How Despicable?

evilfaceIn a conversation at our dining room table about the opening of my new work in progress, Valor’s Worth, my husband brought it to my attention that there was a line in the segment that he felt went over the edge in terms of graphic content. This came as a surprise to me, given previous discussions we’ve had about my needing to make bad situations more clearly horrible for my characters. I tend to not want to dwell on horror beats in my work, though the fact is, if I am going to write content that involves monsters and war, that is a place I need to be willing to go, and so I’ve been working on that.

One of the primary gripes I have observed from readers who give poor reviews of speculative fiction written by Christian authors is that the villains in the stories seem hokey or soft. I think those of us who have lived very long in Christian circles begin to develop amnesia or blindness about just how depraved a truly diabolical person can be, not just in his actions, but in his thought life. I can appreciate that criticism, because honestly, I’ve thought it myself about more than one book I’ve read. So when I wrote the opening chapter of Valor’s Worth from the bad guys’ point of view, it seemed important to me to establish that one member of the pair of villains involved was especially despicable.

My opening chapter involves the abduction of three young girls by a dragon-kin (a sort of crocodile man with horns and wings) priest and his scribe. The girls naturally cry out for help from their mother when the bad guys get a hold of them, and then came the line that put the situation over the top for my hubby.

The priest/abductor addresses the eldest girl’s scream for help by saying, “It’s no good my lambs. Mama is busy trying to tuck her innards back where they belong.”

In my mind, this line conveyed that the villain, Hanash, was of the psychotic sort that would be pleased to verbalize to children that he had just disemboweled their mother. I did not describe the visual of this when they later passed the corpse, just that the girl the point of view character was carrying shuddered and fell silent. Because I firmly agree that in the best reads, the hero must be up against an opponent who is both awful enough and competent enough to cast doubt as to whether the hero can really beat him, I chose to make the diabolical duo just these things. Could I convey that by merely saying Hanash cleared the way for his companion to run by with two of the captives? Not and elevate the stakes to a point of really seeming dire, in my opinion.

I don’t really need to start a debate here as to where my particular scene falls on the spectrum of horrific content, since those opinions will vary from reader to reader, of course. But what I do ask is this: if your intended audience is not children, whose innocence I fully believe we as adults have a responsibility to protect, how important is it to convey the depravity of your villains at a realistic level? Is there any danger to a writer in spending time ruminating on the workings of evil minds? Because as I see it, there really isn’t another route to crafting truly believable bad guys.

About Rebecca Minor

Rebecca P Minor draws perspective from her pursuit of various art forms, including writing, drawing, and music (singing mostly, though there was a time when a trombone figured in.) A 1997 graduate from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Becky earned a BFA in animation. Since then, she has worked as a character animator, a freelance artist, an art teacher, and most importantly, a wife to her husband Scott and mother of three boys. She is in the process of republishing her current body of work. The first installment of The Windrider Saga, Divine Summons, is available as an ebook novella on Amazon. She also has short stories available under the umbrella of The Windrider Canticles.

14 comments on “How Despicable?

  1. As a suspense writer, I’ve struggled with this a lot. But when I read many of Ted Dekker’s novels, I see that when he’s in the mind of the villain, he focuses on what makes that individual unique but also how we as readers can identify with him. In other words, it’s not all about the gore/violence/diabolical actions of the villain, but how he dances to the beat of a different drum.
    I remember one of Ted’s villains would eat condiments out of the refrigerators of his victims. It readied him to commit the crime.
    As far as the dark actions go, I think the Holy Spirit is your best guide. Ask him to search your heart and your motives for writing the things you write, and everything will turn out fine. 🙂
    Writing what the villain does from the victim’s POV is also good, because you’re showing the villain’s actions without being in his mind too much. Plus, the victim has the most to lose in that scene, anyway.
    One thing I’ve noticed that CBA will NOT tolerate is a rape scene. If someone can show me to a discretely done rape scene in a published CBA novel, I feel a lot of us writers could really learn something!
    I hope that was what you were asking. 🙂
    Thanks for posting!

    • Thanks so much for your perspective, Bethany! And villains are certainly far more interesting if they have facets and human quirks that make them at least in some way relate-able. As for the concept of rape violence in books (or film or whatever), I believe that would be a no-go for me as an artist or an audience member. The threat of such a thing? Maybe. But it would have to be very carefully handled with a huge measure of discretion and absolute justification in the plot that does not cast any doubt upon whether such an element is being glorified.

      That is what it all comes down to, isn’t it? The lens we show the violence to the audience.

    • The Atonement Child by Francine Rivers is about a college student who is raped and becomes pregnant from that rape. It happens in the very first chapter. You can read the first chapter here: http://francinerivers.com/books/92/excerpt The actual rape takes place “off screen” but I’d say the feelings are conveyed pretty well in the aftermath.

  2. That’s a good question. Wish I had a good answer.

  3. I am a firm believer in making villains nasty. I also think there needs to be something underneath that makes the reader the teensiest bit sympathetic. Villains like Norman Bates, who are so completely creepy and psycho, but you think to yourself, “If it wasn’t for his mother….”

  4. I didn’t think it was that horrible. I read it to my hubby, and he agreed that it’s not the worst thing he’s ever heard. But we’re not as emotionally invested in it as you and your hubby are, so we’re not really embroiled in the context. Sometimes we write things that we think are more horrible than readers imagine them. I had a line once where the bad guy, a big robotic dragon, bites a hero almost in half, flings him away, and licks his teeth. To me, that was horrible and disgusting. But the readers skimmed past it because it was no big deal.

    I think your dragonkin are irritatingly evil. As in, WHY WON’T THEY JUST DIE??? kind of evil. That line goes right along with that–smooth, polite, and horrible.

    • I have to admit your opinion of the dragon-kin gave me a laugh. Maybe just for you, they’ll finally get what’s coming to them some day. 😀 I always throw in the suave component for them, since they DID have their origins in a noble race, way back.

      But you’re right, how we sometimes see things as far more intense than our readers do. It’s challenging to know if we’re writing with too little punch or too much sometimes.

    • Taking the line out of context, it doesn’t seem as bad, even to me now. But in the context of the scene, said directly to the girls screaming for their mother… I put myself in the shoes of the parents of one of my little girl students at school who might read it. I cringed a little.

  5. If I had to judge the villain from that one sentence I’d say he’s insecure. Also reads almost in an irritating way as Kessie , but I don’t know the context. My personal thoughts is realistic but hopeful for books, because that’s what we read for-to see ordinary people lose everything and despair, but step up with a flicker of hope and succeed. Each villain must be what is hardest for the hero, but personally I prefer the villains who seem normal, but they have a fatal flaw, a horrible characteristic that makes them the bad guy, and they must be stronger than the hero.

  6. I’ll take a stab at my thoughts on the topic of ‘how despicable’….it seems that if you are writing for older children or adults that the villian can be just a bad as you want him/her to be…you are the author! The more despicable the villian is, the more dramatic the development of the characters and the story, and the struggle between good and evil!

    If, however, you are writing for children, then I think it is better to soften the villian without taking away how uncomfortable he/she makes the reader…if there is a villian at all, it is to define the difference between good and evil through the characters and their actions in the story. In any case, tweeking the emotions is part of the excitement of a great read!

  7. I agree with Kessie– the line works given what we know of the Dragon-kin. And for readers who may come to this without having read the earlier books, it will totally give them the right idea about the villains. I appreciate Scott’s empathy in the matter, but the line is an effective way to show how nasty the villains are without actually describing the gore.

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