Probably sometime in the spring of ’98, towards the end of the Civil War unit in my American History class, our teacher announced we were going to have a mock funeral for Pres. Lincoln. She was going to pass around a bowl or hat with slips of paper, and we’d have to deliver a speech from the POV of whomever we drew.
I sat on the front left-hand side of the room, near the door, so I drew first. Of all the names in that container to draw from, I ended up with the one name probably no one wants to draw.
Who wants to play the assassin? Particularly when that person assassinated one of the most venerated people in American history?
I was loath to give my name up when the teacher was asking us who drew whom. When it finally came out that I’d drawn Booth, the teacher’s body language and involuntary little noise made her own reaction obvious.
In short, she knew what kinds of interests I had, my writing style, how advanced I was in my study of history, and how I wasn’t exactly a typical teen.
Don’t ask how obsessed I used to be with Pres. Lincoln and his sons Willie and Tad. He’s still one of my favoritest presidents and people in American history, though I don’t think he was a demigod who did no wrong ever.
Then I began researching my eulogy, written in Booth’s POV. While I didn’t start seeing him as an unfairly vilified hero, I did gain a deeper understanding of his motivations, background, and beliefs. I even used some language I’d never use myself, like an anti-Polish epithet, in the interest of authentically capturing his voice and the types of things he honestly would’ve said.
The day of the mock funeral, I dressed in my father’s old wedding suit, and may have worn a man’s hat as well. It’s so fun wearing men’s suits. Someday I hope to have a men’s-style suit tailored for a woman’s body. There are a few companies specializing in such clothes.
One of the reasons I love Halloween and Purim so much is because, when you really think about it, all clothing, makeup, and accessories are essentially drag, a costume, an identity you choose to put on to the world. It’s fun to play with an alternate identity a few times a year.
I really, really got into my portrayal of Booth. I had to resist the urge to start interacting with other people in character, or to say something like, “If anyone moves, Mary Todd gets it!”
The teacher said I made a really strong case for Booth. I imagine she may have been surprised I got so into character, both in the written and oral speech. So many other people would’ve taken the easy way out by casting him as a one-dimensionally evil villain who acted out of a vacuum.
This carried through into the way I write my antagonists, like Boris Aleksandrovich Malenkov, Mr. Seward, Misha Godunov, Anastasiya Voroshilova, and Mrs. Troy. All these characters truly believe they’re in the right, and started down that path for a reason. The sympathetic characters are the ones who seem misguided to them.
Even minor or secondary antagonists or villains I’ve created aren’t one-dimensionally evil and cartoonish. They have distinguishing features, and are written like real people.
Antagonists like Urma Smart or Mrs. Green, whose entire purpose is to be antagonistic and unsympathetic, exist to make people’s lives very, very miserable. But there’s still a general concept of the background and motivations which led them to those paths. They also bring a lot of great dark comedy.
Antagonists are fun to write! When the first book you ever read, at three years old, is the adult, uncensored edition of Grimms’ Fairytales, you know early on real life isn’t flowers, puppies, rainbows, and glitter.
As much as I enjoy well-deserved happy endings, I’m naturally drawn to the dark, macabre side of writing.