Fiction writers have an advantage in life that centers on the need to develop a rare skill for objectivity in creating a villain.
Memorable villains need to believe that the harm they’re causing is necessary and right. To accomplish this, their logic must be accessible and human. Villains can’t all be masochists and cardboard psychopaths. Even serial killers can believe they’re doing good work, or at least think the universe is a random place without right and wrong.
Having read, The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, I’m all about focused practice. But how do you practice objectivity?
Here’s an idea: select a highly controversial topic for which you have a strong personal bias, and see if you can make yourself realize that a decent, rational person could exist on the opposite side of the argument.
Personally, I might start with the war over vaccinations and this video…
The pediatrician on the left of the screen claims to be in the middle ground of this complex fight, catching hell from both sides. He has written a book he claims is pro-vaccination. He says he has given many vaccinations to his young patients and continues to. Yet because his book promotes temporal spacing of the inoculations, he says pro-vaccine people want his book banned.
The interviewer is fully in the anti-vaccination camp and says he’s devoted his professional life to the cause. Yet he seems supportive of the “pro-vaccine” pediatrician. Something is going on beneath the surface.
The offstage villain in the video is the CDC / mainstream medical community with their rigid vaccine schedules that seem to expand each decade, supporting a commercial industry that cannot be held liable in court for any mishaps or negative side effects of their product. That’s unique, isn’t it? Fortunately, our politicians didn’t grant Monsanto the same deal for their big product, RoundUp, touted as saving countless lives from starvation through the virtues of genetically modified crops that can tolerate glyphosate, the poison in their weed killer.
Since I’m highly disenchanted with mainstream medicine despite my degrees and indoctrination, my challenge here would be to give the “vaccine villain’s” logic and data a fair hearing, both intellectually and emotionally.
To do this, I would need to see the historic cause-of-death stats for all the relevant communicable diseases in the US prior to vaccinations. Then, to sense the emotional viewpoint of this villain, I would need to read historical accounts written by parents whose children suffered and died from the diseases in question.
Having done that, I would probably have enough objectivity to avoid ascribing two-dimensional evil to a pro-vaccination villain of a fictional tale.
But this superficial preparation wouldn’t be enough. I don’t write primarily to entertain. Wish I could, but it doesn’t hold my interest. I need to also teach. Because of this character flaw, I would strive to determine if I was placing my villain on the genuinely misinformed side of the vaccination war.
I’d have to read the relevant medical literature objectively and develop an informed opinion. My present opinion, though strongly biased, is weakly informed despite years of interest in autism. As a scientist and lifelong teacher, I need to know my biases and either abandon them or justify them with data. As a fiction writer not satisfied with entertainment, I have to do the same.
The side effect of realistic villain creation is a blessing to all who write fiction. The process, if we practice it, will force us to become skeptical of real-world character assassination, authoritative emotional claims we can’t verify, and the outraged black-and-white political reporting on all news outlets.
Morrill Talmage Moorehead, MD