Dystropia: No More Mr. Vice Guy!
Somewhere situated between Easter Island and Papua New Guinea, perfectly pinned on a straight line between the Great Pyramid and the Nazca Lines lies the Isle of Dystropia, the place where every cliché and worn-out convention sticks out like rubble in the sand. Pawing through the debris, you'll find the trope that may just make or break your story. Each installment, we'll explore a different literary platitude, examining it for its various strengths and weaknesses. Set sail for Dystropia, where you might just learn something about your writing and yourself.
Everyone wants strong characters, but really fleshing out a winner takes a healthy grasp of basic psychology, a flair for nuance and tons of hard work. However, there are many shortcuts you can take, some effective and some flat, but one of the most common is pasting in “vices,” or immoral behavior, to make the character seem more flawed and three-dimensional.
A Mr. Vice Guy (alternatively, Ms. Vice Gal for those without Y chromosomes) is your typical good-hearted main character that struggles with some apparent iniquity, often an easy source of conflict. The reason they aren’t a villain or comic relief depends on how strongly their good side outweighs their deficiencies. Both sides can be equal, but the good can never be less, otherwise your character would be just another bad guy.
There are many different definitions of vice, so it all depends on whom you ask. The greatest authority comes from The Bible in Proverbs 6:16-19, from which the Catholic Church adopted the Seven Deadly Sins. Over the years, they’ve changed, but today they are: lust, greed (wanting more than you need), envy (regret or anger cuz someone has something you want), wrath, pride, sloth and gluttony. In contrast, you have the Fruits of the Holy Spirit, which are defined in Galatians 5:22 as: love, joy, peace, stoicism, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Even though you should (probably) adopt the Fruits into your own life, they make much less exciting fiction. There’s a good way and a not-so-good way to blemish your cast, so let’s see what sticks and what stinks.
When To Steer Clear
When most people think of vices, they first think of substance abuse. Apply your own personal morality here, but in most corners of the world, drinking, smoking and, to a degree, using narcotics are not true vices in their own right. Even if it’s not exactly healthy, most people can handle their buzz. It’s a vice when smoking pot in public gets your character arrested or a night of too much drinking and cocaine makes you forget your kid’s birthday (this exact cliché was lazily thrown in The Wrestler).
Even when it comes to narcotics, you can peek back in history and see a lot of substance abuse is really more of a values dissonance than vice. Sure, Sherlock Holmes liked to mainline cocaine and smoke opium every now and then, but in his time those drugs were as readily available as aspirin. Holmes has no other vices, so he doesn’t qualify as Mr. Vice Guy, and that’s a good way to illustrate when this trope doesn’t apply. Take away their crutch and if they have nothing left, your character might need further development.
Substance abuse is just a little too easy, so perhaps go light on it. The vice itself doesn’t matter so much as how it hinders or develops your character. For example, it might be said what Kym struggles with in Rachel Getting Married is her past drug addiction, but Kym’s narcissism, attention whoring and guilt about the past is what she really has to overcome. Sometimes the vice is what the character must conquer and this journey becomes the plot’s focal point.
Need an antagonist? One of the easiest ways to create a rival for your Mr. Vice Guy is to copy him with the same temptations while removing any form of conscience. Voila! Your Evil Counterpart, your Harry Potter to Voldermort, Luke to Darth Vader, Al Gore to George W. Bush. Heck, in Lord of the Rings, every race gets their own evil counterpart. However a decent counterpart will require more than just copy and paste, otherwise you might as well be writing comic books.
Unless you want comic books, of course. Otherwise, Mr. Vice Guy should be subtle, yet dynamic. Garfield’s two overwhelming vices, sloth and gluttony, give him plenty of gags, but because he’s such a flat character his strip is about as funny as Marmaduke (but a bigger waste of space.)
Furthermore, subtract Garfield’s laziness and lasagna-love and you have absolutely nothing left. Compare Calvin and Hobbes – often Calvin is an infernal egocentric brat bent on terrorizing everyone around him, a catchall for every sin sans lust. Yet, just like a real person, Calvin has a very naturalistic potential to be whimsical, poetic, brilliant, even philosophical. Take away his flaws and Calvin is still an engaging character, even if there’s no conflict left. That’s how you know you’re doing it right.
Where To Set Your Sights
What makes Mr. Vice Guy strongest is sympathy. Like an attention-starved teenager, whatever reason he’s doing these terrible things to himself (and sometimes others) needs audience rapport to operate. Remember Woody from Toy Story? So long as he doesn’t have to share the spotlight, he’s a pretty decent dude and everyone likes him. But as soon as Buzz Lightyear enters the picture, Woody’s pride and envy take over, landing them both in a world of trouble.
If your Vice Guy likes to indulge in forbidden fruit but never does anything decent for anyone else, he’s probably just an anti-hero. The difference is heroes are admired for courage and those Fruits we were talking about, whereas antiheroes are “unconventional,” respected for being jaded, cynical and apathetic, just like your teenage brother. Thus, antiheroes are seen as more relatable these days, and the easiest way to write one into your plot is to give them an obvious vice like smoking rather than developing those pesky personality traits. Sometimes this works; often it’s transparent.
Most anti-heroes are Vice Guys, but not all Vice Guys are anti-heroes. The same goes for the “sociopathic hero,” i.e. the antisocial freak who lacks emotions, conscience and solves their problems in a violent, “anything goes” flurry hardly different from a villain. Think about how Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver flourishes his lust and wrath or how Brock Samson from Venture Brothers murders hundreds of goons without batting an eye. Are these Vice Guys? That depends on how much the good versus bad scale tips to one side, and when it’s so ambiguous the audience doesn’t always know whom to root for, then you’re probably doing something right.
Out In The Real World
Walter Benjamin once said, “At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism.” If you’ve never read their bios, you might be surprised to learn much of the literary canon is filled with drunks, junkies, womanizers, cheaters, gluttons and sleazebags. The way these guys crafted well rounded, memorable characters with ethos so strong they practically leak from the pages might have a lot to do with the “write what you know trope.”
For example, Hemingway trekked across the globe, but felt so at home with a drink in hand he once said, "If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.” He also wrecked four marriages and destroyed the lives of his children. F. Scott Fitzgerald (also a heavy drinker) wrote about the extreme wealth he spent a lifetime chasing, but was also extremely jealous of his wife, forcing Zelda to revise her only novel because it was too similar to his own work. In a fit of rage, Norman Mailer once tried to kill his wife. It’s rumored Lord Byron was incestuous with his half-sister. And so on.
We could spend all day finding stuff to smear great authors, and for some readers, it’s a giant disappointment. Laura Miller, writing for Salon, put it this way: “The more we get from an author’s work, the more we tend to expect from the author.” But I would argue the opposite is true – the more I get from a writer, the more I want them to be some kind of amoral crusader, riding that line between pious and hedonistic with a kind of flaming valor. Many tropes are dehumanizing, or worse, boring, but when done right Mr. Vice Guy can create some of the most memorable characters in fiction. It works because on some level we’re all sinners, bastards, drunks and perverts.
On the other hand, we’re all familiar with those friends who claim to be "writers," yet we never see page one from them nor have they ever submitted anything for publication, lest they be rejected. But who can blame them? One guy I knew would introduce himself as a “writer” to every girl he met and more often than not, it got him an excess of female attention. Never mind he’d only been published in the university paper. He also wasn’t very generous or friendly, had a staggering drinking problem and seemed to believe just by doing psilocybin mushrooms he was instantly cool. But at least he was getting laid.
It goes without saying – just because you try to emulate the lifestyle of a chemically-addled, self-centered, ravenous sex-addicted writer does not make you one. But it does make you an asshat. If your drinking problem is the only redeeming quality you have, you might want to get a hobby. Sewing, for instance, is a little more compelling (and lot less cliché).
It’s true we love our Vice Guys in Western fiction and maybe, in most cases, it does take one to know one. Just remember it takes a lot more than vice to craft characters – and writers.
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