It’s a beguiling opportunity, the chance for the writer to conjure up a person. A fiction. A hero or villain to be shaped, rewarded or punished at will. To sit, creating circumstance to act as judge, jury and executioner, if so desired, upon a world of your making.
Some strive for the same opportunities in the non-fiction, so called real world. In parts, we all do. We define others as heroes or villains. We assess the actions and intents of others. We cut people out of our lives, or fail to invite them in.
The struggle in the real world is the definition. It’s easy to be black and white in books.
In life, no one is ever just one thing. The saintliest soul may be unforgiven for perceived parental favouritism, or dawdling in a queue (however unjustly); a villainous beast may be someone’s hero for just acknowledging their presence, for holding a door, for saying thank you (in spite of the murderous glint in their eyes).
It’s the season to think of such things. Afternoons shrink, rush to darken. The sun sinks in Scorpio, the sign of sex and death, ruled by Pluto, God of the Underworld. We are reminded of life’s sting. We light our way with pumpkin lanterns, laughing at our fears as if to ward them off.
In such a dark world as ours, is it any wonder Halloween has become so huge? Not much more than a whimper during my British childhood, now it’s practically a month-long festival (mainly of dressing up and sugar rushes, but sprinkled, nevertheless, with fear).
We put on the masks of our heroes and villains. We revel in our disguises, the uncertainties they offer, the transformations. Angelic children dressed as devils. Innocent girls dressed as, well, not-so-innocent girls. Bad boys dressed as superheroes.
Trick, or treat? What will it be?
It seems appropriate that at this time of year the world looks west (to the land that packaged up this festival of darkness so brilliantly) to see who the people of the United States of America will deem hero or villain in their presidential election.
Perhaps it’s our love of story that tempts us to package up the real world in simplistic narrative plot devices, such as a classic battle of good versus evil.
The Trump V Clinton campaign seems to have consolidated the era of comic strip politics. Forget policy. Go for KAPOW! – evil plans for world domination; KABOOM! – another ‘locker room’ jibe; SKREEECH! – declare the whole thing rigged.
You’d have thought the breathtaking self-interest, misogyny, racism and general distain of everything and everyone (his very anti-Americanism) would have branded Trump an irredeemable villain, but to many he’s still an anti-Establishment hero (a man born into privilege who was so spoiled and entitled by his teenage years that they sent him to military school; later, they just threw money at the problem).
Is there such a thing as an Establishment hero, or heroine? If there were, Hillary Clinton might be it, but she too has been presented as a villain; at best, the lesser of two evils.
Optimist that I am, I don’t quite buy that.
It’s a complicated world. Family politics are hard enough to navigate, let alone international affairs. Sometimes there’s a fine line between Machiavellian manipulations and tact and diplomacy. Sometimes we find ourselves saying one thing to one group of people and something else to others – to keep the peace, to oil the wheels, to keep the conversation going.
That’s life. That’s politics.
I’m not trying to be an apologist here, but a realist. In the real world, we rarely deal with anything that’s clear cut, black or white, purely good or purely evil. Stories can make us feel things should be this way, but that’s a fiction.
Simple is seductive – we all want things simple, don’t we – but life, let alone politics, is never simple, and Trump pretending it can be is what makes him really dangerous (Trump actually believing it is all that simple is equally as dangerous).
I don’t think, in fairness, he sees things that way. You can use pretty blunt and brutal tools in business and get away with it. In politics, not so much (Brexit, anybody?).
Trump might be a dangerous politician with some – at best misguided, at worst, deeply disturbing – ideas about the world, but even he doesn’t fit neatly into our narrative model of pure evil (does he?).
Clinton herself touched on this at the end of the first debate, stating, in effect, that, however terrible a person Trump might appear to be, clearly his children love him.
And, as we know, no one is ever just one thing (no matter how much easier it would be to believe otherwise).
But if we’re all, in parts, at some time or another, somebody’s hero and somebody’s villain, where does this leave the fiction writer – or the electorate? How are we to decide on our heroes when we’re presented with every character flaw (or when fictional ‘truth’ demands them)?
Are we fools to even search for the heroic any more?
I don’t think so. I think there’s one thing that always worth examination when it comes to judging the content of someone’s character: intent.
What is their motivation?
A good person can be forgiven a bad action if the intent behind that action was good, surely?
Misrepresenting certain facts, misjudgment, mistakes, misspeaking…none of these things we associate with our heroes, but, as human beings, can any of us claim never to have fallen prey to them?
The truly heroic act is to acknowledge them, learn from them, and to keep trying never to make the same mistakes again. In this sense, Clinton comes far closer to heroism than her opponent in this fight (even Trump acknowledged this in his assessment of Hillary as a fighter).
Trump’s battles have only ever served the only thing he’s really interest in: himself. Hillary’s, whether successful or not, do seem to have always been aimed at helping others. The intent has been good.
In our increasingly transparent, exposing and sensational world, the story is never straightforward. Defining our heroes and villains requires an exploration of every shade of grey, even when we ‘bigly’* long for some black and white clarity.
Against this backdrop, perhaps the only thing we can ask ourselves when it comes to what makes someone a hero or villain is whether, whatever they’ve done, they’ve been trying to help others or just help themselves.
Against that criteria, #ImWithHer, and, for what it’s worth, I urge my American friends to be with her too…the alternative is just too terrifying.
*In my book, the man is certainly a villain for continually vandalising the language.