In a certain kind of writing, picking out villains is simple. Whether they wear an iconic black hat, or kick small animals, they make themselves known in a way eases the reader into a comfortable understanding of the world. These days lesser writing simply overturns the conventions: white hat—bad guy! (Surpirse!). Better writing muddies that understanding: the villain acts out of sincerely felt good intentions (hence the road to hell), and in such a way that we can sympathize (if fleetingly, or longer) with their motivations. When we pillory these bad actors we do so gently; after all, we could just as easily be in their spot.
Real life is the sticking point. I’ll admit that I read to find out about and reflect on life. Writing, after all, is easier to understand than life. Life, with all its fits and starts, resists narrative cohesion. Beginnings do not always lead to middles or ends. The setting often has nothing to do with the plot. And the plot is repetitive and makes no sense. I hazard to suggest that we build stories as a bulwark against the confusion and chaos of life. Stories narrow our focus and create a framework for understanding the world.
As we meet people, we turn them into characters that either fit or do not fit into the long standing master plots of our lives. Someone who disrupts that story risks becoming a villain—or in rare occasions, a hero—but chances are that our daily heroes are those people we encounter who affirm the story we have told ourselves, who give us comfort in what we already know.
And in all this, I wonder whether we are ever the actual authors of our life stories, or whether they simply accrue around us in response to the life that happens. Most of us inherit a story before we even begin our own. When Fitzgerald wrote, “there are no second acts in American lives,” I think he was pointing to this phenomenon. We (privileged) Americans hold the truth of our freedom so closely, that we fail to grapple with the fundamental lack of self-determination in our most essential stories. We swallow those stories whole and they become an inexorable and unexamined part of who we see ourselves to be. Without a chance to address, let alone to change that story, we get stuck in a first act that repeats and repeats and repeats. The second act is the place for a turn and a change; resolution comes in the third.
When I think about the villains in my work, my writing, I know I need them to maintain some kind of conflict. They are the “B” to the protagonists’ “A.” But in the need to create something like verisimilitude, such easy binary relationships seem false. I can’t help but think about how the stories of “A” and the stories of “B” surround them like straitjackets, and how they either wriggle free or remain obstinately stuck inside. And for me, that is the true definition of a villain—a character who refuses to escape the boundaries of one story, even if it’s a really good story.
I think of David Copperfield, who begins the narration of his story with, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Spoiler alert, David becomes the villain, but is entirely unaware of this horrible fact—or almost, he leaves a trail of bodies and breadcrumbs obvious enough to belie his eventual rise. His story is powerful and uplifting, and not a little inspiring. But the “upward” at the end of the novel speaks as much to his class aspirations and a justification of all that has happened around him on his road to success.
Of course this also has something to do with my life. How can it not? I have wrestled with the stories that surrounded me since I was young. I have tried on one story after another like the ficklest of shoppers at an all-day sale. Some I have worn long and others dismissed quickly. I am drawn to those who have deeply certain stories and devastated by their lack of room for my uncertainty.
I am a tailor of stories, and an escape artist, busily making one while I wriggle out of another. The contradiction makes me and destroys me. And then makes me again and again and again.