Heroes and Villains Blogfest

Heroes and Villains

Jackie Felger and Dani Betrand are hosting another of their blogfests. This one focuses on our favorite heroes and villains.

As I’ve said previously, I spent many years of my life, from about age 11 on, watching soaps. CBS was my network, and my two favorite soaps were Guiding Light and As the World Turns. After GL jumped the shark in a number of ways, ATWT took over as my favoritest soap. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that some of my favorite villains are from soaps.

My favorite GL character was always Roger Thorpe, played by the late Michael Zaslow. (The callous way he got the boot when he was sick is one of many reasons GL gradually stopped being my favorite soap.) From the time I began watching the soap in secret in the mornings during summer vacation in around 1991, he was just my absolute favorite.

Sure he was a villain, but he was an interesting type of evil, not some psychopath without sound motivations and backstory leading him to this life. He faked two deaths, stalked people, blackmailed enemies, used dirty money, stole affidavits, bugged people’s houses, kidnapped and shot people, engaged in bribery, stole money, you name it. And yet he had a heart underneath all that villainry. His love for his daughter Blake and some of the other important people in his life was so obvious and genuine.

James Stenbeck of ATWT, mostly played by the late Anthony Herrera, was another awesome daytime villain. He also faked several deaths, used women for their money and connections, kidnapped people, attempted a number of murders in very creative ways (and was suspected of several other murders), actually did murder people, smuggled drugs and jewelry, embezzled, committed arson, pretended to be a ghost haunting a castle, ordered hits, orchestrated explosions and gassings, you name it, he did it.

James was just so awesomely, deliciously evil. Sometimes it’s more interesting to see what makes the dark side tick than follow a character who’s too moral and saintly to be real.

Draupadi and Pandavas

Some of my favorite heroes are the five Pandava brothers of ancient Indian mythohistory—Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva. The three oldest brothers are the sons of Kunti, and the twins are the sons of Madri, the two wives of Pandu. Because of a curse, it’s mortally dangerous for Pandu to have sex, so Kunti conceived through a special blessing/invocation and later taught this trick to Madri so she too could have children. Before she was married, Kunti used this blessing for the wrong reason and had her secret first child Karna, who was raised by the Pandavas’ enemy cousins the Kauravas.

The Pandavas are just the epitome of righteousness, holiness, brotherly love, honor in battle, goodness, so many positive virtues. At the end of their epic days, near the beginning of the current age of Kali Yuga, the brothers and their wife Draupadi are taken on an arduous trek to Paradise, and a dog began following them. The younger brothers and Draupadi all die, and only Yudhisthira is left.

Yudhisthira refuses to part from the stray dog, and when asked why he cares so much for some strange animal yet didn’t react when his own brothers and wife died, he retorts that it’s important to show kindness to all living creatures, and that it was their time to pass on anyway. It turns out that the dog is his father Yama, the sun god, and he’s rewarded for his great kindness to even non-human life.

Yudhishthira is shown into Paradise and given a look at his brothers and Draupadi. They’re in agony and being tortured in Hell, while the wicked Kauravas are in Paradise. Yudhisthira insists on joining his brothers and wife, feeling it’s all part of a plan. The next thing he knows, all six of them are in the real Paradise, and Hell was just an illusion, one final test to demonstrate their magnanimous character. The good guys win in this story.

Zofia Stirs Up Trouble (Zapf Elliptical)

Font: Zapf Elliptical 711 BT

Chapter: “Zofia Stirs Up Trouble”

Book: Newark Love Story

Written: 2007

File format: AppleWorks

Computer created on: 2004 eMac

Last year’s A to Z theme started with Allen and ended with Zofia, so it’s kind of fitting that this year’s theme is also bookended by them. Zofia is such an entitled, delusional, often mean-spirited bitch, like Anastasiya, but that’s part of what makes her so fun to write. I can predict exactly what she’s going to do, say, or think even before she does it.

Zofia is a young Shoah survivor, born in Warsaw in 1931, but that doesn’t give her carte blanche to do whatever she wants. Not everyone who survived was a saint. It would be beyond inaccurate to depict every single survivor as a good, moral, loving person. Zofia certainly didn’t earn her own survival. Her sister Maria saved her ass on more than one occasion.

It’s now February 1952, and the Roblensky siblings have come to Newark for third-born Jozef’s wedding to Svetlana Juric. Svetlana, who survived the brutal Croatian Ustashi camp Jasenovac with her mother and four sisters, was raped a number of times and later slept with a number of the sadistic overlords to save her family from deportation and to get them better rations. Jozef knows she was an innocent victim and did it to protect her loved ones, but Zofia is convinced Svetlana is a whore and is horrified Jozef is marrying her. In the wake of this discovery, Zofia is even more of a troublemaker than usual and acts up so much she’s eventually barred from the wedding.

Some highlights:

“This must be Zofia.” Mrs. Juric took a long hard look at the third-oldest Roblenska sister in her low-cut skintight blue blouse and a skirt coming up well past her knees.

Zofia would have no part in traipsing around a city she didn’t even know.  After fifteen minutes, she whined that her feet were tired and headed back to the empty apartment.  She went into Dalibor’s room, shut the door, picked up the latest issue of Life, and started reading.  An hour later she heard her brother and his fiancée coming into the apartment but didn’t give herself away.  When they went into another room and shut the door, she slipped off her high heels and skulked off to listen in at the door.

“Welcome to our family,” Elizabeth gushed. “We’re so glad to be adding another sister, particularly one who might soon be making us aunts and uncles.  And according to Jozek, you’re quite the intellectual.  I love a woman who isn’t afraid to be smart and who likes things like museums, art, and literature.”

“How can you marry this woman, Jozek?” Zofia began crying. “If only our parents knew their second-oldest son would grow up to marry a whore.”

“I listened at the door, Jozef.  You didn’t know I was in the house when you came in.  I’m so ashamed and embarrassed that you want to marry a whore, let alone a whore who willingly copulated with the enemy.”

Jozef slapped her so hard her jaw ached. “First of all, only God has the right to judge.  Second, this woman is going to be my wife and your sister-in-law, so you had better respect her.  Third, you had no right to be eavesdropping on our personal conversation.  I am your older brother and you need to respect me and my future wife.”

“How dare you strike me!” Zofia was in shock from anyone standing up to her with more than words. “And who are you to tell me what to do?  You no longer even live in our house, and you’re only two years my elder!  Hoch mir nicht ken chaynik!”

He slapped her even harder across the other side of her face. “Any more questions, you pathetic inhuman excuse for life?  I swear to God, Mania should’ve left you behind in the bunker!  Get out of this house right now unless you want me to do something even worse to you!”

“Don’t worry, whatever it is, I’ll accept your wife no matter what,” Elizabeth said. “As we all know, I’m not a virgin myself and don’t intend to keep that a secret from my eventual husband.”

“That’s just what she told me,” Maria nodded. “Don’t worry, we’ll accept them as our nieces and nephews.  We won’t have any doubt that Jozef is the father, though Zosia is welcome to live in a land of unreality.”

This afternoon she was dressed even more scandalously, in a mink-edged pink silk blouse showing more than cleavage, green suede heels even higher and spikier than her other pair, red fishnets, heavier makeup, and a black leather skirt well above her fingertips.

“Special as in modest, demure, and classy?  You dress like a prostitute most of the time anyway, so why should tomorrow night be any different?” Jadwiga asked.

Zofia stalked out of the room offended, still wearing her scandalous clothes.  Nobody else in their party would let her in their rooms either, so she resorted to sleeping on a pile of towels in the laundry room, uncaring she was putting clean towels onto the dirty floor.

At 6:30, Zofia was discovered.  She was outraged to be jerked awake by a bunch of angry maids and the hotel manager, who thought she was a prostitute, a thief, or someone who’d tried to be cute by staying overnight without paying.  In her exhausted huff, she gave Samuel’s name.

Samuel was irate when he was called down to the laundry room, before he could even get dressed or say the morning prayers with his little brothers, just to positively identity Zofia.

“Mania really should’ve left you for the Nazis to find and finish off.  I have nothing further to say to you.” Samuel dropped her onto the floor like a limp ragdoll and stalked away. “And don’t be surprised if, when we get home, you’re suddenly asked to move out.”

Union with a Snake (Underwood Champion)

(Quick note: This post is coded with a font I downloaded, not a default that came with my Mac. It might not show up for everyone. But if you love typewriters and typewriter-esque fonts, I recommend you check it out yourself!)

Font: Underwood Champion

Chapter: “Union with a Snake”

Book: The Twelfth Time: Lyuba and Ivan on the Rocks

Written: 27-29 October 2011

Computer created on: 2008 15-inch MacBook Pro

File format: Word 2004

Chapter 41 of my Russian novel sequel is one of the things I’m proudest of having written. I wrote all 17,000 words of it over the course of just three days. After having kept so much of this book memorized in my head for over half my life, it finally was able to be committed to paper, and so much of it just came gushing out. This book wrote me more than I wrote it.

The day the Stock Market crashes, there’s a blackout in the tenement and Lyuba goes into labor with her fifth child. Just as she suspected, it’s a boy, named Igor, after Ivan’s murdered uncle. (This name actually sounds softer in Russian, though it was almost ruined for me by my ex-”fianc锑s Harpy mother constantly screeching at her husband: “EEEEEEE-gaaaarrrrrr! Eeeeee-GAAAARRRRR! Eeeeee-GAAAARRRRR! Eeeeee-GAAAARRRRR!”) Lyuba is supported in labor by several of her stepsisters, including Svetlana, an infant nurse, along with her longtime midwife Mrs. Kuzmitch and Katrin. When I first created Katrin (né Catherine) in 1993, I never dreamt she and Lyuba would ever become such dear friends that she’d one day hold Lyuba’s hand during a birth!

Lyuba once again has a very difficult birth and recovery. She’s so feverish and weak that Mrs. Kuzmitch has to use forceps. She’s so out of it, in fact, that when Boris comes by after hearing about her state, she mistakes him for her husband. Over the next few weeks, he regularly comes by at night to dope her up with morphine, mescaline, alcohol, and aphrodisiac teas. Boris even writes Ivan two letters bragging about this “affair,” one of which he signs Lyuba’s name to. Things do not end very well when Lyuba finally realizes, in a sober state, what’s been going on.

Some highlights, so to speak:

On the evening of Tuesday, October 29, while Lyuba is reeling from the shock of the Stock Market’s dramatic plummet over the last two days, all the lights go out in the building.  Then, to make matters worse, she feels her water breaking.  She’s felt mild contractions all day, but chose to ignore them.

Through her swimming vision, she can make out a male figure.  She has no idea how her husband could’ve come here or even found out about the birth so soon.  In her delirium, she doesn’t register that her male visitor is plump, on the short side for a man, and has black hair and eyes, instead of being over six feet tall and having dark brown hair and eyes.

“Ask and you shall receive.” Borís pulls out another syringe and quickly injects her, glad her eyes are shut and he can use his right hand this time.

“It’s a sad state when a new mother can’t even wake up to her baby’s cries,” the mohel agrees. “At least this was caught in time to be taken care of properly.  The baby will recover.” (Igor developed a severe case of balanitis on his 9th day of life and had to be circumcised, something totally foreign to Russian Christians.)

“I’m so glad you came back, my handsome stallion.” Lyuba wraps her arms around him, her vision still cloudy from all the morphine and delirium. “I can’t get over how plump you’ve gotten in Minnesota.  If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost think you were Borís.”

“Look at my pretty buttons.” Lyuba opens the tea crate. “We soak these in our tea every night, and they make me feel so happy and aware of the world.  It’s like walking through a dream when I’m awake.  Like right now, I feel like I’m looking at a moving stained glass window.”

“Can you get that brat to shut up?  I can’t concentrate on screwing you if he’s going to be interrupting us.  It’s time to pay attention to me, not him.  He has your attention all day.  Now it’s my turn.”

Lyuba screams even more hysterically.  In the midst of the commotion, her mother and stepfather, the Karmovs, the Kharzins, and Valériya come into the apartment.  Borís suddenly doesn’t feel as confident anymore.

“Borís doesn’t even know the meaning of shame anymore,” Mrs. Kharzina says. “He sinned once and kept running with it.  Once he got a taste for sin, it was too sweet to resist.  Now he’s completely degenerate.”

Lyuba sits on the davenport at her mother’s house, still in complete shell-shock over what she’s discovered.  This seems like a twisted, deranged nightmare that happened to someone else, not her.  In her mind, she keeps replaying everything that happened over the last month, unable to comprehend how she could’ve been so blind to the obvious.

The Sacrifice of Gemma (Skia)

Font: Skia (Greek for “shadow”)

Year created: 1994

Chapter: “The Sacrifice of Gemma”

Book: Little Ragdoll

Written: 4-7 December 2010

Computer created on: 2008 15-inch MacBook Pro

File format: Word 2004

I really, really had been hoping to have finished Justine Grown Up by now so I could spotlight “Sing Blue Silver Snowstorm” on the S day, but I feel I made the right call to put that WIP on hiatus. But if you happened to be at the Duran Duran show in Hartford on 13 March 1984, “please, please tell me now!” I’d love to interview you so I can get firsthand details for the dramatic penultimate chapter.

So I went with Chapter 10 of Little Ragdoll. Oldest sister Gemma takes the lead here for the first time in the book. In the book’s earlier incarnation, Gemma was some one-dimensional snobby bitch who deserved to be forcibly married to some much-older abusive man. But in recasting these events so many years later, I really began to feel for her, and she emerged as a sympathetic character.

After she underhandedly divorced Francesco and aired all their dirty laundry at a family gathering in Part II, she was not permanently written out as I’d originally planned. I’d grown to kind of admire and like her, and wanted her to fulfill her deferred dream of going to college and to someday marry for love and have children she wanted. Given the circumstances she’s been raised in, the oldest of nine unplanned children in a poor Lower East Side family, how could I hate her for wanting to get above her raising and spending all her free time working or with her friends? And it was just juvenile how I’d hated her for being a cheerleader. Stereotyping much?

Some highlights, so to speak:

“Whose car is that parked outside our tenement?” Gemma asks as they’re walking up Essex Street. “It’s not bad. You think we have a new neighbor?”

When they get to their tenement on the eighth floor, a greasy-looking man with a cold, hard face is standing in the living room and talking to their parents and Mrs. Troy’s former co-worker Mrs. Rossi from the third floor.  He turns to Gemma and smiles at her in a way that makes her sick to her stomach and gives her a foreboding of something very bad about to happen.

“Get used to saying, writing, and spelling it, since you’re gonna be saying and writing it a lot in the near future,” Francesco smiles. “Don’t you modern women wear clothes anymore?  I don’t want my future wife walking around wearing a bikini.  Go put some decent clothes on.” He walks over to her and smacks her on the behind very loudly. “Hustle it up, woman.”

“You heard your future master, girl.  Go to your room, change outta that revealing thing, and put on decent clothes,” Mr. Troy says.

“No woman of mine is gonna go to college.” Francesco spits on the floor, narrowly missing one of the chickens, who’ve finally begun to lay a few eggs. “What kind of disreputable institution is this that they admit girls?  Next thing you know, they’ll be teachin’ cows to drive!”

“I don’t approve of higher education for women.” Francesco slaps her on the behind again. “Nor do I approve of bikinis.  After you change, I’ll go through all your clothes and pick out the stuff I won’t allow you to bring to our new home together.”

Francesco smiles a partly toothless grin at her when she emerges.  Gemma wants to vomit when he coarsely grabs her face and forces a French kiss on her.  While this is happening, her parents and Mrs. Rossi are standing by without saying a word or even moving to pull Francesco off her.  Suddenly her happy day at the Hamilton Fish Park Pool seems like a distant memory that happened to someone else entirely.

Gemma stifles another urge to vomit. “I know I’ve said I’d like to marry an older guy, but I meant five or six years older, not twenty years older!  He’s old enough to be my father!”

“I saw posters on your walls and records next to your bed,” Francesco says, spitting on the floor again. “Those won’t be coming with you when you move in with me.  Elvis can’t sing or act his way out of a paper bag, and the only man you need to be dreaming about will be me, not Elvis, William Holden, Cary Grant, or Rock Hudson.  You won’t even have time to go to the movies or listen to your trash records when you’re running a household and birthing babies.”

Gemma grabs the papers and rushes into her room.  Her stomach lurches when she opens the box.  Francesco bought her a bunch of ugly, utilitarian, grandma-style bras and underwear, presumably to replace the pretty ones she has now.  The list of demands is handwritten in very sloppy printing.  Gemma isn’t too surprised to find Francesco doesn’t know how to write cursive, though she thinks her youngest sisters can print better than that, despite being at least thirty years his junior.

Lucine can’t decide whether to laugh or cry as she starts reading. “He wants you to clip his fingernails and toenails, brush his hair, bathe him, dress him, and light his cigarettes?”

“It doesn’t matter what the mother superior thinks.  She’s only a woman,” Father Raimundo says coldly. “I override her.  Why I could order all the nuns to walk around naked down Houston Street, and they’d have to obey me.”

Gemma grins and bears it as she’s walked down the aisle by her father, knowing she really is literally being given away to become Francesco’s property.  There’s nothing she can do about it now but plot revenge while pretending to smile and keep sweet.

Antagonists and extremists should still be three-dimensional characters

It’s too easy to make your villain or an extremist character one-dimensionally evil. Making them well-rounded characters, with well-developed motivations, backstories, and distinguishing characteristics is a skill that doesn’t come overnight, but it’s worth it to learn how to develop it.

The primary antagonist of my first two Russian novels, Boris Aleksandrovich Malenkov, started out as a good guy, the one who was supposed to eventually marry Lyuba (then called Amy), the one she was supposed to like best of all her suitors. Gradually, he changed into a worse and worse character, which involved a fair amount of rewriting and revising the original sections of the first 7 chapters. But after his personality switch, I never made him into some cartoonish, simplistic villain.

Boris starts out kind of like Esau. He’s more uncouth and impulsive than a truly mean, uncaring guy. (Side note: I’m very uncomfortable with the vilification of Esau, and Ishmael, in the Midrash, a collection of rabbinic elaborations and interpretations of the Bible. Nowhere in the straight Torah text is it ever suggested that Esau is such a monster and anti-Semite.)

Boris is essentially a decent guy who wants to do the right thing, but he has some troubling hints of a darker side. However, those negative character traits, like a quick temper and gluttony, have always been held in check by his parents and teachers. Once he’s out on his own, expelled from gymnasium, in hiding near Ryazan, his parents in Siberia, he no longer has anyone to hold him in line, and combined with his frustration over his plight as a White, his evil inclination gets the better of him.

Over the years, he goes through some periods where he’s fairly good, but he’s always sucked back into sinning. The taste of sin is so sweet, and it’s easier to go with what’s familiar than to tackle the hard work of self-examination and permanent repentance. However, many of his dark periods and sins are motivated by what he feels to be good intentions. He can actually be a bit funny to write, in a dark way. He’s not some one-dimensionally evil person with no motivation behind his depraved acts, and he certainly wasn’t born evil.

Even a villain who’s intended to be a static character shouldn’t be one-dimensional or without motivation. You can give the villain an interesting backstory, and imbue him or her with distinguishing characteristics. Urma Smart, the town psycho of my Atlantic City books, didn’t start out a fire and brimstone fanatic in league with a deranged pseudominister and constantly launching sick schemes against her so-called enemies. And Urma might talk the talk, but she doesn’t completely walk the walk. She always wears the pants in her family and railroads over her passive, weak-willed husband for years, for example.

Urma’s daughter Samantha is a very complex character. At first glance, she’s as fundy as her mother, but deep down, she just wants to be a normal kid. Sam doesn’t have the nerve to stand up to her fanatical mother, and it takes years before she finally finds her voice and breaks away from the crazy, joining a mainstream Methodist church and becoming a moderate Republican. Originally Sam was too pure and good for words, before I changed the storyline to make her and her mother fundies. Then I completely rewrote it so that she and Urma were rather one-dimensionally annoying, fanatical pains in the ass. Finally Sam emerged as a well-rounded, conflicted young woman, and became so much more interesting in the process.

Even if you’re writing about a group of people we can all agree are/were villains, like Nazis or Bolsheviks, you still don’t have to make them cartoonishly evil or buffoonish. The majority of people in those movements started out as ordinary people who were attracted to the leader’s promises. They didn’t think of themselves as villains or hate-mongers. And there were some Nazis, like Oskar Schindler, who belonged to the party but privately used that position to help people. Obviously that wouldn’t have been anywhere near the majority, but it makes for a very interesting character and story if written properly.

I tried to give distinguishing characteristics to the Nazis and NSBers (Dutch Nazis) in Jakob’s story. It would be too easy and simplistic to show them all as beady-eyed villains or incompetent buffoons. Some of the features included a face full of liver spots, ugly measles or chickenpox scars, a disgusting deep, hacking cough, a high-pitched voice, a huge Adam’s apple, and an oddly-shaped nose. They weren’t just trotted out as faceless symbols of evil.

Even if we’re not supposed to be cheering for the antagonist, it helps to understand where s/he’s coming from and to make him or her a fully fleshed-out character. After all, they’re humans too, and no real person is pure evil. Don’t write your characters like people out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No one is as purely evil as Simon Legree, as unquestioningly subservient as Uncle Tom, or as pious as Little Eva. Seriously, there’s something really wrong with you if you’re happy you’re sick and can’t wait to die.