“Rooting For The Bad Guy,” by Myke Cole

Myke Cole is a writer you should be reading. He’s a damn nice guy. He’s intense as anything. He’s built like an M1 Abrams but he won’t use his might against you. He’s also a helluva writer, and his new book, Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier, is out on January 29th. (Amazon / BN / Indiebound). Follow him on Twitter @MykeCole.

One of my first guest blog posts as a professional writer was on why Reality TV was worth watching. My point was that we humans aren’t all that far removed from our monkey ancestors. There’s still a chord in us that wants to sniff our neighbor’s butt, eat the bugs out of their hair and fling a handful of poop when we get pissed. Which is why Reality TV is so popular – it taps that monkey gene. We’re fascinated by ourselves.

The more I read in genre, the more I think about that. In the blog post, I talk about Darth Vader. I talk about Gollum. I talk about Amman Jardir and Jaime Lannister. Since I wrote that post, the hits keep on coming. I met Caul Shivers in Joe Abercrombie’s BEST SERVED COLD and RED COUNTRY. I met the Warden, lord of the seedy underbelly of Daniel Polansky’s LOW TOWN. I met Jorg, the cruel child monarch of Mark Lawrence’s KING OF THORNS.

These are some bad dudes. We’re not talking about a little temptation or some harsh language. One is a drug-addicted crime lord, whose scheming put innocent people under the dirt. Another is a true butcher, who delights in torturing his victims. Another is a murderer, plunderer and ravager.

But I love them and I root for them in a way I never did for the good guys of my youth. When I wrote that guest post I thought it was just simple interest in the flaws of others, the literary equivalent of Reality TV Schadenfreude, but now I think it’s more than that. When I was a kid, it was Frodo and Bink and Allanon (really, Terry Brooks? Seriously? You named your leading Druid after a 12-step program?) The biggest problem with these guys was an excess of earnestness. They were, to quote Motzart in Milos Forman’s Amadeus, “so lofty they shit marble.” That was enough for a kid as yet untested by the world. I hadn’t really failed at anything, not in the soul-deep ways that adults do. I could identify with the saints of the fantasy canon.

But I can’t anymore. Here’s the thing: Deep down, everyone has that special failure, the one time in your life when you truly blew it: zigged when you should have zagged, let fear take the wheel and drive, done the crime but not done the time. Sure, it’s usually not as extreme as Jamie Lannister pushing Bran out a window, but it feels that way to us. We carry it like an oyster carries a grain of sand. It rubs at us, digs grooves in us. It wears us down. It makes us feel unworthy of the childlike resolution of Samwise Gamgee.

We need real heroes. We need protagonists who are as broken as we are. Because nastiness is only one thing these leading roles have in common. Effort is the other. They’re all striving, reaching, pushing to be better people, to make right what they’ve done wrong. They want to put their mistakes behind them, scratch some good out of the landscape they’ve scarred with their passage. And sometimes they succeed, maybe not always, maybe not in big ways. They build their legacy by inches. It’s not just about Schadenfreude. It’s about redemption. Because. Drama accentuates everything. Good stories raise the stakes. The flaws of the Jorgs and Jaimes and Wardens and Caul Shivers of the world far eclipse my own. But they’re trying, and sometimes, succeeding. Every so often, that grain of sand inside the oyster’s shell turns into a shining pearl.

And if they can, well, then maybe so can I.

Maybe we all can.

 

13 comments

  • You make a lot of good points, Myke. I read the ‘Reality TV’ piece as well, and love “That we can love the broken means that we can be loved in our brokenness. ” – wow. This is probably why there are so many obsessed Snape fans in the HP series.

  • Have you seen HBO’s “Talking Funny”? At one point, Seinfeld tells a Louis CK joke. Now, Jerry does it like Frodo would carry a story, with a super clean pace -Seinfeld likes Superman, after all-. But on the original Louis CK’s take you can experience something messier, not so hygienic, not so perfectly timed. You can experience something more human.

    The same story can be a cute souvenir perfectly wrapped up with a Seinfeld bow or it can be a probe, launched into the depths of the human experience, to explore, to question everything and not to judge.

    Now, there are enough souvenirs and gift-shops.

    We need more probes.

  • Ha. My husband is a reality TV show producer and editor and he says the same thing – people can’t stop watching the train wreck. I think part of that might be the psyche going “At least I’m not THAT messed up.” Measuring always. Great post.

  • And I just read your Reality TV post and you are right on.
    I’ve seen my husband and his associates try to pitch more intelligent shows. Some of them get the green light but most of the time execs want glitz and drama. If not enough drama – how can we create some from nothing. So it goes …

  • Bad guys are my favourites, for pretty much all the reasons you’re talking about here. What’s even better (worse?) is that in writing my first novel, the bad guy is everyone’s favourite, too. He’s flawed but interesting, camp but believable. The only reason I haven’t done like everyone’s suggested and turned out a spinoff series for him is because then he’d be a protagonist and lose his charm. :)

  • If your antagonist isn’t interesting, neither is your story, IMNSHO. If your protagonist isn’t flawed, who’s going to root for him? Excellent points about reality TV. If nothing else, as fucked up and scarred as we may individually be, there’s somebody out there with different damage, which often looks worse from the outside.

  • I agree, for grown ups (and even for kids sometimes) the broken and even the batshit crazy can be more interesting. But I must admit that in my protagonists, I like someone who is at least trying to overcome the dark side. People who are too sweet are annoying. But I don’t like cruelty celebrated or rewarded. Self-destructive demons are fine, even good. Callousness, I like to see punished.

  • It’s definitely important to find a good balance–nobody likes a hero who’s too perfect or a villain who’s pure evil. At least, nobody *I* know. The best characters are nuanced and have both flaws and redeeming qualities, no matter what side of the good/evil fence they sit on.

    Also, I’d like to argue that Frodo is not such a perfect character–even he gives in to the ring at the end, and he’s easily manipulated by Gollum. But that’s really another argument for another time…

  • In the beginning I was appalled by incestuous, window-kid-pushing Jaime Lannister because he was such a d-bag. Now I love that guy! Gimme a hero with the taste for blood and hiding his dishonor under a pile of bodies and money. Odysseus was a sneaky wise-ass. Achilles was an arrogant jock. Leonidas was a little too fond of his *ahem* underlings. But you like them because they’re “real”. Trust me. I’m a guy that drinks too much, lies all the time, and eats live kittens by the handful. Gimme a me to read :)

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