March 27, 2009
Monsters are very important to me in my writing; I love a good monster, whether it’s literally an evil, slavering creature or any other kind of villain. I think of all villains as monsters because of an old phrase I picked up somewhere in high school: “Sometimes the only way to defeat a monster is to become a monster yourself.” Pay close attention to that concept, because you’ll see it in one form or another in everything I write.
Let me illustrate the importance of monsters with another, more common phrase: “A hero is only as good/cool/interesting as his villain.” A hero who only fights morons might be incredibly intelligent, but the audience will never see him that way because his intelligence is never tested—he doesn’t have to be smart in order to win, so nobody cares about how smart he is. The same is true for speed, or strength, or any other skill your hero claims to possess. Would you care about a soldier’s incredible sniping accuracy if his target were very close and large? Would you care about a con man’s incredible ability to lie if his victim were very gullible? Of course not. Heroes are not heroic until they have overcome huge obstacles, and that requires a villain who will test your hero’s skills to their limit.
(Quick side note: in a lot of American stories you’ll see the hero marching off to face the villain, leaving his friends behind with the brave comment, “I have to do this alone.” How tough can the villain really be if the hero—often weak and inexperienced—can defeat him by himself? You will very rarely see this in Asian stories, because they understand this principle of heroes and villains. They hit the bad guy with everything they’ve got, and then after he’s taken down a whole room full of guys the audience will know he’s a worthy opponent, and the hero’s eventual victory will be that much sweeter.)
Back to the first phrase, about becoming a monster. Obviously it is not true in every case: sometimes Batman can whip out his shark repellent and stop the bad guys without any moral compromises, but those are not the stories that interest me. Consider a hero’s full suite of skills and talents; we’ll use Spider-man for the sake of argument: he’s very strong, very agile, very clever, and he can swing around on webs. But that’s only half of his talents—he has another full suite of personal and emotional talents that are less obvious but just as important to who he is: he is brave, he is loyal, he is trustworthy, and so on. A good villain will take that first set of talents and test them to their breaking points, but a great villain will test the second set—he will force Spider-man to make difficult or even impossible choices that affect not just what Spider-man can do, but who he is.
The climax of the first Spider-man movie is a great example, adapted from one of the most famous scenes in the history of comicbooks: the Green Goblin is on top of a bridge, supporting Spider-man’s love in one hand and a big group of people in the other. Spider-man’s powers would allow him to save either group (thus testing his physical traits), but not both, meaning that he will be forced to choose (thus testing his inner character traits). Spider-man tries to save both, and in the movie he succeeds, but in the comics he finds that the girl is dead—possibly from the fall itself, but more likely from the neck-snapping whiplash when Spider-man caught her. This is where it gets interesting; this is where a simple “stop the Green Goblin” punch-out became a defining moment in the life of a character. Spider-man’s villain forced him to make a choice, and the results of that choice have become an integral part of who Spider-man is and why (and how) he chooses to live his life. In attempting to defeat a killer, Spider-man became one himself, and that fact has affected the entire course of his life.
Other heroes have been faced with similar decisions. The Star Wars movies are about the corrupting influence of power, and the dual journeys of Luke and Anakin to use that power without succumbing to it. Jack Bauer frequently finds himself on the wrong side of the law, becoming in many ways no different than the terrorists he fights. Even our nation has been faced (multiple times) with the frightening paradox of waging war in the service of peace. All of our favorite heroes have had to face, at one point or another, the simple fact that in fighting an enemy we eventually take on that enemy’s traits. One of my favorite examples is No Country for Old Men, in which Sheriff Bell faces a monster so terrifying he chooses to retire rather than face the prospect of becoming like him.
In I Am Not a Serial Killer, I chose very specifically to blur the line between hero and monster as much as I possibly could. John Cleaver, ostensibly the hero, is haunted by emotions and desires and urges that lead him inexorably toward evil, and which he can barely control. The Clayton Killer (whoever he or she may be; no spoilers here) is a serial murderer but also a concerned citizen, a good friend, and a genuinely loving member of the community. John has to stop the killer, but the only way to do it is to give in to the dark side he’s fought against for so long. How will it affect him? How will it change the way he lives his life? As time goes on he starts to realize that the monster might be more human than he is, and underneath it all is the horrifying thought that that once John lets his dark side out, he might not be able to put it away again.
John’s character draws elements from many real-world serial killers, and I’ll talk more about some of them in a future blog, but one of the big ones is David Berkowitz. You know him better as the Son of Sam, but that’s the label the press gave him; in his own letters, he called himself Mr. Monster and begged the police to find and kill him. He knew what he had become, and that he couldn’t stop himself, and it destroyed him emotionally even as he continued to kill. John is all too aware of this fate, and tries to avoid it at all costs—except that sometimes the cost is too high, and deep down he knows that saving other people is better than saving himself.
I think this is why the monstrous hero appeals to me so much—in the end it is the ultimate heroic sacrifice, because it is the sacrifice of self. Not every hero can, or should, go to such lengths that they lose their humanity, but the ones who do will always be the ones I love.