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By Doug Brunell | July 27, 2006

If I hadn’t heard it twice, I would’ve ignored it. If I hadn’t heard it from two friends who are fiction writers (one published, one working on it), I would’ve chalked it up to ignorance. But since it came from these two people at two different times, I thought it deserved some examination.
The complaint was simple. Both men disagreed with me that Rob Zombie successfully created some slightly sympathetic villains in “The Devil’s Rejects.” Mind you, my argument was not that these were good people; I told both men that the Firefly family deserved to die at the end of the film. That said, I still think there was some sympathy there for them. They had family values, (though those values were severely twisted), and family sold them out. The lawman pursuing them crossed a line and sank to their level. He changed the rules of the game and gave in to his bloodlust, a trait he then shared with the killers. I admit that when “Freebird” started to play at the film’s conclusion I was disappointed because I thought they’d get away with it, and I thought that was a chump way out. I wanted them dead, but I also felt for them a bit … a very wee bit.
My writer friends totally disagreed. “I don’t see how anyone could sympathize with them,” one told me. “I wanted them to die, and I wanted them to die horribly,” the other said. “They were evil through and through, and there was no sympathy there.”
I can’t argue with the characters being evil, and I can’t argue with wanting them dead. I can even see why the general, non-artistic public would feel this way. (And to its credit, a lot of the non-artistic public I talked to did have some sympathy for them.) What I don’t understand is how two fiction writers could say that.
I write some fiction. I haven’t had much of it published. Editors like it, but it’s too dark for many publications and publishers. One thing most of them agree on is that I come up with some very interesting villains.
For the most part, fiction is based on conflict. Without conflict there often isn’t a story. Much of the conflict in fiction comes at the hands of characters. If a writer can’t sympathize or see the human side of a villainous character, how can she or he effectively write that type of character? It can’t be done, which is why I vowed to never read any future fiction from these two guys who just didn’t get it.
Villains are easy to do. So easy, in fact, that most people screw them up. Watch any action movie from the ‘80s to see that in full effect. Watch any two-bit teen horror film. Those writers think bad is bad is bad, and there can’t be any good in the picture. That’s the difference between the Firefly family and … well crap, there are almost too many to name but we’ll go with Jason Voorhees from any of his later films. He’s bad just for the sake of being bad, and he’s a joke.
To write a great villain, you have to get into his or her mind. You have to know what drives him. You have to put yourselves in his shoes and go for a walk. You have to adopt his values and see what comes out of a situation. You have to realize that without some emotions he becomes a cardboard cutout … and that’s what far too many villains are these days. That’s what you get when you have writers who can’t empathize with even the worst of characters.
The Firefly family evoked more sympathy from me than Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal. Hannibal was still a great villain, however, because he was smarter than us and appealed to our baser instincts. He also had a sense of fairness to him, and took glee in punishing those foolish enough to mess with him. The Firefly clan, on the other hand, are great villains because they are the ego and id on meth, and Zombie is a great writer for making us feel something for them. If a fiction writer can’t get that, how good can his writing be? How believable a villain can he create? How original can he be? The answer is pretty easy to see.
Darth Vader. The Firefly family. Hannibal. The killer in “Se7en.” Bill from “Kill Bill Vol. 2.” Tetsuo in “Akira.” Mr. Blonde. Alex from “A Clockwork Orange.” Pinhead. Frank in “Blue Velvet.” The Butcher from “I Stand Alone.” All of these are great characters who do bad things. We don’t always sympathize with them. We don’t always need to, however, to have them resonate. We just have to be able to relate to them on some strange level, or at the very least understand their motivations.
Hitler was a bad man. He also liked to paint and thought of himself as a bit of a prankster in his younger days. Few people would argue that he wasn’t one of the worst men in history, but he also had a human side, an aspect of his personality that wasn’t focused on sending millions to their deaths. If writers can find that aspect in their villains, it makes the evil all that more real and threatening. We’ve all seen the results from those writers who can’t find that side of a villain. When the public doesn’t get it, that’s okay. Unfortunate, but okay. When a writer doesn’t get it, that’s what takes him out of the writer category and places him in the realm of hack.
That’s where those two writers I talked to belong. If you guys want to change that, you can start by trying to get into the head of the people who scare you the most. Your writing will prosper from it, and better yet, so will your audience. Just ask Rob Zombie.

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