In the last installment we took a brief look at victims (our thematic “virgins”) and what made them interesting. The primary element seemed to be sympathy — if a reader could sympathize with a character’s situation, they were more likely to keep reading. It seems to be a fair assumption. Let’s see how this manifests itself in modern popular fiction. For our purposes, we don’t need to distinguish between books and films; it’s the idea we’re looking at rather than the medium.
One ridiculously easy starting point would be fright movies. A mere mention of the film names can conjure instant images of victims. The opening scene in “Jaws” is a classic: a beautiful girl goes for a midnight swim and is then attacked… In “Psycho” a beautiful girl steps into the shower and is then attacked… In “Scary Movie” a beautiful girl receives a threatening phone call and is then attacked… Detect a theme yet?
I didn’t even get to the beautiful girl who hears strange noises coming from the dark basement (where everyone knows the creepy villain awaits) but ignores the obvious and slips down the creaky stairs, into the inky depths where — Surprise! — something dreadful happens. At times like these, one almost wishes books came with sound tracks.
Please don’t write a story — short, long or middling — that requires a sound track for originality. Feel free to employ attractive females in your plots, and by all means, do terrible things to them, but understand that unless you think of some new and different ways to go about it, only the people who really love you will read your work. Afterward, they’ll pat you on the head, look toward the heavens, and comment to Aunt Enid, sotto voce of course, that they’ve always been worried about you.
There should be much, much more to victims/virgins than wide-eyed innocence and world class cleavage. Nor am I referring just to sympathy. Victims should be more than the written equivalent of eye candy. (“Brain candy” perhaps?) They should have backstories, too, whether or not the specifics ever reach the page. Building a character’s credibility is as important as making that character sympathetic, and it’s often done at the same time.
Consider the film “Casablanca,” mentioned on countless lists of “best” movies, ever. What makes the major characters compelling is that they rise above their own backgrounds to become heroes; they don’t start out that way. I don’t know if this story would have made a good book, Lord knows, the reverse is rarely true. But the premise — a disreputable guy does good things for the woman he loves, but cannot have — ought to make for a heckuva novel.
And then there’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance.” Released 20 years after “Casablanca,” this Jimmy Stewart/John Wayne classic is set in a very different time and place than the Humphrey Bogart vehicle, and yet the premise is quite similar: an ordinary man becomes a hero, not because he’s destined for greatness, but because he knows that doing what’s right is rarely safe, and he does it anyway.
My contention that backstory makes victims more compelling, can be demonstrated with lighthearted fare as well. For example, the role of Dorothy in the 1939 film version of “The Wizard of Oz.” Clearly, Dorothy is no villain. One might be tempted to call her a virgin due to her age and innocence, but she might also fill the role of vigilante as the de facto head of a posse bent on righting wrong.
But, since we haven’t yet discussed vigilantes, let’s focus on Dorothy’s role as a victim, at least for now. The poor kid gets swept up by a tornado in Kansas and deposited in faraway Oz where the locals immediately assume she’s a witch. The genuine, evil article soon arrives and threatens her, but Dorothy is given a reprieve by the villain’s alter ego, Glenda, who sets her on a quest to find the great and powerful Wizard. Through the whole opening, Dorothy receives the attentions of others; she doesn’t initiate anything. The sympathy level mounts for her as bad things happen to her and her little dog, Toto. As the storm approaches, she’s unable to reach shelter, and when she lands in Oz, she’s falsely accused of murder. Thus far we have an innocent kid facing extraordinary circumstances, and as viewers (or readers of the book) we’re firmly in her camp.
To a lesser extent, we come to appreciate Dorothy’s three non-canine companions, each of whom has a story to tell and a goal to reach. As they travel along the fabled Yellow Brick road, each adopts the role of victim at one point or another, and each one eventually prevails. In case you hadn’t noticed, audiences love to see good triumph over evil. It’s a story as old, or possibly older, than boy meets girl, and it still plays well to audiences from Gotham to Peoria.
Sticking with the movie theme a bit longer, and looking for victims, one can’t help but trip over “Cool Hand Luke,” Paul Newman’s celebrated 1967 prison flic. If ever a story focused on an heroic victim, this is it.
I found the film difficult to watch, simply because the hero suffers so much. Yet he remains an uncompromising fighter, no matter that he never wins. What he proves is that he can absorb punishment like no other mere human ever has. One could make a case for Sylvester Stalone’s “Rocky,” but that story lacked the artistic merit of Newman’s spectacle of punishment.
Could this work as a novel? Certainly! Because it did. Donn Pearce wrote the book and sold the movie rights to Warner Brothers. But the book was never as popular as the film. Why? I suspect it’s entirely due to the acting skills and personality of Paul Newman. Since it is a visual medium, film can convey nuance in ways text can’t. How could anyone capture Newman’s enigmatic smile in prose? It’s not a plot point, or even a mannerism, at least not one that can be readily captured in words. There are some things which can’t be improved upon. I suspect this is one of them.
One could spend hours pouring over old books and films, picking apart one popular story after another, or listing the villains and victims. Some lend themselves to such examination, however. I offer “Amadeus” as a prime example. In this cinematic masterpiece, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart becomes the victim of a jealous rival, Salieri, a mediocre composer with an ear for genius. What Salieri does to Mozart, in a feeble effort to promote his own lackluster work, amounts to a crime of passion.
Mozart, who died at 35, certainly contributed to his own demise, probably through a combination of TB and cirrhosis, but Salieri assumes the blame. What makes the story effective, is that it’s told primarily from Salieri’s viewpoint. Keep that in mind the next time you launch an epic about a genius; the “best” storyteller might not be the main character. In fact, it most probably won’t be. (The closest anyone ever got to getting inside Sherlock Holmes’s head was to view it from Dr. Watson’s.) So, don’t dismiss bad guys as possible narrators. They might just bring some realism to the victims that the latter can’t supply.
Next up: A look at vigilantes. Are they all super heroes?