Friday, February 25, 2011

Be careful with villains

This post is probably a bit more towards the literary or creative side of writing than the academic, but I felt compelled to write it anyway.  Exigency!
What happens when a novelist or a scriptwriter writes an antagonist?  More often than not, the purpose of an antagonist in a work of fiction is to create conflict, strife, and to overall be reviled or at the very least rooted against by the reader.  But what happens when a discourse community views itself as being portrayed as villainous, even if the intent is not as such?  What considerations must a writer now sift through before selecting upon the characterization of an antagonist?  What would have befallen me if I had written To Kill A Mockingbird but made Bob Ewell a Haisidic Jew?  A stretch, I know, but I'm trying to make a point.
Consider the characterizations that have come along and how they are viewed through the lens of contemporary discourse.  Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is a finely written character, but axiology aside, Shylock is viewed by several critics as an example of Antisemitism.  Joel Cairo and Guy Haines are eerie, menacing villains in The Maltese Falcon and Strangers on a Train respectively.  Their portrayals, via actors Peter Lorre and Farley Granger, and writers Dashiell Hammett and Patricia Highsmith, have the antagonists coming off as effeminate and of vague sexual orientation.  A contemporary homosexual could conceivably perceive such portrayals as a slight against their own discourse community, perpetuating a stereotype that says, "if you want to make your villain creepy, make him gay."
The list continues.  Psychopaths such as Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter and Robert Bloch's Norman Bates are legendary in fiction, yet mental health professionals have previously spoken out against the perceived demonizing of the mentally ill.  It is historic fact that individuals of Arab descent have committed acts of terrorism, yet when said individuals are cast in the role of the antagonist, such as in the film True Lies, members of that culture have been offended.  Religion is yet another consideration.  Members of the Catholic sect of Opus Dei were disturbed by Dan Brown's choice of an Opus Dei member as a psychotic villain in The Da Vinci Code. In fact, the only "safe" choice left for an antagonist may very well be Nazis.  The likelihood of their discourse community voicing any opposition or objection is likely nil.
The objections to an antagonist need not be entirely on the grounds of offensive portrayal.  At times, the choice made by the writer can come off as passe and therefore ineffectual.  As the Iron Curtain fell and missiles moved into Cuba, a Communist antagonist worked quite well for American readers in books such as Condon's The Manchurian Candidate.  Today, in a post Soviet bloc world, a Communist villain would seem a naive choice, perhaps even trite and hokey.  
What must then a writer consider when selecting the characterization for their antagonist?  What choices must be made?  To what degree do the mores, exigencies, and political views of a discourse community affect the creation of genres?  How do they compose and impose regulatory stipulations upon the writer as to what will or will not be deemed as acceptable?

1 comment:

  1. On Facebook, Dr. Rich said: "From a pragmatic standpoint, you select the least sympathetic stereotype from the point of view of your target audience. That way, if some 'discourse community' finds offense, you haven't chipped away at potential future sales.
    From a personal standpoint, tell 'em all to shut up and get laid more."

    So...I guess we're back to choosing Nazis as villains?

    Dr. Rich said: "Nazis, aliens, robots, fictional multi-national corporations run by evil billionares, fictional shadowy secret terrorist groups, evil scientists, previously unknown monsters/cryptids with appetites for teenagers, paranormal entities. Throw in the random natural disaster and abusive boyfriend/husband and you've got every summer blockbuster of the last 20 years.
    Of course, great literature is not afraid to offend people, if it is truthful."

    That last comment from Dr. Rich has much philosophical validity to it. Yet at the same time, I would recommend reading the story of Salman Rushdie.

    On Facebook, Ghost Dogg said: "Zombies, man, zombies."
    Not for all the beer in Wisconsin.