Lesson Learned in Writer’s Music from the Rolling Stones: Don’t Misunderstand your Villain.

sympathy_for_the_devil_coverA rare moment when I get to listen to music of my own choosing during the daylight hours. The moment comes with sacrifice: no writing.

Normally, when I take the boys to school, I walk to a bookshop a few blocks away and settle in for a morning of school work and writing. Today, however, was Parent Visitation Day at my daughter’s school one town over. “You can come this time, right Mommy?” Her toothless smile looked tenuous. She was so used to hearing “I can’t come because I’d have to bring the boys.” “I can’t leave the boys behind.” “I can’t when I have work, honey.” I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. I’ve written before how hard it is to get time without her brothers. This time I gave her a hug and said, “I can’t come for the whole thing.”

She groaned.

“But, I can be there in the morning for a little while.”

Blondie’s smile broke loose and spread to her toes, throwing her into a hopping frenzy. “You can dance with me at brain break! And see my desk! And hear my story!”

So here I am, driving between schools, with, of all things, the Rolling Stones blasting because it’s the only CD that’s not Weird Al” Yankovic or Veggie Tales. “Sympathy for the Devil” comes on, and my mind starts to wander…

Why, of all beings in the big ol’ Cosmos, would we give sympathy to the Devil? Yet, well, as writers, that is what we want to do. I’ve read stories where the villain has less development than Snidely Whiplash of the Dudley Do-Right cartoons, all cackles and mustache twirling, and have been utterly, utterly bored.

Now 2-D characters do have their place, like, say, Michael Myers of Halloween, but slasher films are where cookie-cutter characters thrive best: The Virgin. The Jock. The Slut. The Jealous Boyfriend/Girlfriend. The Nerd. Etc.

When it comes to novels, we need more than one-note characters: we need songs, harmonies, percussion, the whole sonata. And not just from the hero.

We want to be just as intrigued with the one whom the hero is up against.

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul to waste

There’s something to the tribal feel of the percussion here counter-balancing the piano. A unique style of class. It makes me picture a man with tailored suit and cane, someone at ease in the bar who for all his drink loses not one iota of wit, something like Alex from Clockwork Orange. Just listen to that opening stanza: He’s polite. Rich. Cultured. Seasoned. Sounds rather like a philanthropist, doesn’t he? One who smiles sincerely as he offers you a drink and a stool in return for your ear…

…and soul.

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

He starts with one of his oldest and dearest triumphs. You’d think this would turn you away, that you’d never want to listen to someone who sealed the fate of Christ. Yet you’re still sitting there, because here’s a man who reveals Christ had doubt. He takes the Big Good Guy and shows He’s no better than the rest of us. Everything feels a bit more level now, doesn’t it? Those Hoidy-Toidies ain’t got nuthin’ better than us.

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

How curious this man wants us to guess his name. But he, like most villains, wants to be known. Understood. And what drives him? All villains need something to keep them on the path they’ve chosen.

And for this particular fellow, it is one of the most basic and most frightening of motivations.

He’s bored.

All that he shares with you is part of his “game,” and as he shares, the music builds and you find yourself awestruck and horrified and fascinated all at once…

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made

I shouted out,
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me

How can we possibly sit at this man’s side and listen to him share all this like it doesn’t matter?

Hey, a game is not supposed to be serious. A game is fun, harmless.

But his actions are everything but. Why, why listen?

Because we like him. Because he’s not simply “evil”–he is a complete creature with a nature that gets bored and wants to have fun.

Just.

Like.

Us.

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
‘Cause I’m in need of some restraint

This must reside in the core of our villain’s creation: they must have some essence of us, of the everyday person. Even the most alien of villains can have a nature with passions and repulsions. When we forget to give our villain a nature, we deny our heroes a true conflict. Without conflict, we deny our readers a true story.And you know the cost of such a sin.
So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, mm yeah
Songwriters: KEITH RICHARDS, MICK JAGGER© Abkco Music, Inc.For non-commercial use only.
Data from: LyricFind
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32 thoughts on “Lesson Learned in Writer’s Music from the Rolling Stones: Don’t Misunderstand your Villain.

  1. I’m not a great fan of The Stones. Even taking that into account this is one of their better numbers. It’s a l lyric that is more surreal put to music than it is when it’s read cold. I think it’s about the global ‘us’ the song is about?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m “not allowed” to play any of my music when the girls are in the car. If I force them to listen to a CD then a tantrum or two will take place, and it’s not worth it. Plus, the whole point is that I want them to like the music too – it’s no fun if it’s just me. Sigh….

    Your blog title intrigued me. I’ve been watching more and more shows in which there are *evil* villains – there was “Hinterland” (and “Midsomer Murders” before that) and now I’m hooked on “The Fall” with Gillian Anderson & Jamie Dornan. I’m not sure why I’m so drawn to these types of freaky shows NOW instead of my previous years on the planet, but I am and I watch them with Lucy while the rest of the family watch insipid, rather vacuous prank shows in the other room. They make me cringe. Yes, I’m a snob. (Well, they also watch History Channel shows that are much more educational than my gore or the prank shows, so they get credit for that.)

    Jamie Dornan’s portrayal of a particularly disturbing Irish villain is definitely not one-note. He’s portrayed as a very loving father to his little girl, which makes the series all the creepier – as you wrote, “Because he’s not simply “evil”” – you also wrote:

    “We want to be just as intrigued with the one whom the hero is up against.”

    YES! That, my friend, is very true !!! It’s quite entertaining to watch “Dana Scully” play a reserved British detective complete with authentic Brit accent. I just found out she grew up in the UK until she was 12 or 13, then moved to the States and has dual US/UKcitizenship. Her character Detective Gibson is utterly fascinated with the handsome villain modus operandi, but she herself is eventually undone by his actions. Regardless, I’ve found it addictive to watch how the events unfold.

    Please allow me to ramble further.

    Like Zoolonaudio, I must admit I’ve never been a Stones devotee, but Craig likes them. You know me – sappy 1980s pop tunes run through my veins, with a splash of classical thanks to my Dad. It was fun to read your take on this song – I’ll never listen to it quite the same way again! XoXo

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know that about Gillian Anderson! That explains her killer accent in that Dickens miniseries BLEAK HOUSE. Now I’ve got to hunt down that Fall show–it sounds really good! Yeah, we’re rather divided around here with certain shows; if Bo puts on the Three Stooges, I insist on being able to go elsewhere in the house. If we’ve got something from PBS on, though, Bo usually tries to go elsewhere to watch some 60s exploitation or whatever. And yet the most random things will transfix all of us. Last week? Footage of the Mount St. Helens eruption. Blondie’s obsessed with volcanoes right now (the boys just want to see stuff blow up–easy pleasers ;), so Bo’s looking up real-life photos while I’m finding the animated interpretation of the eruption from FANTASIA 2000. 🙂 Fact and fiction had a rare coming-together! 🙂

      All right, back to grading. You and Lucy enjoy that show–I’m gonna hunt that down after term is done! xxxxxxxxxxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh gosh, you’ve got me thinking about the many villains that run through books and across the big (and small) screens. If they don’t get developed, the story never gets fully developed. Thanks for a great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh absolutely! I keep telling my students that villains need to be the heroes in their own story – no one outside a pantomime twirls a moustache and proclaims just how evil they are. Well… there are a handful to revel in their badness, but they are vanishingly rare. Instead, most baddies think they are perfectly reasonable and it’s just a real shame they are so misunderstood and didn’t that silly cow have it coming to her? They are also often great fun to write… A great article, Kristen:)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Sunday Post – 2nd April 2017 | Brainfluff

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