Villain or Victim?
I hate clichéd stories, where the main character is some good-looking, square-jawed action hero, and the villain could have just walked straight out of a James Bond novel. I have pretty high standards for my heroes and villains, actually. Hero, in fact, is probably completely the wrong word to use, because in my books, my main characters are far from heroic. They represent ordinary people: you and me, the person who lives next door, that guy walking past your house just now… They’re often desperately flawed and frequently make the wrong decisions, but for me, that’s what makes them interesting. Telling stories through the eyes of people we can identify with makes their experiences so much easier to relate to. You feel everything with them – the elation and the devastation, the impossible highs and the absolute lows.
It’s slightly different where villains are concerned.
You might not agree when you watch the news, but I don’t believe there are that many people in the world who are inherently bad. Sure, there are plenty who’ll think little of killing, maiming, stealing etc. but, on the whole, the vast majority of us just wouldn’t.
So if I can write about ordinary heroes, is there such a thing as an ordinary villain? I think there is, actually, and it all boils down to perspective. You see, the best villains are always those who believe they’re the ones who are right, and that the good guys we’re rooting for are the ones who’ve got it all wrong. Circumstance might have distorted their perspective but, to my mind, an effective villain should be as dedicated to their cause as anyone else. Have you read my Hater books? This idea is the crux of the story: the population splits in two, with each side unable to coexist with the other any longer. A bitter civil war ensues, with mankind slowly beating itself to a pulp because everyone thinks they’re right, and no one will accept they’re wrong. It’s a frightening downward spiral, and it’s all too plausible. We’re hardwired to want to survive. When threatened, we counter people’s threats with our own more serious threats, and we match their bombs with even bigger ones.
My genre of choice is dystopian horror (as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now!), and as Halloween is fast approaching, let me give you a few more examples to explain what I mean about these ‘accidental villains’.
I think zombies are the greatest of all monsters. They’re cold, detached, unemotional and relentless. They’ll eat you soon as look at you, and there’s no room for negotiation, because you don’t get a second chance with the living dead. But let’s take a couple of steps back and look at them in a slightly different light… As terrifying as they might be, it’s not their fault they’re this way. They didn’t ask to be reanimated – what happened to them was totally out of their control. In fact, it was probably the result of someone else who thought they were doing something for the common good, some crazy scientist looking for a cure for cancer or trying to eradicate flu! The germ, parasite, radiation leak, voodoo spell or whatever other factor it was that made the dead rise from their graves has simply rewritten their instincts and moral code. Or is it even more basic than that? Are we sure they want to attack us, or are we completely misreading their behaviours? Are they just as helpless as us, but unable to express themselves in any other way than through violence? (p.s. read the Autumn series for my take on the answer to that particular question!).
Another example. One of my favourite films is The Fly (particularly David Cronenberg’s remake – yes, a remake that’s worth watching!). Seth Brundle didn’t start out as a killer, did he? He was a victim of circumstance – just an incredibly intelligent scientist who made an incredibly stupid mistake and ended up sharing a teleport booth with a bluebottle.
Frankenstein’s monster – there’s another one. Just a lonely, terrified, patchwork-quilt of a man who never intended hurting anyone. And even his creator wasn’t entirely to blame for the carnage caused by his creation, was he?
And why stop there? Let’s look at some more extreme horror villains. The werewolf – bloodthirsty killers or desperate, cursed men and women? After watching American Werewolf in London for about the hundredth time recently, I know which I believe. And how about the xenomorph from Alien? One of the most hideous and violent creatures ever committed to screen. It’s described as a perfect killing machine, but is that what it thinks it is? I doubt it. It has to kill to survive – slaying humans is necessary to complete its reproductive cycle. Killing us is not a sport it enjoys, it does it because it has to.
Can you see where I’m going with this? I’m just saying, don’t be too judgmental when it comes to villains. Maybe it’s not always their fault…
It’s almost Halloween, the time of year when all manner of creatures traditionally come crawling out of the woodwork. Maybe this year, instead of running and screaming from them like you usually do, why not take a deep breath and give them a hug?
About the Author
David Moody was born in 1970 and grew up in Birmingham, UK, on a diet of trashy horror and pulp science fiction books and movies. He worked as a bank manager and as operations manager for a number of financial institutions before giving up the day job to write about the end of the world for a living.
He has written a number of horror novels, including AUTUMN, which has been downloaded more than half a million times since publication in 2001 and has spawned a series of sequels and a movie starring Dexter Fletcher and David Carradine. Film rights to HATER were snapped up by Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) and Mark Johnson (producer of the Chronicles of Narnia films). Moody lives with his wife and a houseful of daughters and stepdaughters, which may explain his pre-occupation with Armageddon. His latest novel, TRUST, is currently being serialised free online at: www.trustdavidmoody.com.