Heroes Never Rust #97 by Sean Ironman
Terror Inc.: How Bad is Bad
The third issue of Terror Inc. focuses on the villains. The main villain is revealed as Talita, a woman Terror loved eight hundred years ago. Her team is called Death’s Reign, a group of South American thugs turned special forces. There seems to be a religious aspect to their following of Talita, with one member sacrificing himself so Talita may use his body to make herself stronger. As he dies, he yells out, “Rapture.” Death’s Reign are more than bad guys. One offers this bit of small talk as they search for Terror: “So this bitch is doin’ her thing, and the H kicks in like a ton of bricks. She has a heart attack and dies in my lap. Best I ever had.” Another two have this conversation: “Dude, Man, I fuckin’ cut that ho.” The other replies, “I know, dude. I cut ‘er too. She was gooood.” This group does not just kill for money, or for religion, or for any purpose that could be considered good. They are evil through and through.
In fiction courses, there is a focus, and rightfully so, on crafting three-dimensional characters. Everybody does what they feel is right, students are taught. No one is evil. People do things for reasons. I agree with this, mostly. Yet, in the real world, we have murders, rapes, greed, racism, sexism, etc. Of course, murderers and rapists have, at one point in their life, done something good or had (or have) good qualities. Doing something bad does not mean there are no good qualities. Yet, some people are real scumbags. Some people do not just kill someone because they had to. Some people enjoy doing the bad things. Take a look at Louis CK’s recent SNL monologue. As he humorously discusses, child molesters enjoy molesting children. If it wasn’t enjoyable at some level, people wouldn’t do it.
There seems to be, at least to me, a “rule” writers confine themselves to: characters must have a reason for acting the way they do. Under this “rule,” writers try to explain why a bad character is bad. In X-Men comics, Magneto is no longer just a villain—he is a terrorist because he is a Holocaust survivor and doesn’t want to see mutants treated the same way as the Jews. In Wicked, the Wicked Witch of the West is no longer just an evil with—she was born with green skin and was despised by her father. And in Smallville, Lex Luthor is a boy who had to grow up under the rule of a disappointed and hard father. Sure, no one does anything just because. There are reasons behind people’s actions and words. But, writers should be careful about trying to explain. Explanations can take readers out of the story by showing the writer. Sometimes, giving the villain an interesting back story or reason for being a villain works well. Magneto is one of the greatest comic book villains. But, he became that way because he straddled the line between hero and villain—once, he even ran Xavier’s school when the professor was thought to have been killed. When he was first created, Magneto had no Holocaust background. Chris Claremont took a typical comic book villain and ran with the new idea of Magneto as survivor. But, even though Magneto has a reason, he is still a terrorist. He’s still a bad guy. The reasoning behind his actions make him a fully rounded character, and being a Holocaust survivor gets readers to understand why a person would think a race of people could be wiped off the planet, but the goal of adding this reasoning wasn’t to make Magneto less evil.
There are bad people in the world. There are people who are just pieces of shit, that if they were to die, the world would be a better place. Studies have shown people gain empathy by reading. Entering into a character’s mind allows people to see and feel the world from a different point of view. But, perhaps that same empathy is also blocking us from the simple fact that some people are bastards. A bad upbringing for Lex Luthor doesn’t make him less evil. Some people do bad things for reasons that are still bad, even if they view them as right. Having empathy isn’t the same as forgiving or excusing actions. Readers need to understand a character’s actions—they need to feel that the character could be real.
Currently, I’m on a road trip, and while driving through northern Arkansas I passed a billboard advertising “White Pride Radio.” I would like you to their website, but personally I feel no one should give these people the time of day. And, just a couple of weeks ago, while looking at reviews for Mad Max: Fury Road (a fantastic film, by the way), I came across the news that a group was boycotting the film because of the strong female characters in the film. This group felt that the film should be focused on Max and lose the feminist angle—their reasoning was solely that the film was harming masculinity because it showed tough women. Again, I will not be linking to their website (which contains far worse sexist and homophobic comments) because they do not deserve the attention.
In yet another example, it was recently discovered that when a person searched “nigga house” on Google maps, the result showed the White House. The reason for that had little to do with Google as a company. Searches adjust to how people use the terms, so “nigga house” led to the White House because enough people online used the term to describe the White House. Yes, I understand that the people behind my examples have been molded with these views based on environment, but that doesn’t change how wrong these actions are.
My point is that sometimes providing a villain with a tragic backstory works well (Magneto), but writers shouldn’t be forced, or feel forced, into making a character sympathetic. A villain doesn’t have to regret his or her actions, or feel that there’s no other way. A villain doesn’t need to murder someone and go home and take care of his or her dog, who the villain loves more than anything. Some people beat dogs. Some people kill dogs. Some people are racist. Sexist. Homophobic. Some people are filled with hate. And whether they are that way because of a good reason or a bad reason, the reason doesn’t change who they are. Feel free, as writers, to have villains like in Terror Inc., villains who are scum and not go out of your way to explain why. That, too, can lead to an interesting story.
Watch the recent film Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, which is about the most least likeable main character I have seen on film. Tell your stories. Use the good and the bad. Your goal as a writer isn’t to just write well-rounded characters, but to create a real, well-rounded world, and unfortunately, even though there’s a lot of love in our world, there’s a lot of shit too.
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.