The Most Dastardly Villain of All

Sometimes it seems as if most books and movies today are glorified comic books, epic battles between the good and the impossibly evil. Conflicts in which there are no shades of gray must be satisfying for many people, since such books sell by the millions, but I like a little more subtlety in my conflicts, a little more reality.

In a world that seems to be run by the major corporations, the stories where a lone hero takes on a megalithic corporation, brings down the owner of the company, and saves the world just are not plausible. Though I’m sure the presidents of the major corporations think they are indispensable, they are not. If they are eliminated, there will always be others to take their place, and the corporations will go on doing whatever it is that they do.

Because I know this and cannot escape it even in a world of my own creation, the conflicts in my books tend to be less clearly defined than good versus evil. Of course I have heroes and villains, but the villains are not always dastardly ones, though my other characters may perceive them as such. The villains are the heroes of their own story, and though a corporation is often the villains’ vehicle, my heroes don’t bring it down.

I like my heroes to find a romantic partner, but I prefer that partner to be a co-protagonist. It seems to dissipate the energy of the story if the male and female leads are always in conflict. I find it more satisfying when they bond together in their struggle against fate (or against another character as the personification of fate). To me, the biggest villain around is fate. What is more unfair, more murderous, more disastrous, more villainous than fate?

Because of fate, people get sick, die, have accidents, lose the one they love, lose their homes, freeze in winter, swelter in summer, get slammed by hurricanes or tornadoes, get washed away in tsunamis. No human villain can compete with such destruction.

My heroes never bring on their fate for the simple reason that I cannot sympathize with characters who are the cause of their own problems, and why would characters ever have to cause problems for themselves when life itself is always ready to cause problems for them? This is especially true in my poor stalled work in progress. Everywhere my hero turns, fate throws another fit and leaves him to deal with the mess. Sounds like real life, doesn’t it? We make plans, but life doesn’t consider our plans before deciding our fate.

My heroes are always slow to meet their fate. To begin with, they are usually laid back types, but during the course of the book, they are forced into action and then become dedicated to their mission.

Fate, of course, has other plans, and so conflicts escalate throughout my books, just as they do in life. When fate comes knocking on the door, everything changes. And that’s when a real story, not a comic book, begins.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Steel Waters by Ken Coffman — a Sort-of Review

When I first saw the movie Lone Hero starring Lou Diamond Phillips, I wasn’t impressed. It seemed trite — a retelling of High Noon with outlaw bikers set against the background of a wild west show. Yet the next morning, as the story slowly sank into the backwaters of my mind, one scene after another percolated to the surface, and I found myself smiling at the sly humor and wry nuances I was discovering. Lone Hero is now one of my favorite movies, one that gets richer with each viewing.

This retrospective appreciation has happened with a few other films, but I until recently I never read a book that became better with aging. Most go in one synapse and out the other before sinking into oblivion, but Steel Waters by Ken Coffman refuses to stay there.

Coffman’s wry humor and gritty descriptions immediately captivated me, but his hero didn’t. I have no use for characters (or people) who bring about their own miseries. Glen Wilson walked away from his wife and farm for no other reason than because he thought needed to. When he ended up in a Bolivian jail, I didn’t care. And neither did he. He seems to have a great capacity for accepting the status quo until suddenly he wants something else. (Usually without knowing what that something else is.)

Still, Glen Wilson was unique and compelling enough for me to keep reading. He is a mixture of opposites: hard-boiled and quixotic, opportunistic and idealistic, down-to-earth and impractical. And I enjoyed the book.

As Steel Waters percolates, however, I see much that I missed. Sure, Glen Wilson brings about his own predicament, but he is a victim of his own unresolved wants. They pull at him, buffeting him from one wild adventure to the other. The book has an episodic feel to it, but all mythic journeys do, and in the end, that is what Steel Waters is: mythic.

You are familiar with the mythic journey template. It’s the basic format of Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, The Hunt for Red October. An ordinary person answers the call to adventure. Meets mentors, allies, enemies. Passes tests. Undergoes the supreme ordeal, seizes the reward, and finally returns home — a hero in truth. Or not. Coffman doesn’t follow the format exactly. Glen Wilson may or may not be a hero. He may or may not be changed. This is the beauty of the mythic journey template — it is infinitely changeable without ever losing its power.

So now I have to go back and reread Steel Waters with this percolation in mind, see the layering of the nuances and the humor. I’ll let you know if it’s as good the second time around as it is in memory.

See also: Pat Bertram Introduces Glen Wilson, Hero of Five Ken Coffman Novels

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Heroes, Heroics, and Heroism

Writers generally use the word hero to mean main character, though often that main character is not particularly heroic. So what makes a hero heroic?

Note: For the purpose of this discussion, hero refers to both men and women for no other reason than that I don’t like the word heroine. For one thing, it’s too close to heroin, which is how many people misspell it; for another, it reminds me of intellectually lightweight females more given to heroics than heroism. (Heroics meaning “ostentatious and overly dramatic conduct.”)

The other day I watched the movie Lone Hero (an older movie starring Lou Diamond Phillips), and it struck me it had the same basic premise as Hero (an even older movie) starring Dustin Hoffman. A character instinctively does something heroic, (meaning, in this case, “marked by courage and daring; noble”) and at the end of the movie, he consciously chooses to do another heroic act. (I know movies aren’t books, but they are the result of writing, and as such fall within the purview of this group’s discussions.)

So, which was the true heroic act — the instinctual one or the calculated one? I got the impression from those movies that both writers thought the second one was more heroic since the characters chose the action, but to me that was merely bravery — true heroism comes from within, the instinct.

So, are your heroes heroic (in any sense of the word)? Do they act instinctively or calculatingly? What do they do that is so heroic? Does it change them? Does it change those around them?

And, on the opposite side of the spectrum, to be worthy of note by the hero, does the villain also have to behave heroically? All too often, writers give their villains heroics (overly dramatic bad conduct) but not heroism.

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will exchange ideas about heroes, heroics, and heroism during our live discussion on January 15, 2009 at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there! (Or you can discuss this matter here.)

(Could I have used more parentheses?)