable stories, so I obviously can’t have predictable characters. It also means I have to work at my characters … and I can’t cheat. Because I can’t put a black hat on a character to make them a ‘bad guy', I need to really show the character as being bad. Sure, looks are important and can greatly contribute to how the reader experiences the characters and story, but it takes more.
Yes … this is all about 'show not tell’, but I’d like for readers to think about this from a writer’s point of view. If an author can’t use tell-tale markers, and has to ‘show' it, have you ever thought about what that really means to a writer? How do you show a character as being ‘bad’ (or good) if you can’t just put a hat on him or her?
As a writer, I can admit to enjoying creating my 'bad guys' more than the 'good guys'. Sure, the bad-guy might not score the maiden in the end, but how you paint him or her requires you to stretch your imagination and really show, not tell, and as a writer I can tell you that this, without the use of a ‘hat’, requires effort. How bad is he or she? Does he just park in disabled spaces or does he park on the disabled after first stabbing them, and their mother? Let me assure you, it all requires careful thought. Not bad enough and your bad guy will be more of an annoyance, too much and your bad guy will become a force that your good guy can’t match unless for implausible twists. It all requires consistency too; was there an isolated occurrence of a bad deed or a long history, or is he progressively getting badder? Think about this too: if the bad guy isn’t the right measure of bad, the drama of your story could well seem more melodramatic or completely outshine your main character.
Where am I going with this? I just want readers to think about the characters in your next or favourite books, particularly the bad guys. Are they really bad, or bad enough ... and how do you know? Do you only know they are bad on account of how some aspect of their physical attributes, or their history; that you’ve been told, or have you ‘seen' it for yourself? Looks can help, sure, and backstory is important, but it can’t make up for the reader experiencing the right measure of bad as they read along.
As critical as I am of other writers’ writing, I’d like to think that characters in my books would pass my own criticism. In ‘Minions’, I had a dilemma where I thought I might have crossed a line in creating sociopathic, animal abusing Balkan refugee bastard named ’Nebojsa’. His actions made him bad enough, but describing some of those actions on paper had me concerned that some badness shouldn’t be in a book. “I can’t write that”, I thought … but hey, it was my story and I could make him as evil as I wanted, and as it happened I really wanted an undeniably bad guy. In ‘The Traveller’, my ‘bad guy’ is a woman and you never know her name, let alone what she looks like, so I couldn’t cheat with any obvious physical anomalies to paint the picture of a nasty, evil woman. That said, I don’t think there’s any ambiguity who the ‘baddie’ is in the story and no-one could assert that she’s just the victim of some misogynistic misunderstanding. No hats to be seen anywhere … which makes me happy.
Personally, I find bad guys the real measure of a story. I don’t want them to just provide an opportunity for the hero/protagonist to do his or her thing. I want bad guys/girls that make me think about how he/she is put together arguably more than I want to care about the main character. If the truth be known, I want to hate or at least understand him/her not just because he/she is the antagonist of the story, but because the character has been painted in a way which makes me feel driven to do so. I don’t succumb to the superficiality of how a character looks … my bad guys need to show their worth.
Just having a 'black hat’ won’t do it for me. What about you?