It's a lesson writers are taught early: very few villains think they're the villain. Oh, there are some who revel in depravity, all right, but they are rare. I find the ones who feel wronged, or sincerely believe they are doing the right thing, or at least fulfilling "the way things work," in their minds, are the most interesting, because we're more likely to run into them.
Plumbing that mindset, or at least expressing it without reverting to cartoonishness, can be tricky. And there is always the problem of making evil sympathetic. How much motivation do we need? I like Thomas Harris for this example. In Red Dragon, we learn what made Francis Dolarhyde into a monster, and the story is better for it. He's somewhat of a pawn played by Hannibal Lecter in his revenge against FBI profiler Will Graham, and we can be sad for the tormented child he was while still loathing the man he became. On the other hand, I didn't want to know any of the origin of Hannibal Lecter, especially what was revealed in Hannibal Rising. I haven't watched more than a few episodes of the series. He was perfect as the cunning and effete cannibal, and I didn't mind seeing him out in the world in Hannibal the sequel, if I forget that ridiculous dinner scene. For me, Rising was a mistake. We saw too much. I wouldn't have minded a small aside, perhaps in Clarice Starling researching his past, that hinted at what happened to his sister. But I'll use his own words:
"A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone. Go back to school, little Starling."
That's the line from the book. They changed it in the film because Amarone wasn't a well-known wine at the time. To me, it is better when he remains a mystery. Some villains don't require much depth to work. I'm reading the excellent She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper, and the villain is the leader of a white supremacist meth dealing gang in prison, who wants revenge because his brother has been killed. I don't know if Harper will explain how Crazy Craig became the leader of Aryan Steel, but I can safely say that I am not yearning to know. In Bad Boy Boogie, I have Jay Desmarteaux nearly get swept into joining a similar gang when he's a young fish in prison. Like serial killers with the triangle of pyromania, bed-wetting, and, animal abuse, those lured into hate groups lean toward a type: they are young people looking to belong, who can be told that their "birthright" has been stolen from them, that they can only get it back by fighting "the other." It has been explored by some but is not quite as well-known as the serial killer. I recommend Romantic Violence: Memoirs of an American Skinhead by Christian Picciolini, who went on to form Life After Hate, which helps people escape from hate groups.
We're seeing how many can be conned into believing this, on the TV news right now. And I wonder how many writers are trying to get inside those heads and make sympathetic, "likable" characters, to appease the market that will have had its interest piqued by the horror show on the tube. I am not saying don't write about racist characters, hate groups, and people consumed and misguided by hatred. By all means, please do. If American History X had been as good as The Silence of the Lambs, we might find neo-Nazis so boring and pathetic that even sad-sack internet trolls would realize that following their ways would only lead to further ridicule and defeat. But it's a fine line. "Understanding" hate does not require pathos any more than understanding Hannibal Lecter required noshing down on some long pig with a nice Chianti. We've known how they tick for a long time.
LBJ said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” When someone feels low, you give them someone to blame, preferably someone they already feel is below them. The other. And when they start asking how come the "others" are doing better then they are, you say they cheat and steal, and they have those sneaky other-others with all the money, the doctors and lawyer types if-you-know-what-I-mean, on their side. Then it's a conspiracy, a huge evil working against them, which is a lot more comforting to believe than the idea that you're just not as good, or didn't work as hard, as one of "them."
The thing is, all this in a background still doesn't make a whole character. And not everyone takes the same path. What kind of person did you imagine when I expounded on the LBJ quote? I'm guessing it was a working-class Southern white male. And that strategy was used against them en masse, so that's fair, but the racist marchers we saw in Charlottesville weren't working class. Their leaders were college-educated Midwesterners, too. The men toting thousand-dollar battle rifles and gear aren't living hand to mouth. The 20-year-old murderer who plowed a new Dodge Challenger into counter-protesters didn't look like he came from poor. I don't have a lot of sympathy for the guys losing their jobs for chanting hatred, giving Hitler salutes, and surrounding a black church with torches this weekend. One even had the gall to say, "that's not the real me." Then who was it?
Most racists aren't dumb enough to wave torches in front of TV cameras. I should have been prime pickings for hate groups, growing up. Working class parents divorced, and my alcoholic father skipped child support for years. I didn't fit in well, my head was in the clouds all the time and I was the last chosen for sports, and I had a lot of anger over my dad treating my mom terribly, and not being strong enough to stop him. My mother found work as a waitress at a country club that catered exclusively to Jewish people, and while she never used anti-Semitic slurs, I remember the story of one woman who kept dropping her napkin on the floor during a French dinner service, because my mother had to keep folding it and placing it on her lap. Knowing my mom, she probably made a face the second time around, so the lady decided to punish her for it. It's the kind of story that sticks with you when you're living at grandma's, never getting to see your mom because she's at work when you get home from school and still sleeping after a hard night of work, so Grams makes you breakfast.
Growing up in the '70s and early '80s in a majority Italian Catholic town, I heard my share of racist and anti-Semitic jokes. The ones that kids have to explain to each other because they don't know why they are supposed to be funny. I'm thankful that several of my friends in school were Jewish, so I couldn't "other" them. I remember inviting a bunch of friends to my birthday party in grade school and a fight breaking out between Billy and Fred because Billy said the n-word. I just didn't understand my Billy was being that way. My father was racist for sure. He did masonry work and never got ahead because of his drinking and chip on his shoulder. Eventually a boss would rub him the wrong way and he'd make the guy fire him, after picking a fight. He was the eldest son but the only sibling who worked with his hands, and liked to offend his family's white-collar friends by being openly racist at gatherings, knowing they wouldn't stand up to him because he liked to break bricks with those hands as a party trick. A typical bully with a chip on his shoulder. I'm thankful that my anger for the things he said to my mother while I stood there, young and helpless, made me know that he was the wrong one to use as a role model.
Thankfully for that, I had my uncle Paul, the joke king, who calls Barry Manilow "Barry Cantaloupe," who ran gay bars in New York for the Jewish mob, and who told me tales of Betty Grable, his transgender bartender yenta for mobsters looking for gay or trans hook-ups, screening a stolen copy of Midnight Cowboy in the basement, hosting a lesbian wedding where they rode up the aisles on a Harley, and raids by the police. (Yes, there's a book in the works.) He's no Atticus Finch, either, but few are.
My mother left the country club for a cafeteria job, where the management was black. We didn't have Bring Your Kids to Work Day, but in summer we rode our bikes and sneaked in, sometimes. I met Harold and Teresa and Norman, and worked under them when I turned sixteen, as a dishwasher and night cook. I heard Harold talk about World War II, Norman about going marlin fishing, swam with their grandchildren in the workplace pool. Wondered why some people always got out of the water when they were there. Those people, unlike my father, would never use slurs openly. Only when they were "among friends," and certainly not before gophering up on tiptoe to ensure the crowd was lily white. They'd say this was for their safety, so they wouldn't "get their asses kicked," because you know, "those people" were violent. Not because they were cowards who didn't want to be known as a racist, of course.
What does this have to do with writing? I think it is important to not whitewash the racism out of life. Not every story needs it. That would be awful. We all need to escape it, and I won't judge a book as "unrealistic" if it's devoid of bigoted characters. But if we want to write about them, they can't all be torch-bearing Nazis, just like all killers can't be Hannibal Lecter. And we don't need entire books explaining why they became that way. Iago is a fine example. He says he enjoys evil for evil's sake, but then tells us that Othello passed him over for a promotion. That has gnawed at him for a long time, this outsider who has not only surpassed him in rank but thinks he is better than him, and thinks him not even worthy of a rank so far below his own. When you hear racists talk about "cutting in line" or Affirmative Action, Shakespeare knew the score. It's echoed in Roxane Gay's memoir Hunger, when she opened her acceptance letter from Yale within view of a white male peer: “He looked at me with plain disgust. ‘Affirmative Action,’ he sneered, unable to swallow the bitter truth that I, a black girl, had achieved something that he could not.”
Her book is a fine read, and a tough one. But I'll leave the exploration of body-shaming for another blog post. Some don't like reading about racist or bigoted villains; they think it's an easy way to make us hate the antagonist. Well, you don't need to make them torch-bearing caricatures, even if we know they aren't a relic of our shameful past anymore, but icons in a shameful present. Some have used the excuse that calling these bigots "Nazis" somehow makes them act out. Don't fall for that one. Evil for evil's sake, whether performed by Iago or an entitled young man radicalized by the echo chamber of hatred and conspiracy on a web forum, is self-destructive behavior. When you loathe yourself, you may permit yourself to become loathsome. You may seek the solace of martyrdom, because it's easier than the harrowing road toward the possibility of redemption.
As for whether redemption is possible, and how one crawls out of the sewer of hatred, I'll again recommend Christian Picciolini's memoir. He may never fly with the angels, but he takes daring leaps anyway. He can't take back the violence he committed, but if he can divert enough bigots from committing violence in the name of hate, his fingertips may brush feathers for one fleeting moment. If there can be life after hate, there may be life without it.