Alex David Wright

On Heroes and Villains

Yesterday: writing my play John Rambo's Nipples, I found a problem with my villain: I'd just written a scene in which — by the end — he didn't seem as much of a villain.

I don't usually think in terms of heroes and villains, but I'm trying to do it more to develop a greater sense of structure within my work. Structure is my self-confessed 'weak point' (though I'm trying not to frame it as such anymore, because once I label something as a 'weak point' I usually don't work on it, sadly accepting that 'I'm just not good at x'.

Alex David Wright

Original idea was that my protagonist Judith totally and instinctively hated Séan — but now I've written a scene in which she seems to want to get close to him. I have a tendency to write characters as tragic and therefore at least partly understandable — Tennessee Williams said there wasn't anyone he couldn't love if he didn't take the time to get to know him. This is a problem with creating characters when you seem to ascribe to this view — it's hard to create a proper villain. Or is it? Seems so on the surface, because a villain is someone we root against. But really that's not true — the best villains are those we would root for up to a point, but at some point they've taken a path we can't follow them down. That's the difference, isn't it, between protagonists and antagonists? There's a line that protagonists won't cross; they won't go extreme. Antagonists will; that's what makes them, I think, more interesting.

Perhaps it's better to think in actions, not labels. As a teacher, I've learned that telling a student that they are something usually has adverse effects, and it doesn't matter if I'm being positive: "you're a kind person" is internalised just as easily as "you're a rude person", and it leads to the unhelpful and incorrect belief that we're static — we are the way we are, and can't change. This is why I try not to say things like, "I'm not good at structure". By the same logic, perhaps it's better to think not about my characters as protagonists or antagonists, but how much they engage in protagonistic or antagonistic behaviours. Thinking back to the scene I referenced (which I have pasted below with a few explanatory notes), Séan's behaviour is highly antagonistic in the first half, represented by his persistent verbal and physical aggression and refusal to listen to Judith's requests; it's compounded by Judith's reactions to him. But there's a switch to more protagonistic mode. By this, I mean we have a character whose behaviour is made at least somewhat understandable, which makes the character relatable. I often use a character's past for this, because it provides a justification, however fair or believable it is to the audience, it is believable to the character. Characters tend to have a false narrative they follow; this kind of narrative has the past fuelling it. I didn't realise I'd make the switch until I wrote it — I have an overall outline for the play and each scene, and this was supposed to be a scene that intensified the horror of an already horrible character, but also (and crucially) one that visited that horror on Judith. It was necessary for the play's ending that we hate Séan. But it wasn't interesting. The scene needed subversion. If anything now, this version is better, because the next time the character is antagonistic it'll be more potent; I can subvert again. Things are more flexible — and therefore more dramatically interesting — because we can't pin a character down to a type, but — like people — their behaviours shift.

Here's the scene. For clarity:

JUDITH’s room.

JUDITH, pacing, on phone.

JUDITH That’s Lazarus. No, Lazarus. No, the line’s fine my end. Angelica. Angelica Lazarus. (pause) No, I understand that, but as I said, I’m her — (pause) Brown! How about Brown? I’m sure she went to Brown when she got married. (beat) Yes, I know I should know, but I wasn’t at wedding. I don’t see what business of yours it — Look, she worked for you. For years. I just want to know if she’s still th— (beat) No, I see. Yes, fine. Thank y- (Looking at phone) Fuck you.

Slumps against bed, drops phone there. Sighs. Goes to dresser, pulls out notebook. Crosses something off. Returns notebook, closes drawer. Sits on bed. Restless. Back to drawer. Opens it. Looks inside. Reaches in. Pulls out pack of cigarettes. Internal debate. Pulls one out, sniffs down its length. Closes eyes, smiles. Looks back in drawer, frowns. Starts searching room, unlit cigarette in mouth, with increasing purpose and ferocity.

Is kneeling at foot of wardrobe ransacking the bottom of it when there’s a knock at door. It’s SÉAN. We see that he’s holding a bottle of whiskey. She looks up. Takes cigarette out of mouth.


SÉAN (from other side of door) Well, hello.

JUDITH Who’s that?

SÉAN You know who it is.

JUDITH I’m a little busy right now.

SÉAN Lies. Sure, nobody’s busy in this place. It’s a morgue.

JUDITH Heh. That’s true.

SÉAN Full of, what do the Yanks call them? Stiffs. That’s it. This place is full of stiffs.

JUDITH “God’s waiting room.”

SÉAN (intense, genuine laughter) Hah! Yes! She’s got it! A regular wit you are!

Silence. JUDITH waits.

SÉAN (CONT'D) So ... Can I come in, or what?

JUDITH No, thank you. Another time, perhaps.


SÉAN (flirtatious) Ah, what’re you up to in there? You’re after making me awful suspicious. Up to no good in there, I’ll say. Hah, hah, hah!

Silence. SÉAN frowns at door.

SÉAN (CONT'D) I know your type, you see. There’s a spark in you. You, you’re alive. Not like all the others. God, the women in here, they’re something else, aren’t they? (pause) How old are you, anyhow? You look too young to be in here.

JUDITH stands, gingerly, silently backs across the room. Waits, poised.

SÉAN (CONT'D) Hey! Are you in there? ‘Course you are; we were chatting just now. You’ve gone awful quiet. (Beat. An idea forms) Maybe I should be getting someone. I’m getting awful worried.

JUDITH (wincing, calling with attempted brightness) No ... No need for that(!) Okay ... Bye, then!

SÉAN Sure you’re right, there? You don’t sound right.

He tries the doorhandle: a slow push, then two quick jabs. Locked.

JUDITH Go away! I don’t want you in here! (He tries the doorhandle again) It’s locked, you fool! You’re not getting in here! Get away from my door!

SÉAN Oh, that’s how it is? A man is looking out for you, being just a kindhearted fellow and that, and you can’t even let him in for a minute!

JUDITH “Kind hearted”! “Kind hearted”! Hah! Get the Hell away from my door!

SÉAN Do you know who I am?

JUDITH Oh, I know.

SÉAN Who am I?

JUDITH Don’t you know?

SÉAN Very funny. You are a sharp-tongued auld bitch, aren’t you?

JUDITH Oh, you have no idea.

SÉAN Do you know who I am?

JUDITH I know that you’re no good. No good at all. You stay away. I know men like you. No good.

Doorhandle rattles violently. JUDITH goes to ensuite, reaches inside door, pulls out red emergency cord.

SÉAN You’ll be apologising for that now. I don’t let a woman speak to me in that way! (bangs on door) You hear me, you in there?

JUDITH I’m holding my emergency cord.

SÉAN What?

JUDITH I’m holding my emergency cord. Want me to pull it?

JUDITH keeps holding the emergency cord through this next:

SÉAN Don’t you think we’ve got ourselves off on the wrong foot? It’s all got a bit heated. A bit passionate. Maybe that’s a sign of things to come. Look. I’m sorry for having a bit of an auld shout. I’m just getting used to things in this place, you know? (pause) I honestly didn’t mean you any harm. I just ... I was just lonely, you know? (pause) You seemed so ... Alive. I suppose I just wanted a little part of that. (He slumps down, sitting on floor with his back to her door) Trouble is ... I’m dying. Not of any illness, in particular, you see. But everything, everything ... Everything I ever had, that I’d shored up as a part of myself ... It’s all gone. And it’s my own fault, like. I had everything, and I pissed it all away. Literally, in a lot of cases. (chuckles) I’m sorry about shouting at you. I think, to be honest, I was just shouting at myself.

JUDITH, still holding emergency cord, sinks down against her doorframe. Looks to her door, listening.

SÉAN (CONT'D) Feels like we’re in the confessional, you know? Me on this side, and you on that. You’re not Catholic, are you? (pause) Me neither, to be honest. I mean, it’s complicated. I was born right on the border, you see. My father an Ulsterman, Protestant as they come, but my mother, see, she was from the other side. Donegal woman, she was, a cracker. Bright red fecking hair she had, a skin like fresh cream. The reddest lips. I read a book as a lad a school — I fecking hated school — but this was the one book I liked. Tess of the D’Urbervilles it was called. God, the fella who wrote it was a miserable bastard. Thomas Hardy. You heard of him?

JUDITH lets go of the cord, starts to inch closer to the door, very slowly.

SÉAN Anyway, this book ... I thought it was going to be a load of bollocks, about the English countryside and that, but this young woman in it, Tess, the way he described her in it ... It was the spit of my mother, I’m telling you. And then, I read on, and the description of the fella she meets, Alec, he was the spit of my Da! The absolute spit of him! Thinking about it now, I’m not sure why it matters ... My mother! My father! That’s the thing: the two of them never should have met: she was a poor farm girl from Eire, he a fecking man-about-town from the North, respectable and all that. She was a bit younger than him, too — quite a bit younger. I think it was love, though. (JUDITH is now at the door, leaning in symmetry with SÉAN) It didn’t last, of course. They’re both dead, now. I was told it was a tragedy, though I’m not sure how it was exactly. People don’t like to tell you. Not to save your feelings, though. It’s reputation, you see. (reaches in jacket pocket, pulls out wallet, from this pulls out an old photograph, looks at it) I should never have been born. But I was. I think everybody wished I’d have just done the decent thing and died, like the baby in the story.

JUDITH (mouthing, almost silent) Sorrow.

SÉAN (not hearing her) Sorrow. That was me. But I didn’t die. I was sent off south to be with the Christian Brothers. O, the Christian Brothers! There was no chance of me staying North of the border. My Da’s Da saw to that. The big auld house they lived in ... Nothing left of it now! (quoting from Tess) “Oh, how have the mighty fallen!” And so I said to myself, I’m not going to fall like the two of them. I’m not going to let fate fuck me around. I’m not going to be a tragedy. And I’ll make her proud, you know? (He slides the photograph under the door. JUDITH picks it up) See her, there? That’s my mother. Isn’t she beautiful? She died young ... But don’t you think, had she lived to your age, she’d look just like you do now?

JUDITH says nothing, but her eyes acknowledge the truth of SÉAN’s last statement. Light fades, closes in on the two of them. Tableau.


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