Tag Archives: Villains

Gillian Flynn and the Case of the Unreliable Narrator

There are few things I like more than unreliable narrators, reluctant heroes, dark protagonists, dogs, and Taco Bell. Some of my favorite characters on television shows, in books, and in comic books are the anti-heroes and villains that have deep, spanning character arcs. I just hate to love Gul Dukat from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the perpetual heel no matter how hard I root for him to turn into a good guy. Who can say no to The Hound in Game of Thrones? All beefy, reluctant, melty-cheese-face goodness right there. And who isn’t charmed/terrified by Negan in The Walking Dead comics and his filthy, filthy mouth? Kim Coates’ portrayal of Tig on Sons of Anarchy? C’MON, man. The best! And the king of anti-heroes, from which my love of anti-heroes began: Conan the Barbarian.

What most of these anti-heroes and villains have in common is this: their behavior is somewhat predictable from early on. Gul Dukat gonna be Gul Dukat, even if he does some good things on occasion. The Hound looks out for himself until paid to do otherwise, with only a few exceptions. Negan tells his enemies exactly what he’s going to do before he does it. He also loves Lucille, and he’s gonna bring her out to play and he’ll talk some poor character’s ear off while doing it. Tig’s always going to be weird on a supreme level, but he has his soft spots. Conan the mercenary, the pirate, the thief, the treasure hunter, the nomad, still lives his life according to a code.

As a good rule of thumb, the reader has to trust a character to do just one thing: act like him/her/themselves. 

Gillian Flynn either didn’t get the memo, or doesn’t care about your fragile expectations of her characters. And boy is that ballsy. But if you know anything about her success, it’s turning out pretty well for her.

In the first half of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller Gone Girl, I was amazed. Flynn’s ability to communicate small issues in a marriage, how they can appear and fester just under the surface, was revelatory to me. I sure didn’t pick up Gone Girl expecting such an accurate and subtle commentary on American marriage and the differences between blue-collar and white-collar partner philosophies.

But I also didn’t pick up Gone Girl expecting the twist, either. Soft spoiler ahead, so cover your eyes for this and the next paragraph if you plan on reading the book or seeing the movie. As it turns out, BOTH of our narrators, married couple Nick and Amy Dunne, are unreliable to an extreme. Just when we start feeling sorry for Nick, and think he’s getting played by a master, we find that he’s been living a secret life all on his own.

What Gillian Flynn accomplishes in Gone Girl is to take the concept of an unreliable narrator and anti-heroes to another level. When we understand that Nick and Amy can’t be trusted (the first unreliable narrator twist), Flynn twists the narrative knife even further, taking their story to depths most people couldn’t dream up in a million years.

Similarly, in Flynn’s novella The Grownup,  the reader is presented with an anti-hero that, at first blush, seems honest and straight forward about who she is: a fake psychic. I’ll not mention her former job so you’re surprised when you read the short story yourself (I’ll just say this: the first two lines of the story are some of the best opening lines I’ve ever read. Talk about a hook! Winky wink). Now, as we, the readers, follow this opportunistic woman, we fall into a haunted house/evil stepson-type scenario. Nothing too surprising here – they are common horror movie tropes. And our protagonist, although a con artist of sorts, still has some admirable attributes, and it’s easy to slip into the story from her perspective. We’re even on her side. (Big spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you want to read this story.) We’re on her side, that is, until we realize too late that she’s not an anti-hero – she’s the villain, and became so under our very noses. And this is Flynn’s trademark. Unreliable narrators to an extreme. Characters that seem like unreliable narrators and anti-heroes who become the villains before the reader can put two and two together.

As much as I drool over and admire Gillian Flynn’s storytelling, I must admit I don’t come away from her books feeling particularly… good. I feel uncomfortable, ill at ease. I certainly don’t need every book to be a happy ending, but I’m used to anti-hero stories ending in a different way (Conan always accomplishes the quest and gets the girl, after all).

What I take away from Gillian Flynn’s expert storytelling and success is this: do what you do, and do it well. If you’re good at pulling the wool over your readers’ eyes, do it. But always do it well. Flynn creates characters we can empathize with, she can humanize extreme situations, and then she slowly crumbles the foundation of what we thought we knew about those characters and their situation. Flynn uses our very fundamental trust of character (that the character will act like himself/herself/themselves) against us. And it is masterful.

Readers don’t always like to be deceived. In fact, a writer pulling a fast one often makes a reader feel betrayed. But looking at Gone Girl‘s success, it doesn’t appear the readers minded the deception because of how artfully Flynn pulled it off. Don’t be afraid to deceive your reader, but only if you can pull it off, too.

Why the Hero Needs Friends, but the Villain is a Loner

Hero with friendsWhy does the hero usually benefit from a group of friends to support them, while the villain seems to go it alone, surrounded by toadies, henchmen, and often monstrous servants, but no real friends?

A favorite example for me is David Eddings’ classic fantasy: The Mallorean. I loved this series when I read it as a teen, and one of my favorite aspects of it were the fantastic cast of characters. Their friendship, bantering, and personal quirks felt so real, and helped draw me into the story. Every one of them played an important role somewhere along the way, without which the hero could not have succeeded.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was a villain who casually killed just about everyone they knew as soon as their usefulness ended. The contrast was powerful and effective.

Frodo and gollumAnother stellar example is the friendship between Frodo and Sam. Without Sam, Frodo was doomed. Antagonistic forces were always loners: Sauron, the Dark Lord; Saruman the White, who turned traitor and allied with Sauron, but couldn’t be considered a friend of the ultimate tyrant. Then there was the creature, Gollum. So alone he had developed schizophrenia to have someone to talk to. I was fascinated by Frodo’s attempt to befriend that broken, evil soul. In the process of allowing Frodo close, Gollum actually seemed capable of redemption, but when he rejected Frodo, his ultimate fall was guaranteed.

So why are friends necessary for the hero? I’ve come up with what I think are some compelling reasons:

  1. The hero is usually the underdog in most stories. They’re caught up in crazy events that they usually would rather avoid, but cannot seem to escape. The enemy is usually far more powerful and dangerous. Without friends to help them develop and grow and become the hero the story needs, they’d never survive long enough to get a shot at victory.
  2. The hero must usually rise to fight some kind of evil, which means they represent the good. They might not be necessarily good of themselves, but they must represent good, or have ties to those they care about that are good. And those ties of love and friendship make them human, help readers relate, and encourage us to root for them.
  3. The hero is usually attempting to effect change. Real change cannot be done solo.

There’s a lot of great information about heroes and heroism out there. One resource I discovered is Matt Langdon of Heroism Science. He’s got an excellent post about heroism and the team heroes need to build in order to succeed. Check it out here: https://heroismscience.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/every-hero-needs-a-team/

Back to the villain. Why do they have so much trouble building friendships?

  1. If they’re truly evil, they simply can’t understand friendship, which is a form of love, placing it outside of the realm of understanding of a truly evil villain.
  2. True friendship requires acts of kindness and thoughtfulness, which is selfless and understanding. Most villains are proud and selfish, which again makes it nearly impossible for them to understand or embrace the necessary demands of friendship. Pride is by nature competitive, pitting the proud villain against anyone and everyone.
  3. However, if your villain is not one of those ultimate evil types, you might be able to craft one who gets it, at least at some level. Some of the most interesting villains are those who honestly think they’re right, who display kindness and honor, but who draw different conclusions about the world and how to fix it than the hero.

Xavier vs MagnetoThink Magneto from X-Men. He’s ‘The Villain’ and he does terrible things. But through the story, he is portrayed as a man of deep thought and, at least initially, seems interested more in protecting mutants from abuses than causing them. He’s actually very good friends with Professor Xavier, even though they must face off time after time. The root of their differences is their different world view. That type of conflict is extremely fascinating.

So build stories with great heroes and a stellar cast of supporting characters: the Mentor, the funny Sidekick, etc.

And when crafting your villains, consider making them human too, with real, complex motivations for what they do, with people they care about, and with real human emotions.

Those kind of villains are harder to hate, those stories are more complex, and often more difficult to write. But those are the stories that resonate the most powerfully. None of us will have to face the Dark Lord to settle the fate of the entire world, but we all have to face people who do mean or rotten things. Or maybe they’re just people who hold different political or religious views. It’s easy to see them as villains, but those people are human too, and although it makes it harder for us to hate them, they usually feel like they have good reason for what they do.

Deeply moving stories happen when the hero must stand against a friend. Find that story, and you’ve got a winner on your hands.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
Rune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form.  When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities.  For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Urban Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website:  www.frankmorin.org

Chaos For It’s Own Sake

Whenthrough-the-eyes-of-the-joker-jared-leto-talks-his-suicide-squad-method-acting-heath-led-874125 the topic of great characters came up, I really didn’t have to think very long to figure out who I wanted to write about. I love villains, and one of my favorites is the Joker.

Of course, when talking about the Joker, some narrowing down should be done. After all, he’s been with us just as long as his arch nemesis, Batman. His first appearnce was in Batman #1 in 1940. That’s over 75 years of insane villainy, and as one would expect with a comic book character t
hat old, he’s gone though a number o iterations. Add in television and film adaptations, and you’ve got every kind of interpretation you can imagine, from the downright psychotic to the ridiculously silly.

Since I’m not writing a book here, I’ll keep it simple and stick with my personal favorite, and probably one of the currently more well-known renditions — Heath Ledger’s depiction in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It’s an obvious choice, I know, but completely ignoring the fact that Ledger’s work was so good that he won a posthumous Oscar for playing a supervillain, I’ve come to think of this character as one of my all time favorites because, unlike so many great villains, he is pretty close to an perfectly unbeatable bad guy.

The reason I say this is because of the character’s motivations. In the film, we’re given any number of ideas for what the Joker’s end game is. He wants to bring down the city by destroying it’s favorite son, Harvey Dent. He wants to destroy Batman. He wants to show the world that everyone is, in the end, just like him. He’s a gun for hire working for the criminals of Gotham. He wants to show the world that no one has control over their own lives. He just wants to watch the world burn.

Most of these explanations are given to him by the other characters. Nolan nicely shows us each of these as the story progresses. He turns Harvey Dent into Harvey Two-Face, but while he sends Dent out with a gun, he doesn’t seem to pay much attention to what happens after. He kidnaps people to force Batman out into the open, but then sends the whole city after the guy who comes forward to give up Batman’s identity. He sets up two ferries to kill each other to show that people are crappy when the chips are down, but while he seems disappointed when they don’t he doesn’t seem all that put out by it and proceeds to try and blow them up himself. He goes through the whole rigamarole with Gotham’s criminal underworld so he can get half their money, but then burns it all.

While that last one might support the whole watching the world burn hypothesis, the Joker never really commits to any of the ideas tossed around throughout the film, even the ones he gives himself.

In short, no one really knows what he truly wants except him, and he’s repeatedly shown to be a liar. He gives us multiple different stories on how he got his trademark smile. After the explosion that takes half of Harvey Dent’s face, he tells Dent that he’s doesn’t have a plan, he just likes creating chaos. But really, only an idiot could possibly believe the things he does are all spur of the moment actions. This man has a plan, probably many plans. We’re just not let in on any of them, and this is a huge strength.

One of the biggest blunders people can do with a villain is explain. We get origin stories, detailed psychologies, megalomaniacal monologues, and sympathetic backgrounds.

I don’t want to sympathize with a great villain. I don’t want excuses as to why they are what they are. I want to be afraid of the villain. I want to be seduced into thinking the villain will somehow come out on top. I want a villain that will make the hero work for every inch. And honestly, I so would not want to meet the Joker in a dark alley. Would you?

To get this reaction from the audience unpredictability is a major asset, and the Joker is unpredictability in all it’s face painted glory. He has no boundaries, is completely psychotic, hyper-intelligent, and most frighteningly of all, creative. And all the while, he’s having entirely too much fun.

To bring us back to why I think he’s a perfectly unbeatable bad guy is this — it doesn’t really matter why he’s doing what he’s doing. One of the things I love about many of Nolan’s films is his conscious decision to leave some of the story up to the audience. He did it with that contentious ending to the film Inception (is it a dream or not and does it matter?). He does the same thing with the Joker. He leaves the motivations up to other people, which is a fabulous choice, and one I’d like to see more often. I tend to go toward the trickster-ish agent of chaos turning everyone’s plans on their heads just to see what they do, but that’s just me. What could be worse that a character who doesn’t want to establish a new world, but rather simply wants the upsetting of the current one. Someone who wants to poke the hornet’s nest for the sheer joy of seeing the resultant chaos and watching how people react to it.

Can you really beat a character like? The idea intrigues me, and is one I very much want to explore.

So, anyone else got a favorite Joker or another fabulously unpredictable bad guy? Leave a comment and tell us why.