The Villain of the Piece

So after going on 14 months of barely ever leaving our house, obviously, I’ve watched a LOT of visual media. Movies. TV shows. Documentaries. And being American, the most abundant and popular documentaries are true crime related. J and I have watched so many of them over the course of our lives, but the uniqueness of this past year has given is to watch a lot of them back-to-back, rapid fire. I mean, normally, we’d be out doing active things. Museums, the zoo, amusement parks, ballgames, hikes in National Parks, family and friends’ manufactured social events and holidays…we’d watch a whole lot less TV and movies at home. But this year? We’ve (particularly I’ve) had this bizarre opportunity to just wholesale consume a lot of true crime, and some big realizations have walked themselves out into the spotlight for me, but they can sort of be condensed into this…

Fiction writers…and by extension, the public at large…really mislabels who the villain of the piece usually is.

In fiction, we create characters and scenarios from our imaginations…they are not real…that’s the definition of fiction, but I have always believed that fiction informs reality at least as much as reality informs fiction. And watching all this stuff this year has led me to the conclusion that those fictional depictions have made us surprisingly surprised and dangerously unaware of where and who the villains really are. Scooby Doo actually did a better job of villain reveal than most modern crime drama fiction, I think. Because they showed it wasn’t really a ghost or a monster. It was really just a normally greedy, selfish ‘regular’ human being. The kids and the dog weren’t fooled.

It was the amusement park owner, the museum curator, the police officer, the candy shop manager, the dog show handler, the sawmill director, the knitting grandmother…in Scooby Doo. But when those types of folks are revealed as the villains of the piece in true crime documentaries, law enforcement and journalists always seem to be wholeheartedly taken aback.

Actual quotes I can remember hearing in true crime from the past two days:

“I just kept saying, a state trooper would never do something like that.” (But they OFTEN do. There are studies showing law enforcement officials often act outside the law and use their positions to abuse people with impunity-these can be easily found on search engines. But beyond that…I’ve watched a marathon of true crime retellings this year, and I’m going to estimate 1 out of every 5 of them, the villain of the piece worked in law enforcement.)

“But he was a doctor!” (Yeah…doctors do bad stuff too. They are human. The villains of the piece are always HUMAN…real people…not monsters. If they were monsters and easy to identify, we’d all avoid them, and there would be no major or violent crime.)

“This is no thug. This is no hardened criminal. This is a soccer mom!” (CLEARLY that journalist was either feigning this level of surprise, or has never actually met a soccer mom. Just saying. Have any of you readers ever been to a little league game? Officials warn parents or even throw them out of games *regularly.*)

There was just more of this. This nurse, teacher, pastor, Sunday school teacher, youth cheerleading coach, research scientist, art gallery manager, whatever couldn’t possibly have committed fraud/extortion/kidnapping/rape/murder. But they COULD. And they DID.

And overwhelmingly in the murder cases, the villain of the piece was the victim’s spouse/partner or parent or child. Not even ex-spouses or partners, usually. And almost always someone the victim knew intimately. Very rarely was the villain of the piece a stranger, and it was nearly certainly someone who ‘loved’ the victim/whom the victim loved. People who are supposed to love us more than everyone else are very often, in reality, who hurt us the most. The most deeply and the most often. And religious beliefs and fervency, occupation, gender, wealth, prestige, education…those things don’t make being the villain of the piece impossible or even less likely most of the time.

I don’t often write ‘villains’ in my fictional work at all. I don’t write about large scale fraud or thievery or rape or abuse or murder. But the antagonists I DO write are always just regular people. I’m not sure why we are all shocked at hearing a neighbor, a parent, a farmer, a minister, a teacher, a police officer, a doctor, a nurse, a lawyer, a political leader, a bookstore salesperson, a restaurant chef, someone’s friend, someone’s child, someone’s spouse could do <bad thing>, but we are. We want only ‘criminals’ to be the villains of the piece. Whatever that word means…’criminals.’ It technically means those who commit crimes, which would include some members of every other human subset, but that doesn’t seem to be what so many people, law enforcement officials, legislators, chief executives, and members of the the press seem to believe. I think many of us still think a ‘criminal’ looks like this:

But they don’t. They look like farmers, cops, teachers, doctors, nurses, scientists, writers, clerical managers, lawyers, administrative assistants, ministers, chefs, and soccer moms. They are regular people. Our neighbors and spouses and parents and children. They don’t look a certain way; they don’t act a certain way. They could be people you love and people you are set up to trust (and they often are). I know that’s an unsettling thought. That anyone can be the villain of the piece. But it’s the truth.

And even Scooby Doo got the settings wrong. Bad things don’t happen in spooky, dark abandoned places where the electric’s gone out, or business is over for the day. And common crime fiction settings are run down, lower income neighborhoods; dirty inner cities; trailer parks; mysterious nondescript warehouses. And the true crime shows always say, ‘No one expected this to happen in this <quiet small town/Christian community/suburban high school/affluent gated neighborhood>.’
But in reality, bad things can happen anywhere too…schools, malls, hospitals…small towns and faith-loaded, church-heavy communities and cultures and wealthy neighborhoods. Next door to you.

I know this post got a bit dark and scary, which isn’t my normal modus operandi. (I’ve been watching a lot of crime drama and true crime documentaries…I’m sure that’s influenced my thoughts and feelings some lately.) But the flip side of this is that HEROES are also regular people from regular places…anyone from anywhere…in reality. They aren’t always Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia or Black Panther or Batman or Wonder Woman; people with supernatural powers and/or immense wealth and political clout. They aren’t even always Detective Jake Peralta and Captain Raymond Holt or Drs. Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang; people with jobs we set up to always be the heroes of the piece. They are ALSO your neighbors, your friends, your parents and children and partners. That’s why I write heroes and protagonists as regular people too. I think we all need to recognize the reality that grand heroism and goodness and also abuse and evil are omnipresent, and they almost always come from regular people.

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