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Villain of the Piece

What qualities do you look for in a fictional character? Someone who helps old ladies across the road? Someone who puts all their spare time and effort into furthering the interests of mankind? I very much doubt it. And yet when it comes to the bad guy there’s an almost universal desire to see him (or her) suffer.

Ever since David slew Goliath, we’ve had heroes and villains. The despicable deeds of those we love to hate are avenged by the noble acts of those we admire. Perhaps, in rooting for good over evil, we reassure ourselves that the world is a safe place and that justice will prevail. Murderers will get their comeuppance, just as they do in an Agatha Christie novel where all the loose ends are tied neatly together.

And yet the most memorable fictional characters are far from good. Think of Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist, his brutish shadow looming over Old London. Hardly the type you’d want to invite to a children’s party, but as a dramatic creation, he’s hard to follow.

As writers we’re always being told that there are no rules. That may be true, but there are certain guidelines we’re advised to follow. Most of these go back to antiquity, when our ancestors told stories around the campfire. Audience tastes have changed since then but the basic elements of storytelling remain the same. And running through the myths and parables we’ve inherited is a single unifying theme: Morality.

For every villain there has to be a hero – preferably someone of equal or superior strength who will always prevail no matter what the odds are against him. For writers and filmmakers this was the unwritten law.

Until fairly recently.

In previous decades we’ve seen a challenge to this trend. Freed from censorship and other boundaries, writers have tried a more realistic approach, experimenting with characters previous audiences would have found unsavoury. 1950’s heroes were usually courteous and civil, holding doors open for ladies and always mindful of their language. A decade or so later, the picture had changed radically. Today’s hero is often flawed, perhaps in need of a little Hollywood-style psychotherapy to curb his wayward tendencies.

The late 60’s and early 70’s saw the debut of films like Deliverance and the Wild Bunch, a genre that showcased the mean and the sociopathic in an equally unforgiving landscape. Directors John Boorman and Sam Peckinpah found controversy through their choice of subject, further blurring the lines between good and evil. The camera records disturbing scenes without passing judgement, allowing the audience to make up its own mind.

Modern classics like Goodfellas present the same dilemma. While we can identify with Henry Hill and the glamorous lifestyle he aspires to, we recoil at the murder and violence that goes on around him. The camera takes a neutral stance, recording what is, not what should be.

In the end it comes down to taste. Not everyone wants to read about murder and mayhem, or psychotic investment bankers like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. But times have changed. We’ve become desensitised to violence due to over exposure – much like our ancient Roman forebears in the Colosseum. We take our pleasures vicariously now, reassured by the filmmakers’ claims that ‘No animals were injured during the making of this movie.’ But we still want to believe in justice and truth, and we still want to come home at night to find the house hasn’t been ransacked by burglars. 

My first two novels feature what might loosely be termed, mildly unpleasant characters. Peter Calliet, the womanising protagonist of The Butterfly Collector, has been criticised heavily, mainly by female readers who objected to his coarseness and attitude to women. Joe E Byron, the dissolute hero of Drowning by Numbers, fares a little better: his plight, although self-induced, draws a modicum of sympathy from the reader, who laments Joe’s slide into oblivion, and wishes he’d get help.

But these case studies are inventions, products of the author’s mind. What happens when we take real life subjects and attempt to reveal them in a dramatic context?

Neville Heath murdered two young women in 1946. News of his arrest shocked those that knew him, who claimed he couldn’t possibly be responsible for such terrible crimes. His charm and wit have since become legendary; after being offered a drink by the Governor of Pentonville Prison before his execution, Heath remarked casually, ‘Under the circumstances, you might make that a double.’

Heath’s crimes were truly appalling, a fact that no amount of on-screen romanticising can alter. But he will make a rather dashing screen villain – Errol Flynn with a touch of Hannibal Lecter. And for the critics, there’s always the consolation that Heath’s notorious innings was cut short at the end of a rope.

Good guys come and go, and they have their place in the Hollywood pantheon. But it’s the bad guys who stick in our minds, long after the curtain’s come down and we’ve all gone home.

The screenplay Heart of a Murderer, based on the crimes of Neville Heath, is currently in development.   

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