Sunday, June 29, 2008

Getting Away With It

by Joyce Tremel

I wrote a flash fiction piece a few weeks ago in which the girl gets away with her crime. It had a nice twist in it, but it got me wondering whether it was the right thing to do. People who work in law enforcement don't like it much when the bad guy triumphs.

I know it happens on occasion, but we wish it didn't. I think that most people want the good guy to win. (Well, except for one guy I saw at Busch Gardens wearing a shirt that said "Warner Brothers--if you see a cop, warn a brother." My husband wouldn't let me say anything to the guy. I had to settle for The Look.)

In real life, there's no way the girl in my story would have gotten away with her crime, but in 1000 words you can get away with a lot. Not enough time for any investigation, forensics or what not. In real life, there would have been some evidence of her wrongdoing. A real detective would have seen right through the story of a teenager who hated her parents. If I had written a longer story, I think that's exactly what would have happened.

So, what do you guys think? Is it okay for the bad guy to win in fiction? Does the story length really have something to do with the outcome? Would you read a novel where the villain triumphs?

13 comments:

Tory said...

I think "white hats" and "black hats" and the white hats winning is terribly boring and has very little to do with real life. Let's face it, people are a lot more complicated than that. And my ex-cop friend at work has some stories of policemen who are not exactly on the side of right, you might say.

That said, I hate existentialist stories that are basically meant to prove how depressing the world is. I think there needs to be a silver lining somewhere, but not always as obvious as the bad person getting caught.

In my opinion, the most telling critique you made of your own story, Joyce, is that in real life it wouldn't happen. I think readers sense that in a story, maybe because, if you're thinking it, it somehow comes across.

Just my two cents.

Annette said...

Hey, if the "bad guys" are charming enough characters, absolutely. Think BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. While they may not have survived the Bolvian army, people created folklore saying they did.

There seems to be a trend in fiction these days where heroes have some very nasty personality defects (Dexter, for example). In truth, I'd much rather have a bad guy with soft side than a good guy who murders people as a hobby.

Now, if the bad guy is a character I have no sympathy or empathy for, no, I do not want to see him succeed. In fact, in that case, I probably wouldn't make it past page 50 of a longer fiction piece.

Joyce said...

You mean Butch and Sundance didn't survive??? My world is shattered...

Joyce said...

Now that I think about it, Annette, I've read--or tried to read--some books lately where the protagonist is TOO flawed. While I don't want perfect characters, I can't root for someone that I'd like to slap upside the head.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

What about "No Country For Old Men?"

Even though Javier Bardem won an Oscar for best suppoting actor for the role, he was far from charming. AND the movie, took a hit at the box office despite all the awards and nominations because it didn't have the Hollywood ending.

Sometimes evil wins. Is truth stranger than fiction?

By the way, IMHO, Bardem's character was perfectly written. Evil, but with his own twisted code of ethics that he stood for. So much so, you didn't have to see the final scene to know exactly what happened. Any writer should watch how they develop this character to see how it's done.

Gina said...

For me, it usually depends on whether or not the "bad guy" seems to be dispensing justice, like Sweeney Todd, for example. I admit to sometimes enjoying movies in which the "bad guy" triumphs -- hence my liking for "Wild Things." And, of course, let's not forget Captain Jack Sparrow, an evil pirate if there ever was one!

JennieB said...

I can relate to your guilty conscience, Joyce. I feel the same way sometimes. If it'd make you feel better, you could always hint, gently, that maybe she didn't get away with it; or even if she did, for now, it's not over. Or even if it's over, and nobody will ever look at her for this crime again, she'll be looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life. A lot depends on how sympathetic you make the main character, I think. And how unsympathetic you make the victim. I personally don't like people getting away with cold-blooded murder, but if the victim was a nasty tick who deserved it - not that anyone ever really deserves being murdered, but you know what I mean - that would go a long way towards making me cheer.

Joyce said...

Capt. Jack is a marshmallow. He tries to be evil, but doesn't quite get the hang of it.

Annette said...

Captain Jack Sparrow is not evil! He's just self-indulgent. In the scene during the big fight at the end of POTC (the first one), Elizabeth asks Will which side Jack was on. Isn't it obvious? Jack was on Jack's side.

lisa curry said...

I'm a big Law & Order fan, and occasionally the bad guy doesn't get what he deserves on that show. Even though it's a bummer, it seems more realistic than if the good guys always triumphed. I think in a genre-fiction novel-length work, where the reader is investing a good bit of time in your work and has certain expectations you have to satisfy, you can get away with letting the bad guy get away with it if either: A) you can make the reader empathize with the bad guy and WANT him/her to get away with it, or B) if somehow, even though justice isn't quite served by the legal system, fate serves up some kind of poetic justice instead, so that the reader is still satisfied at the end.

Nancy said...

I sometimes let the killer off in my mysteries---but only if the circumstances sit well with readers. SOME LIKE IT LETHAL is the book most people write to me about---and the proper bad guy is punished, but he's not the killer. People really respond to that book.---I think because the reader saw the logic in the outcome. Making the right characters sympathetic was the key. Great topic, Joyce!

Dana King said...

I think most readers are looking for some kind of closure to the story, even if the bad guy doesn't suffer the consequences. The hero can be flawed, but the reader still has to feel empathy for him. (Think of the Sean Penn character in MYSTIC RIVER. We know he's guilty, he walks, but we also know why he did it. We're conflicted, but cheated.)

I think some of the nihilistic fiction that masquerades as "realism" is a bit of a cheat, a way for the writer not to have to resolve some of the loose ends. If no one is good (or even empathetic), why bother reading?

Joyce said...

Empathy is a big key, both with a protagonist and a villain. I think the most realistic villains are those who can generate a bit of sympathy from the reader.

Dana, I agree with you about the nihilistic fiction. It really is a cheat. I have a feeling some of those writers think they're pulling something over on the readers. In the end, it might be the readers who pull one over on the writer when they quit reading his books.