Good Guys and Bad Guys

When I first started reading I had a very simple and concise view of the world, there were the good guys and there the bad guys and the story was inspired by their conflict. This was certainly true of the books aimed at the young in which heroes like the Lone Ranger, Tarzan, and Doc Savage would battle evil doers and good would always (eventually) win. All very simplistic stuff repeated in the television programmes of the day. The truth is, however, that such characters are actually very shallow and uninteresting.

I remember reading ‘Treasure Island’ for the first time and discovering that Long John Silver, technically a bad guy, was actually the most interesting character in the book. It was my first conscious experience of an author subverting expectations. Having a taste for adventure stories I inevitably read ‘The Three Musketeers’ and was pleasantly surprised to find that it lacked any real villains. Although Cardinal Richelieu is often cast in that role in film and television adaptations of the book the fact is that he is just a statesman following an agenda that he believes to be correct. The fact that it brings him into conflict with the book’s protagonist is a result of d’Artagnan’s loyalty to the king, not because Richelieu is evil. So, is being a good guy or a bad guy really just about a point of view?

In my ‘Sorrow Song Trilogy’ I introduced the villain Wulfhere. I always intended him to be a villain. He was there to upset Mildryth’s life and create tension and drama for her. It is difficult to write a strong character if all that person has to do is sit at home and wait for the hero to return. Mildryth, as a character, needed conflict in order to have the opportunity to demonstrate her strength. The curious thing is, I grew to like Wulfhere. Well, not so much like him as enjoy writing about him. I think that he is a real villain; a genuine bad guy. Very early on I established that he was a thief and a murderer. He was also weak in that he only targeted those he believed to be even weaker than himself. Wulfhere was very cynical and cared for no one but himself. Now that is a bad guy.

Duke Guillaume of Normandy might appear to be a bad guy also. Afterall, he did invade England and steal a crown. Very often, in such stories, the invader is cast in that mould. When I was researching ‘The War Wolf’ I came to a better understand his motivations, however. Normandy appears to have been in a constant state of war with its neighbours. Guillaume needed to establish his power on a more solid footing than a duchy if Normandy was to survive. He saw the invasion of England as an opportunity, a gamble really, but one worth the risk. From his supporters’ point of view, he was fully justified in what he did. The Saxons point of view was entirely the opposite of course. However, Guillaume did not want to destroy them or kill all of them, as a typical evil villain might. He wanted to make himself a king so as to become at least as strong as his enemies. Once the battle was won a return to normality, or at least a Norman understanding of such, was the priority.

So, what about the good guys; are they any different? Harold Godwinson was an eorl who also wanted to be a king. In political terms he was best placed to take the crown of King Edward when he died. Perhaps, most importantly, he had a popular backing to do so. Not everyone liked him or even supported him, but a majority of Saxons did, not least because there was no other suitable candidate in their opinion. Harold worked hard to safeguard the kingdom in the first nine months of his reign and, by extension, his people. That was what Saxons lords were supposed to do. Of course, there was an element of self-interest in what he did. We, as humans, are governed by our self-interest, but we also have the capacity to put others first. That is what the good guys do.

Coenred is most definitely a good guy. He has all the typical hero qualities being brave, loyal, dependable, and good in a fight, but I could not let him remain shallow, he had to develop. I think he does. When ‘The War Wolf’ opens Coenred is thinking of hanging up his sword after many years of service to the family of Edwin and Morcar. He has a sense of honour, however. It is his moral compass. He is the opposite of Wulfhere. Coenred is strong and dangerous but also disciplined. A good fighter understands the need for self-discipline. He has been selfless in his career as a Huscarl, giving most of his wealth to his mother and brother who run the family estate. When Mildryth asks for his protection he cannot refuse her. A Huscarl existed to defend his lord and his lord’s people. This has become Coenred’s nature and it is what brings him into a personal conflict when enemies appear. The warrior wants to take up the sword again, but the man who has begun to fall in love with Mildryth knows that that is the last thing that she wants, especially after having lost her first husband to violence. That is Coenred’s personal agenda, to protect the people he cares about. He is not in search of glory, nor even riches, but when forced to act he is formidable, relentless, and very dangerous.

Could Coenred ever be seen as a bad guy? I think only by someone who did not know him. On the battlefield he is as fierce as any other warrior. He kills without hesitation. He does not torture those he defeats, unlike Wulfhere, however. He dispatches them quickly and professionally, not least because he knows that there are more of the same to be fought. Away from the battlefield he might be seen as intimidating, dangerous, and someone to fear, but only in ignorance. Of course, if he had killed someone you knew and liked then that would certainly colour your opinion of him but put into a larger context then his actions acquire a reasoning that becomes understandable. To some his acts of violence might be reprehensible, and understandably so, but in 1066 that violence was a way of life, or death, depending on the outcome to the individual.

In writing characters for stories, it seems to be that the delineation between being either the good guy or the bad guy depends on other considerations. One has to be motivation. The more self-centred the motivation then the more of the bad guy they are. The other has to be their context within the greater story. To the Normans, Guillaume is a hero, to the Saxons he is the villain. Wulfhere never rises above being a villain because he has no understanding, and therefore no interest, in what it takes to do so. Even in the larger context of the events of 1066 his motivation is always one of self, first in everything. It is a fact, however, that the one thing that Wulfhere has in common with Coenred and Guillaume and Harold, is that they are human. They are complex people and none of them, not even Wulfhere, can really be reduced to the simplicity of being just a hero or just a villain. They all have their positive and negative aspects, although for some it might be difficult to complete a full audit of every such facet of character.

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