The Real-Life Genesis of the Bad Guy

Curtis Library cupola

Kate Flora here, expanding on a topic I discussed recently with an audience at the Curtis Library in Brunswick: how we draw on real world experiences to develop the character and psychology of our bad guys.

The story goes like this:

A week ago, on a sparkling Sunday morning, I walked down to Land’s End, at the end of Bailey Island, where there is a gift shop with lively whirligigs, a wonderful statue of a lobsterman honoring Maine fishermen, and a classic Maine view of islands and waves, of kayakers and lobstermen plying their trade, and families with small children skipping rocks or wading in the water.

Off to one side, there was a large patch of “something” floating toward shore. The “something” was the

Along the shores of Mackerel Cove

contents of the holding tank on someone’s boat–someone who couldn’t wait to get into a port where it could safely be discharged. Instead, they had simply dumped it off the beach and motored away, leaving their–pardon my language–s**t to settle on the rest of us.

Never mind that that beach is often crowded with tiny children playing. Never mind that lobstermen, fishermen, and clam diggers are taking food many people will be eating out of those waters. Never mind that swimmers will be impacted or that kayakers will be happily paddling through a pool of their crap. Never mind that for many people on the island, the ocean is their yard and their view. Never mind that what these recreational boaters have done is the equivalent of dropping their designer drawers and pooping in someone’s garden.

Well, dear readers, that floating mess of sewage in the middle of a beautiful Maine day really is all it takes to start constructing the character of a bad actor. What can I derive from it? That the person who did it has money, because regular folks don’t generally own boats that have on-board toilets, (shall we say ‘heads’?) and thus the need for holding tanks that must periodically be emptied. That the person who did it is utterly indifferent to the harm or damage they cause to others. That that person believes they occupy a world where rules don’t apply to them. Their pleasure and convenience is all that matters and never mind what it means for everyone else or for the environment.

It raises that fundamental question underlying my crime novels: What is it that makes some people deviate from the social contract we’ve all signed on to, that allows them to commit bad acts? In this case, money, privilege, a sense of entitlement and a belief that they are exempt from rules, and isolation from any sense of community. These traits are an excellent basis from which to begin to craft a person who will harm others with indifference and without a sense of guilt. On this frame, I can start hanging background. Misbehavior at private school. Poor examples set at home, or poor examples being set for the next generation. A character, perhaps, who runs someone down and simply drives off. Or who cheats employees, or exploits them. Someone who mistreats siblings or schemes to get all of an estate out of a sense that they really ought to have it all.

And so it goes. From one small patch, floating on the ocean, a character, and perhaps a plot, begin to emerge. So far, I’ve given him a deep tan, a shark’s mouth of overwhite teeth, a slight belly bulge over Hilfiger swim trunks, and an ever-present cell phone. What would you add?

As the saying goes: When life gives you lemons….etc.

Carl Hiassen's Flush

A final note: A friend suggested that all these holding tanks ought to have digital tags that record when and where they were emptied. A great idea. And just to show that criminal (creator) minds think alike, Lea Wait tells me that one of the marvelous Carl Hiaasen’s juvenile mysteries, Flush, involves putting so much coloring in the effluent that the bad behavior really stands out.


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9 Responses to The Real-Life Genesis of the Bad Guy

  1. Joan Emerson says:

    The world seems to have more than its share of people who behave as if they are the only ones on the planet, as if they can do whatever they want, no matter what the rules or the accepted standard of behavior. They are the drivers who cut you off without so much as a signal or a thought, the ones who always have to be first, the ones who believe it is all about them. They are the ones who have no thought or consideration for anyone or anything other than themselves; the ones who wouldn’t hesitate to callously dump their holding tank off the beach.

    It never fails to amaze — and sadden — me . . . .

  2. Deanna says:

    What she said!

  3. John Clark says:

    In a perfect world all crap (especially cigarette butts and fast food wrappers) would magically appear at the foot of each perpetrator’s bed every evening. I often imagine, with an evil smile, the consternation of said upright citizen confronting the deceased and very ripe mouse who had the misfortune to crawl inside their discarded NastyGansett bottle, so casually tossed into the ditch.

  4. Great post, Kate. I distinctly remember how I found one bad guy for a book. A man at a book signing pushed past others to urge me to help him publish his poetry. He was so creepy I knew I had to use his description, disregard of others, and self-absorption in Primal Obsession.

  5. MCWriTers says:

    Susan…I once got a bad guy from someone who sat next to me on a plane. By the time he’d finished talking about himself and all the fun he had while his wife was home with the five kids (4 girls and finally a boy…guess who had to have a boy) I had a perfect character.

  6. Janis Bolster says:

    For me the most interesting aspect is the slide from casual misbehavior to evil (I just finished your Finding Amy, Kate – wonderful suspense – so I have a vivid sense of real-life evil right now). Dumping the contents of a head overboard is worse than dropping a cigarette out a car window onto the pavement but not as bad as – well, fill in the blank. Would some villains run over their neighbors but draw a line at littering? Probably. I like the shades of black.

  7. What appals me is people who think they are entitled to what they want, with no regard for other people or rules. Like the jerks who come up behind you on a highway when you’re already going over the speed limit, and ride your tail until you finally wimp out and move over, just so they can go ten miles faster than you. Or people who pitch that cigarette butt out the window of a moving car, when there’s a fire alert. What makes them believe they’re so special? And how can we use their carelessness to kill them? (In a book, of course.) I’m holding out for a paintball gun, so that when we see someone committing one of these thoughtless acts, we can splat them with fluorescent paint.

  8. MCWriTers says:

    Sheila…I’m holding out for a harpoon. I dream of driving an old junker with 4x4s for bumpers, a digital message board in the rear window, and a harpoon. But a paintball cannon would work, too.

  9. MoW says:

    The name of his boat is something that would embarrass his wife: Captain Stud, T*ts&As* (without the asterisks), Naked Nymph.

    I got an idea for a bad guy from a female timeshare sales rep who just walked away from us when she realized we weren’t buying. Didn’t even give us the free gift. What might a salesperson who really doesn’t have the temperament for it do to vent frustration?

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