Friday, May 20, 2011

The Villain in the Mirror by Barbara Fradkin

Barbara Fradkin is a retired Ottawa psychologist and award-winning fiction writer whose work with children and families provides much of the insight and inspiration for her complex psychological stories. She has an affinity for the dark side, and her compelling stories haunt several anthologies and magazines, including the Ladies Killing Circle series.

Her eight detective novels feature the impetuous, quixotic Ottawa Police Inspector Michael Green, whose passion for justice and love of the hunt often interfere with family, friends and police protocol. Fifth Son and Honour Among Men won back-to-back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel in 2005 and 2007.

Inspector Green's latest chilling challenge, Beautiful Lie the Dead , is a story about love and all its complications. The Ottawa and Toronto book launches in November were both a huge success, and it is now available in bookstores and online. 


The Villain in the Mirror
by Barbara Fradkin

Lately, as I start planning my next Inspector Green novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about villains. What makes a good villain? Does he have to be evil? Scary, ruthless, deadly? He is the hero’s central foe, the one against whom the hero pits his wits, his courage, and sometimes even his life. So he’d better be good. Perhaps the most powerful, rounded character in the whole story.

Fictional villains fall into two broad categories. First is the evil beyond the gates, the villain who either literally or metaphorically is placed outside the community by his nature or actions, feared or hated because he is different from us. Vampires, aliens and dragons fit the bill, obviously, but in crime fiction, this type of villain is exemplified by the serial killer, the international terrorist, the “madman”. And on a less dramatic scale, even the corrupt politician or greedy developer.

Placing evil beyond the gates makes us feel safer. We know where the threat lies and it is not us. Stories with external villains are often fascinating, scary, and thrilling, but their moral premise is simple. We are the good guys; the foe howling outside the gates is bad. Good and evil are clear-cut, and once the evil is defeated, goodness and safety will be restored to our community. In our increasingly confusing world, where threats are paraded across the news every day, this is a welcome thought.

I sometimes enjoy these books for the thrill of the ride, but ultimately I find myself frustrated with the cardboard quality of the villain. A villain who is nothing but greed, madness or depravity is not a rounded or intricate character.

By placing him outside the gates, we deprive ourselves (and the reader) of a good look at him. Even worse, I find writers do a very bad job of writing convincing evil characters. Few of us have met serial killers or international terrorists, few have had a chance to ask probing questions that would allow us a glimpse inside their heads. To create powerful characters, we authors have to be able to slip into their skin, experience the world through their senses and live in their thoughts.

But it’s hard to write about someone radically different from oneself. How many of us can understand the world through a serial killer’s eyes? So we rely on secondary sources – on books written by experts, on biographies such as Ted Bundy’s (a fascinating, chilling read), on court transcripts or pop psychology.

With due diligence, some writers can create a portrait that seems true enough to those who’ve  never met a real one. But most of the time the portraits are caricatures, the very exaggeration of their villainy serving to keep them firmly outside the gates.

But what of the evil within the gates? That is the second, and to me, far more fascinating category of villain. Ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations or driven to desperate ends. Facing their bleakest hour and their darkest choice. Frightened, enraged, panicked, cornered...

These villains are you, me, our neighbours and our friends. They are often good people, or at least people simply trying to be happy and to cope with the ups and downs that life throws at them. To create this villain, a writer has to look no further than a mirror. We’ve all been terrified at some point in our lives, angry enough to kill someone, greedy enough to contemplate how things would be if rich old Aunt Agatha were to be hit by a bus. We all know desperation.

Writers can walk in this villain’s shoes and see the world through his eyes simply by using our imagination and calling up similar feelings inside ourselves. Digging deep within our dark soul is not only cathartic, but it makes very believable villains! Readers can walk that journey with us and our villain.

They can empathize with our villain, see the train wreck of their lives, understand the inevitable crash, and if a writer is skilled, identify with his pain. That’s not to say his crime should be excused, but a reader comes away from such a story with the sense of “What would I have done in this circumstance?”

For me, there is no more powerful story, and no greater compliment to a writer.

Rather than breeding fear and division, this type of story breeds compassion. There are certainly monsters in this world, and I think it’s our survival instinct that makes us fascinated by them, to study them so as to defeat them.

But if we look closely enough, we’ll see that even some of them belong inside the gates. Maybe that’s the greatest challenge of the writer. To understand and portray the complexity of even those so-called madmen or mass murderers, so that readers might think as they close the book “There but for the Grace of God go I.”

That’s what I will aim for. Wish me luck.   


Mary Jane Maffini said...

Terrific and and thought-provoking post, Barbara.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Barbara, Welcome!!

Very thought provoking post!

I'm always haunted by a book that gives me a villain that also appeals to me in some ways. It's the truth of the world though, isn't it? scary to know that we are not always going to immediately recognize the bad guy.

bo parker said...

"These (inside) villains are you, me, our neighbours and our friends."
And the most frightening aspect of all is the thin, often fragile, line of separation.

Eleanor said...

Good discussion, Barbara. The second kind of villain is far creepier - not to mention lingers in the mind longer - than the first one. Because that villain could live right next door... or share my house. Or might be me, in the right circumstanfes.