Saturday, November 8, 2008

The art of evil

There is an art to evil, whether it be in the real life we experience every day or in the life that we put into our fiction. 

Fiction tells the truths of life in a shorter, more pointed, more condensed and often more entertaining form. Fiction bases much of its power upon the stories inside us, upon our archetypes, our human fears, strengths, hopes, foibles, dreams, and failings.

Good fiction focuses on a few of the above and through a story brings them into a spotlight. And in this blog I want to focus on that part of life that plays such an critical part in fiction--evil.

Because fiction is a condensed, intensified, constructed view of a short space in time of a portion of the human condition, it's natural for authors to wish to do the same with those who oppose their protagonists. That is, there exists a tendency to color and shape the antagonist as the next Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jong-Il, Charles Manson, or the like. Authors find the appropriate archetype, change a hairstyle or last name, and off they go.

Yet fiction does indeed imitate reality in much the same way art often imitates life. Like their counterparts in the real world, such obviously evil characters in fiction often neither arouse the same passions nor raise the same level of concern as those characters  whose evil is worked in subtler, more manipulative, less direct ways. 

This is a very personal evil, an evil that takes a portion of the truth and twists it to its own ends.  It is an evil that leverages human wants and needs and frailties, rather than compelling compliance via brute force. It is an evil that cuts like a rapier, not chops like a cleaver.  It is gradual and insidious, clothed in its own forms of secular or religious righteousness, and above all is convinced that it is right.

Those will a knowledge of Scripture will nod. They will note that the main characters in the original romance were manipulated out of Eden by evil in the disguise of a lowly serpent, not by a raging demon.

If we have learned some personal lesson from the political events of the last eight years, it is that insidious evil is as or more dangerous and as damaging as the external, easily identified one.  We, and I, have learned that predators outside the home are easy to defend against. Predators inside the home are immensely more destructive, infinitely harder to detect, and regardless of clear evidence to their detrimental effects often almost impossible to break free from.

Don't believe me? Note how long so many abused stay with their abusers.

So evil has an art to it, and to artfully portray evil in fiction an author should remember that it is not the devil as demon, villain in black, or crazy woman with a white purse who will put the novel's protagonist at greatest risk or cause the reader the most emotional turmoil. Instead, the most dangerous, damning, and powerful evil is that which comes in countless small yet cumulatively damning ways from the character your protagonist believes in the most.

Such evil is harder to deal with--for the writer and the protagonist--in fiction as well as in life.

May you be successful in both.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Discovering Fire

There's something about Sunday morning small-town quiet that encourages coffee drinking, increases clarity, and promotes reflection.

With that tease, a word from the commercial sponsor.

In October we presented two Novelist's Boot Camp workshops: one for the Dupage Writers Group and another at the Oak Lawn Public Library. Many thanks to those who attended and those who made the workshops possible. In January we're off to Florida for a full day with the Southwest Florida Romance Writers, where we'll present a Dozen Dynamite Drills from NBC in the morning and the Real World Revision Workshop in the afternoon. There's more info, as always, at

When man discovered fire, it was a good thing. Kept him warm. Helped him see in the dark. Cooked food. Kept him alive in the cold, kept back wild animals...Fire good always.

Man took fire into the cave--smoke burned his eyes, made him sick, lit the skins and sticks in the cave on fire and burned him out of his shelter, scorched his skin, blinded him, destroyed all his possessions, ruined his life.

Fire bad always.

So, about that clarity--
In my day job I lead a team of great people, and at regular intervals I counsel them as to their performance and how to get better at what they do. Each of these individuals has one or more standout strengths, and quite naturally they rely on these strengths to carry them through tough assignments and the everyday workload. As I've worked alongside them over the last several months, I've found--and offered to each of them--that for each, their greatest strengths are also their greatest weaknesses, especially when carried too far.

Very Zen, of course. But true.

On this Sunday morning that observation has sounded a very personal note.

I have always been and will no doubt be, a determined man. That determination has lead to many successes in my life and has served me well--as an endurance athlete (caveated with "former"), military man, author, teacher , communicator, educator, parent, and partner. You've heard the phrase "the fire inside" or "fire in the belly?" Those are applicable.

Yet this morning I've gotten a glimpse--and a powerful, painful, searing glimpse, of understanding that determination is also a weakness. This trait that served me so well for so long--kept me alive at times--left me open to manipulation that I thought I was immune to.

This is not to abdicate personal responsibility. The choices I have made are mine, as are the consequences of those choices--some wonderful, some terrible.

Singularity of focus, endurance, tolerance for discomfort and pain; those "do or die" and "there is no trying, there is only doing" and related qualities can be blessings. Fire good always.

Or curses:
--They will lead you to ignore what is right in front of your face, even when that "it" becomes so big you not only trip over it, but can't move because of it.
--They will lead you to follow paths you know are just simply wrong
--They will lead you to be open to mental and emotional and sometimes physical abuse
--They will lead you to deny furiously that said abuse is taking place
--They will lead you to dig yourself into a hole so deep that climbing out seems impossible, and so you keep digging
--They will lead you to compound your mistakes--you'll run faster in the wrong direction
--They will lead you--along with a little help from someone who wishes to use you for their own ends--to abandon those people who are truly important. Sometimes, you will abandon those who love you.

And along the way those qualities that serve you so well so often will play right into the hands of those who wish you to continue down that terribly wrong path.

All the while, those qualities will drown out the shouts of other voices inside you that point out that the emperor is quite naked and that another person's delusion to which you have subscribed is a delusion. Never mind that you're burning alive--add gasoline!

So we, and I, are responsible for our choices. And we are also responsible for understanding how we came to make those choices/ And we are responsible for changing course once we understand that those choices were detrimental and hurtful. They burned.

And we are--and I am--responsible to say publicly that we are--and I am--sorry.

I am and will be eternally grateful to those who helped me understand, and even more grateful to those who have helped me see clearly and who have welcomed me "home."

Fire bad always. Determination leads to ashes.

Fire good always. Only determination can turn you away from ruin and help you overcome the obstacles and work out removing the contamination. Only determination will carry you through the healing of the burns and the bearing of their scars. Only determination will provide the strength of growing free from abuse.

Is it hot in here?