Monday, March 03, 2008

Undiluted Scum?

I'm reading a book just now. I like it. It's by an author I've been interested in for awhile, but never read before. I'm sure I'll post something about this book (as it combines two fields that I love) in the near future, but I'm not done with it yet.

I bring it up because I've just had a reader experience with it. By that I mean I was emotionally and viscerally engaged as a reader should be, but in a way that I'm often not as a writer. Often I'm watching what and how other writers do what they do, which can be quite different than reading for the pure entertained experience of a reader. Anyway, yesterday some developments in this book got me, like hooked me, pulled my emotional guts out, pissed me off, made me want to flip back a few pages and rewrite. NOT because I didn't think what happened was perfect for the story at hand, but because I just wished it wasn't so. (Alright, I know, some people may have had the same experience with my books. A bit of my own medicine, I guess...)

But what actually interested me was that these unfortunate events unfolded because of a slimy bastard of a character, a weasel, a reprobate, a bit of scum that manages to inflict damage on a loved character while also stupidly putting many more in danger. Ach! But, but... it makes sense. Something like this happening was in the making for several hundred pages...

So, my thing is this. I don't know that in Acacia I had anybody that was evil for purely selfish, puerile or base reasons. Did I? Hanish can arrange your writhing demise. Maeander is a deadly bastard. The Numrek kick ass. Rialus might have done so, if he had the guts. The backstabbing and politically jockeying is considerable... but everyone has an objective - grievance - history - motivating factor that explains the things they do. They may be murderous, but they mostly do it for the betterment of someone other than themselves. Right?

This makes me wonder if I've had enough scumbags in play? Don't you love to hate a character? In a way I think I have more scumbags in my earlier novels than were at play in Acacia: The War with the Mein: Marshal and Caleb in Gabriel's Story, Humboldt in Walk Through Darkness, Monomachus in Pride of Carthage. (I've likely missed some...)

Maybe The Other Lands needs more undiluted scum. What do you think?

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Blogger Tia Nevitt said...

I liked your scumbags. Maeander just about drove me insane, as did Rialus. I loved Hanish; he was the best villain I read all last year. I think what made him the best is he DID have strong motivations for what he did.

However, there are going to be people who are just evil. If you are going to have one, please try to give a good reason for him being there. In Tad William's OTHERLAND series, he had a serial killer who was just nuts-evil. His reason for being there? Someone hired him as an assassin. He did his twisted serial killings between assassinations.

5:11 AM  
Blogger Andrea Eames said...

Hmm, I don't know if undiluted scumbags do make effective characters. All the ones I have engaged with emotionally in novels have some kind of back story or ambiguous quality that tempers your distate. All the best 'villains' are a little poignant, I think. Perhaps Gollum is a good example of this. The films gave him an even more sympathetic portrayal than the books, but he is a character who is out purely for his own ends and has a malicious, creepy streak a mile wide. He would not be as effective in the story if he didn't have the pitiable quality he does, and if his actions were not dictated to a large degree by an inescapable fate which isn't entirely his fault.

Yeah, I can't decide. I still haven't read Acacia, I'm sorry to say - I haven't found it in any Christchurch bookstores, but I've got it on order from a local store, so it should arrive soon! (She says optimistically).


1:47 PM  
Blogger Arachne Jericho said...

An undiluted scumbag that I love to hate: Cersei Lannister in the _Song of Ice & Fire_ series. She is completely selfish and doesn't even care about her own family, although she kind of loves her son Joffrey, she grooms him to grow up as a selfish psycho maniac.

I have to say, there is no other character on Westeros that makes me cringe with "oh noes, not her again!" than when Cersei gets involved in a situation.

Her weakness, of course, is that she is selfish and overconfident. She really ran herself ragged in _A Feast for Crows_, but otherwise meted out random terror on both personal and large scales for three very long, very large books... and for most of the fourth.

In _Lone Wolf & Cub_, Abe-no-Kai is also a scumbag, and serves to contrast against the Yagyu, who are evil but are doing it for the good of Japan... or something... and Ogato Itto, who is the underdog wronged by the Yagyu.

I will say this for the undiluted scumbag: it's not so much that they contrast against the heroes, as that they contrast against the sane villains. And there is something pitying and pathetic about them when they're demolished, because they have nothing to fall back on.

You really do get highs and lows with 'em.

3:17 PM  
Blogger Arachne Jericho said...

Also, there's the undiluted scumbags who are comic relief. See re: Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar in _Neverwhere_.

3:18 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Thanks. I have to admit it's hard for me to think of purely evil characters. I mean, I always feel like I understand some level of vulnerability in them, some reason they are as they are. I say that's true for all my Acacia characters... although maybe less for for Maeander. He does seem to just enjoy infliction damage.

There is one character so far in The Other Lands that's pretty twisted, a Leagueman named Sire Neen. He does have a reason for hating the people he does, but he nurtures that hatred in some... unfortunate ways...


Do you often get US versions of novels in NZ bookstores? I'm assuming that my UK publisher is more likely to distribute books in NZ, and they won't be pubbing for three more months...

Arachne Jericho,

Hello. Good point about Cersei. I'm not sure if I enjoy reading about her because she's so horrible, or if I like it DESPITE the fact that she's so horrible. Either way works - when Martin's in control.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Andrea Eames said...

Ah, that would explain it. Oh well, looks like I will be waiting a while longer then :) But I am very much looking forward to reading it.


6:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Take this with whatever grain of salt you like, but I am a HUGE wimp when it comes to bad things happening to characters I love. This is a flaw in my own writing, as I often make things very cushy for my beloved ones. No hard choices, no really bad stuff happening. Bad writer, no cookie!

I get really uncomfortable when other writers do mean, mean things to characters who don't deserve it, even though that is what you're supposed to do. So I vote NO on unequivocal bad people.

that said, you should probably ignore me completely.

1:36 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Who could ever ignore you completely?

12:45 PM  
Blogger James McLauchlan Johnston said...

Scumbags eh?

How about Chigurh in Cormac MacCarthy's No Country For Old Men?

He's about as unmotivated a psychopath as you're ever likely to read.

His whole toin coss chat, and blank retorts to his victims' pleading.

I like a good baddie.

10:40 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

They are memorable... And what's a goodie to do with a baddie to get into it with?

3:52 PM  

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