This was originally posted on Originality By Design as a guest post by yours truly back in October 2019. I figure it’s probably safe to repost it here now.
I grew up in a trailer park on the outskirts of Farmington, NM. I’m
not gonna lie and say it was the greatest place on Earth. It was home and that was good enough.
We had a real rouge’s gallery of people that lived out there. For some, I suspect, it was an opportunity to get out of the hustle and bustle of Farmington, a town with a population of a little over 30k at the time. For others, it was probably the fact that trailers were cheap, and rent was cheap, and living out on the hill in a trailer they owned was better than renting any of the run-down apartments in town.
On one side of us, we had a guy who had the occasional party. Nothing too big, just some friends drinking beer and hooting it up. What made the parties interesting in a terrible kind of way was the fact that, no kidding, he’d go out and steal someone’s sheep for dinner.
Across the street was a guy that woke me up at 3 a.m. one morning screaming about how terrible the world was. Apparently, he’d gotten drunk as a skunk and managed to bounce his girlfriend’s head off the cement. She was out cold, probably massive head trauma. The cops and ambulance showed up and we never saw those people again.
But the sheep smuggler and skull smasher aside, the real bull-moose loony were our other neighbors.
Brett and Joyce used to have epic fights. The kind of fights that rattled not only the windows in their trailer, but the windows in ours. They were experts at escalating, too. They’d feed off each other’s rage and amplify it in a massive feedback loop until the screaming was so loud it became pure white-hot noise.
On the nights when it got really bad, we’d see the back door of their trailer fly open and Joyce would fling one of Brett’s beloved beer steins out. Some bounced when they hit the back yard, others shattered. A few minutes later, the back door of the trailer would fly open again and Joyce would go sailing out. She’d hit the same rocky ground, get up, brush herself off, and go right back in again.
Then another beer stein would fly out the door. Then Joyce would fly out the door. Lather, rinse, repeat until they were both so exhausted they couldn’t keep the rage going anymore. In the morning, my mom and would I gather up the unbroken beer steins and put them on the rickety wood steps to Brett and Joyce’s trailer and life would otherwise go on as normal.
This wasn’t an every night affair, by any means. You’d have to be superhuman to do that level of fighting every night. But it happened. The SWAT team would show up, using our trailer as a wall, tactical gear and full-auto weapons trained on Brett and Joyce’s trailer and we’d just move to the other end of the trailer and keep our heads down until it was all over.
Eventually Brett and Joyce split up, which was probably a good thing for everyone involved. She left, hooked up with some other guy and everything was quiet for a while. But the thing is, both of those two had learned to hate each other and they never let that go. Things finally came to a head when Joyce – after moving out and finding someone else – hired a hit-man to take Brett down. Brett survived because he happened to bend down to pick something up just as the shot was fired.
Joyce wound up in prison. Brett moved out. Things quieted down. It was just us and sheep smuggler and a whole bunch of people we didn’t know. Everyone kept to themselves and, other than the trailer down the block from us catching fire, things were quiet on our end of the park.
From the outside, that place was like a war zone. SWAT teams, sheep smugglers, hit-men, guys bouncing their girlfriend’s heads off driveways. Most people would see that as madness. I just saw it as something that happened and went about my business of riding BMX bikes and getting into the occasional fight. That, as far as I was concerned, was just what life was.
Now, here’s the really interesting thing. For all their screaming and violence, Brett and Joyce were fundamentally good people. She made the best tortillas in the world. He collected rare beer steins. They took care of me when I was sick, and my mom couldn’t stay home from work. Literally, anything you needed, they’d help out with. Our back doorsteps got rickety over time and we came home one day to find the sheep smuggler out there fixing them. My mom got sick and Joyce made her dinner and brought it over.
We, as a species, have a tendency to focus on the negative. Those people are fighting all the time? Must be bad people. He steals sheep for dinner? Bad person. Stay away. But people are just people. Unpredictable, dangerous sometimes, but ultimately they’re just people. And, no matter what anyone says, no one sets out deciding to be the bad guy that day. Even in the heat of the fight, when beer steins and wives are flying, no one thinks they’re the bad guy. As a species, we also have a wonderful ability to justify our actions to ourselves, flimsy though that may sometimes be.
It was that kind of early exposure to what most people would write off as the “criminal element” or “bad people” that shaped me. There’s that realization that people can be complete train wrecks one minute and ready to give you the shirt off their back the next. Or they try to tear each other apart one second and be the most gentle, reliable people you’ve ever met the next. People are just people. They do stuff and that stuff ain’t always pretty.
So, flash forward a few decades and I’m revising Brett and Joyce, a couple I haven’t even thought about in years, and wondering if they didn’t provide some kind of template for characters in my books. I don’t write about nice things. You can call it urban fantasy, you can call it crime noir… call it whatever you want, but I tend to have less-than-stellar good guys and I always strive for sympathetic bad guys. Because, just like Brett and Joyce, those bad guys are just people doing what they do. Be it revenge, power, freedom, whatever, the difference between good and bad has nothing to do with the want; it has everything to do with how they try to fulfill that want.
And that right there is the key to villainy. No one is evil all the time. From their point of view, they know what they’re doing, they’re doing the right thing. Be it protecting your beloved beer stein collection or destroying beer steins because he loves them more than he loves you, there’s always a good reason. Seen from the outside, especially when things and people are flying out the door, it may look despicable, but to make a truly believable bad guy you have to look a little deeper and have some sympathy. Maybe not sympathy for the action, but sympathy for the reasons behind the action.