The Virtue of Villains

The Virtue of Villains

Shoptalk: A Prose Central Series

By DeWitt Henry, Prose Editor

DeWitt Henry

I evolved shoptalk or notebook sheets during my teaching of fiction workshops, which proved helpful to me and to students. I asked them to ask themselves about character, plot, setting, dialogue, sensory imagery, sentimentality, translation, simultaneous actions and other aspects of craft. But foremost of all was “on character.” This series reflects my personal sense of what makes one person interesting or recognizably different from others in life and on the page. Different writers will have different questions.

In melodrama, there’s no issue. Hero/protagonist defeats villain/antagonist and we applaud. In tragedy, Aristotle argued that the hero can be a good man with a weakness, but not thoroughly “bad,” a dictum echoed by T.S. Eliot in “The Three Voices of Poetry”: “We need an admixture of weakness with either heroic virtue or satanic villainy, to make character plausible. Iago frightens me more than Richard III; I am not sure that Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well, does not disturb me more than Iago. (And I am quite sure that Rosamund Vincy, in Middlemarch, frightens me more than Goneril or Regan).” 

In writing my first novel, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts, I began by opposing my protagonist Anna Maye to her younger sister, Mary, whom I modeled on my high school girlfriend, Cinderella’s stepsisters, Lady Macbeth, and Middlemarch’s Rosamund.

Around the same time, I asked Richard Yates in an interview whether he had ever portrayed an evil character. He responded: “No, I haven’t and I hope I never will.” The question for him wasn’t whether such characters existed in real life, “but whether they work as characters in fiction…. I mean, if you can blame everything on one of the characters in the story, then where’s the weight of the story? Nothing falls into your own lap….”

When I countered that I found his Mrs. Givings in Revolutionary Road to be infuriating and insufferable (her husband might turn off his hearing aid to escape her, but she clearly drove her son insane with her insistence on propriety); Yates protested that he “kinda loved her,” and that as far as evil was concerned, he liked “to think it exists as a subtle, all-pervasive force that permeates everything in the story. It’s in the very air the characters breathe as they all rush around trying to do their best….they can’t help being the people they are. That’s what brings on the calamity at the end.”

Further developing my Mary character, I remained fascinated by perverse, malevolent, conniving and greedy personalities. Yet the more I worked on Mary’s voice and point of view, the more I understood her jealousy for her sister, who had been her father’s favorite and who had tried to oversee Mary in place of their deceased mother. How did Mary stand being herself, I wondered.  How did she justify herself? How was she vulnerable as well as callous? And what did her antagonism to Anna Maye reveal about Anna Maye as my Cinderella? The rhetoric of story challenged me to explore more complex motivations on both sides of the conflicts within as well as between my primary characters. And for me the most demanding form for bringing them each to life was a close third person point of view that verged on stream of consciousness and that assumed the reader’s sympathy while unwittingly revealing the thinker’s most unattractive traits; that, combined with closely worked dramatic dialogue. It took me years to get it right.


Read Shoptalk #1 on character development here.

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