Monday, March 14, 2016

Writing Nice Guys

So I wrote a horror novel.
I won't bite, honest!
I didn't set out to do so, I don't really even like horror novels, or thrillers, or suspense.  It began as just a bloody vengeance scene, with Nazis being given what they deserved by a werewolf.  But the story began to develop and turned into a different sort of story, and like all of my books a theme came out of the writing.

That theme was an examination of evil, a comparison between the evil of the Nazis and the evil within the werewolf.  Evil imposed on him, a foreign evil within him trying to corrupt and overcome him as he fought it... and evil chosen from within, embraced by the men of the SS.

As I wrote, I had two concepts in mind for the Nazis.  First, I wanted to make them different, vital, and real human beings.  That meant no cookie cutter bad guys out of central casting, no soulless villains that twist their mustachio as they commit each crime.  Every one of them I tried to give a different reason for what they did, a different personality, a different approach.

And second, I wanted to make them each likable in their own way.  Some are more rogueishly likable such as Hans Frank.  Some are noble in their own way like Major Ritter.  Some are intellectually and scientifically skilled and admirable such as Dr Stoffel.  Others, like the soldiers, you get only glimpses of, but I tried to make them that breed of men who fight together and have camaraderie and charm of young men working together.

And then, when I established that, I made sure they did or said something horrible to remind people who and what they were.  Because I wanted to emphasize something true in life that we often want to pretend is not the case: very awful people can be very nice and likable when they aren't being monsters.
Oh yeah, those guys
Robert Parker was fond of writing in his Spenser books "Stalin liked dogs."  Sometimes he'd use Hitler instead.For Parker, this was the definition of a good guy; he likes dogs.  Yet both were evil men, both were monsters.  It was Parker's way of noting that nobody ever "all one thing" he'd write.  Nobody is constantly and totally evil without ceasing.  And nobody is all good all the time.

Its too easy to think that if someone is a nice guy or likable or charming, they can't be that bad.  But even Josef Mengele was known to be very mercurial, sometimes cheerful and likable, sometimes horrific.  The worst monsters in history had people that loved them, moments they were great.  And that's the key to making a real bad guy: make them nice.  Make them someone you can catch yourself actually admiring.

In the movie Full Metal Jacket, there's the moment when the little sniper girl looks down the gun at the soldiers, aiming through her scope.  Some people caught themselves almost rooting for her, as she lined up the shot, feeling that anticipation and thrill of success.  That's how to get someone in a story.  Grab them by their guts, where they aren't defending it.  Then when the bad comes, its not just a nasty deed, its a betrayal.

And for me, it makes a point about the nature of evil within us, the bad that we fight - or don't fight - every day, even nice guys.  For me it was an exercise in trying to make a point about evil without being preachy or pushing it down anyone's throat.  The attempt, for me, was to get people to question and think about what and why people do things and how we should respond, and to stop and think: is this thing someone is doing okay just because they seem like nice people doing it?  And how do we know what is good or bad?

It worked, at least to some level, judging by the reviews of Life Unworthy:
"Dark subject matter but presented in a good way that provoked some interesting thoughts, I thought a couple of times that it would be fun to be in a book club and discuss some of the ideas raised."

"The werewolf is deeply conflicted, and the comparison about the monster within him reminds me of the monsters within the Nazis."

"The characters are fleshed out. Usually Nazis are portrayed as one dimensional cartoon characters, Mr. Taylor's rendering is more rounded and... complicated adding to the horror of what is being done by people to others."
That's the kind of thing that makes me dance a little jig inside, its like fireworks going off in my soul.  They got it.  That's what I was trying to do.  its more than just an attempt to entertain, as fine as a goal as that, but to think and consider something beyond just the story's events.

As I grow as an author, I hope to accomplish this more skillfully and consistently.  To not preach or teach or lead the reader around, but to present things that stimulate thought and debate.  I'm not trying to force a conclusion on people, just to get them to think about something that maybe they hadn't before, or see something from a different perspective than they meant to.

And have fun doing it.

Because I'm no C.S. Lewis or Patrick O'Brian or Loren Estelman.  I'm not some 5 star literary giant.  I write fun books about implausible things.  But I want them to be at least a little thought-provoking, too.  Maybe a small layer more than simple entertainment.  And as time goes on, well maybe I can get pretty good at this stuff.