Usama Bin Laden is dead.
The man whose face has become associated with terror, war, destruction, and inhuman chaos has been annihilated. Crowds outside the White House and in Times Square greeted the news with cheers and celebration. Al Qaeda greeted the news with vows of retaliation and retribution.
For Americans, this is a moment for relief, for triumph. It’s been a long time coming. For me, I’m not sure if the whole thing has quite sunk in.
Maybe you’re wondering what this topic has to do with a writing blog…or a writerly blog…or at least a blog maintained by writers to deal primarily with writing topics. Maybe it just has to do with me, as an American, celebrating the victory of our forces overseas, and the downfall of one of the most hated men of recent memory.
But I do actually have a writerly reason for talking about UBL. Usama Bin Laden is — was — one of those devastating figures who was capable of dividing almost everyone who knew about him into one of two camps. You adored and followed him, or you despised every fiber of his being. I don’t know many people who would think of Bin Laden and say, “Oh, he’s a decent fellow, but I’m rather indifferent to him.” No. You hate him, or you love him.
I think even the people who loathed the man would have to admit that he — in some ways like Hitler — had an enormous power of personality. You take one look at his face, and you have to say, “That is a dangerous man.” You take one look at his face, and in some way you can understand why people would follow him.
As a writer, I often find myself struggling with the concept of the Big Baddie. The Almighty Antagonist. The Embodiment of Everything Evil. It’s kind of a common struggle for writers. For some stories, the antagonist is some aspect of the main character himself which he has to overcome. Or maybe it’s a situation, or some force in the environment. But sometimes the story really does go back to that big bad guy whom the main character has to confront and overcome. And all too often, Mr. Evil turns out to be kind of cliched. Kind of a stereotype.
There’s the sickly, hideous, deformed, ancient, or in some other way loathsome creature who probably hates everyone around him because they’re healthier, sounder, younger, or prettier than him.
There’s the maniacal or certifiably insane creepazoid who loves evil for the sake of evil…and who somehow connects to people and makes them want to follow him. About this type, I will add this: can it be pulled off successfully? Yes. But it takes beaucoup skills, subtlety, and kid-glove handling to keep it from plummeting to the ranks of the laughable and unbelievable. A recent example of a successful crazy-evil-guy character? Nate Haskell, Ray Langston’s nemesis in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Sometimes, the bad guy really is just a creepily insane weirdo who actually does delight in doing evil.
Then there’s the other-than-human bad guy. Some kind of monster, zombie, undead, spirit, or otherwise indomitable evil force that seems to be totally beyond anyone’s skills to destroy. Except our MC, of course. I’ve been guilty — or almost guilty — of this kind of His Supreme Evilness characterization before. It’s definitely a tempting one, especially in fantasy.
But what makes a good bad guy? In every single cliched bad guy, the common characteristic is that they’re paper thin. No dimension, no depth, no history…and, maybe most importantly, nothing remotely attractive. Whether it be in looks, or motives, or human charisma, they just don’t have it. Who would ever follow these weirdos? Stand up for them? Fight for them? Die for them? No one! No halfway sane person would ever want to rally to their flag! So why is he such a big problem for the hero? If everyone hates the guy, the hero’s struggle against him seems somehow…unheroic. Everyone and their granny is probably lining up to take whacks at the guy. So what’s the point?
That’s where UBL fits in to my recent writerly ponderings. Like I said, the man had some kind of power. I don’t mean his political or military power, but his personal power. That something about him which made otherwise-halfway-rational people want to follow him. And — whether or not he actually believed it — they believed he believed he was doing good. That his motives were noble and true.
He was charismatic. Hitler was charismatic. Kim Jong-il enjoys the devotion of many. I know, right? I’d be interested to see a study of how many of the most evil or despotic or ruthless leaders in history enjoyed some kind of cult of personality, some kind of near-deification among their devoted followers. Because I’m pretty darn sure that all of them had their share of fanatic followers. Somebody admired them. In fact, a whole lot of somebodies admired them. Even ordinary, good people admired them…not just wannabe baddies who haven’t the flair for world domination.
UBL is intriguing because he was exactly the kind of antagonist that would be believably antagonistic in fiction. A bloodthirsty and cruel murderer might garner a following of weak-minded cowards easily impressed by someone who’s eviller than they are. But what’s the interest there in terms of story? The best bad guys, the real bad guys, are those who think they are doing right, and whose followers believe they are doing right…even if only in their own twisted vision of reality.