D. A. Howe

I Write What I Like

If you’ve watched shows like Criminal Minds, or NCIS: (insert city name here), you’ll know that the criminals on those shows are creepy bastards. Usually they’re not arrested until the end of the show, just in time to wrap things up for the end credits. The criminals are smart, and somehow able to cover their tracks, even when they’re leaving clues. Absolutely none of them have anything that could be defined as a character. They exist to commit terrible crimes, twitch a lot and stare menacingly into the middle distance until such time as they’re caught.

It makes for a good crime show, but there’s nothing really ground breaking when it comes to defining how a bad guy/gal actually ticks.

However, Fargo (the TV show) is firmly embedded in the theory that people who commit a crime are, for the most part, more than capable of recognizing that they’ve done something horrific, but in the spirit of keeping their self-image intact, they ignore it, or justify it.  For these characters denial really is a river in Egypt. Which is a great lesson for any writer looking to create a memorable villain for their story. Don’t think of these characters as villains. Think of them as people who are still convinced that they’re pleasant enough, even when they’re shooting people in the face.

In Fargo’s world, the reasons for murder are straight forward. Fargo’s murderers are nice, ordinary, law-abiding folk from Minnesota. But just under their facade of normal lurks a character flaw. They hate their wife, but won’t get a divorce, and they hate their brother but won’t break off contact. They love their wife just a little bit too much, to the point where they’ll do anything for her, even bad things. They envy their brother but won’t broker a peace and fester with resentment about how they’ve been done wrong.

Once the flaw reveals itself, usually in a moment of impulsiveness, the person–rather than own up and admit what they did–dig themselves into a deeper hole, all the while thinking that one of their schemes will eventually solve their problem.

Worse for all of these supposedly normal people is that in their attempts to fix their little problem, they inevitably run into people who are capable of doing some truly monstrous things. While justifying it to themselves. Psychopathic contract killer for hire? Just a man who is honest with himself about how the world functions. Crime family orchestrating shake downs and drug running for money? Why, they’re just a family trying to protect their own. Mysterious Russian dude with an eating disorder, bad teeth and a penchant for executing anyone who stands in his way? A put-upon middle manager who can’t understand why people aren’t enamored with the thought of becoming rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Let’s review our ‘bad guys/gals’ from Fargo.

(Spoilers Ahead)

Season 1. Lester Nygaard is an insurance salesman. He lives an ordinary lower middle class life. Lester seems to be a mild-mannered guy. He doesn’t fight back when his childhood bully hits him. He puts up with his wife constantly belittling him. At any moment, Lester’s rage might erupt but he tamps it all down. Lester is finally pushed over the edge by a washing machine that has an awful spin cycle and the unkind comments from his ever pushy spouse.  Lester has a brief moment in which he could step away, but doesn’t. Next thing you know, he hits his wife on the head with a hammer. Having already unknowingly made a deal with the devil in the form of a psychopathic contract killer, Lester attempts to cover up his crime, and the contract killer is happy to oblige. In the interim, Lester denies his involvement with the murder, and keeps up his facade of being a nice guy, even as it becomes increasingly clear that Lester might just be a psychopath himself. And of course, just when Lester thinks he may have managed to get away with it, karma ensures that he doesn’t.

Season 2. Peggy Blumquist is a beautician who dreams of having… well, of having some sort of amazing life somewhere else. She reads magazines (lots of them), while trying to get the money together to attend a seminar so she can ‘self actualize’. Her husband, Ed Blumquist, is a butcher by trade. Their lives are again, lower middle class. Ed dreams of owning the place where he works so he can progress up the ladder of the American dream. Unfortunately for both of them, Peggy manages to run into another human being on the road. The human being ends up with his head through the car’s windshield. Rather than call for help, Peggy drives home in complete denial. She parks the car and goes about her evening. Ed later investigates the garage and finds said human alive, but Ed, somewhat startled, kills the guy. What they don’t know is that the dead human being is the son of a crime family. And again, rather than admit what they’ve done, the couple proceed to double down and try to clean up their mess, only to make the mess far bigger. Ed loves Peggy enough to do anything she asks, and Peggy knows enough to manipulate Ed to go further than he should. Ed is too devoted to Peggy to tell her to stop and Peggy is in total denial about what she’s done. Their paths inevitably cross with people who are true killers, and Peggy’s capacity for murder comes to the fore.

Season 3.  Ray Stussy is a probation officer who resents his wealthy twin brother. Ray’s resentment soon crystallizes into a plan to obtain what he thinks is rightfully his and he blackmails an addled parolee to steal from Emmit, Ray’s brother. This goes horribly wrong when the parolee goes to the wrong address and murders an innocent man. Meanwhile, Emmit has his own issues to deal with when he realizes that he’s inadvertently managed to form a partnership with a shady corporation. Both men try to dig their way out, until their paths intersect, and only one brother is left standing. But not for long. Inevitably karma once more catches up to the remaining brother. Both of them fail to acknowledge the fact that they willingly got themselves into their situations in the first place by refusing to deal with their reality. Emmit fails to perform due diligence on the company he borrows money from, and Ray refuses to grow up and get on with his life.

As most writers know, the art of writing a truly compelling ‘bad guy/gal’ is to ensure that the bad guy/gal is unaware that they are bad. Bad people should always believe they’re doing the right thing. Or, if they have the capacity to realize that they might be doing the wrong thing, they’re able to dismiss this thought and maintain their self-image. In Fargo, all of the characters are desperate to survive, desperate to keep their lifestyles intact and more importantly, desperate that in the end, they can still think of themselves as okay people who just made one tiny mistake that happens to be murder. Which they didn’t intend to do. It just sort of happened.

If you need a master class in how to write fully rounded ‘bad’ people, you should watch Fargo.

Warning: spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen Coca then why are you reading this blog post? Note: This blog post discusses the belief system in the movie Coco. This is not a discussion or criticism of the actual Día de Muertos.
  Remember when Pixar and Disney released Coco, that heart warming movie about honoring and remembering your family? Remember how awesome it looked on screen with its amazing use of color? Remember how you cheered when Miguel realized that Hector was his great-great grandfather all along? And how you cried a little when Coca finally remembered Hector? Remember how you sat at the back of the movie theater and realized that buried underneath this lovely family movie was a premise so disturbing it turned Coca into a horror story? No? Oh wait, that was me. My over analytical brain screamed at me that Pixar had inadvertently portrayed the Land of the Dead as a purgatory (at best). It definitely wasn’t a version of heaven. Why? Because although the premise of the Land of the Dead, as setup by Pixar, seems straightforward and innocuous, it harbors some alarming implications. First off, the Land of the Dead seems to use the following rules.
  1. When you die, you go to the Land of the Dead.
  2. To remain in the Land of the Dead you need to be remembered by someone in the Land of the Living. The Pixar setup specifically moves away from the concept of family remembering you, to being remembered by anyone at all (for example, fans).
  3. If no one remembers you, you ‘die’ a second time by disappearing.
  4. The longer you continue to be remembered in the Land of the Living, the better off your ‘lifestyle’ in the Land of the Dead. Ernesto de la Cruz, who continues to be worshiped as a musical legend, seems to be having a great time despite being dead.
In the movie we discover that the character of Ernesto stole all of his songs from another man. Hector was once Ernesto’s partner in a singing duo. When Hector tried to leave, Ernesto decided to murder Hector and steal his guitar and songs. As this is a Pixar movie, Ernesto’s skulduggery is revealed, and Hector is restored to his rightful place as the songs’ creator. He is now remembered, and can continue to ‘live’ in the Land of the Dead. Ernesto, presumably, slinks off into oblivion to eventually disappear. Here’s the problem…  There appears to be no method or mechanism in Land of the Dead to determine if you should be admitted or not. Osiris isn’t there weighing up the quality of souls before they enter nor is St. Peter or any other type of eternal being. Ernesto is a straight out murderer and thief and he gets to keep living the sweet life even after he’s dead. Nothing happens to him. He would have continued having his excellent afterlife of fame and fortune if not for Miguel (that pesky kid). As long as Ernesto was remembered and revered, nothing happened to him. At this stage, The Land of the Dead could be seen as a type of purgatory where everyone hangs out until they get sorted into other planes of existence. But there’s no sign of that ever happening in the movie. Your continued existence in the Land of the Dead is based on a popularity contest. The more you’re remembered, the longer you stay, the better your lifestyle. That’s why Ernesto is having such a good time. He was famous down on Earth and his fame has carried over into the Land of the Dead. He only loses his place in the pecking order when Miguel (a living person) discovers the truth and remedies the situation. Meanwhile, Hector is having an awful afterlife. Coco is the only living person who remembers Hector and her memory is fading. Hector is in dire straits and down on his luck. Hector may have been a dedicated family man in the Land of the Living, as well as a talented singer/songwriter, but the Land of the Dead doesn’t know and doesn’t care. The Land of the Dead is as blind and unknowing as the Land of the Living. Whatever heinous acts someone committed in secret remains undiscovered even after they’re dead.  If there’s one Ernesto, there’s presumably a whole bunch more like him, wandering about the place without a care in the afterlife. And then the implications for this version of the Land of the Dead get worse. As discussed, the rule seems to be that your lifestyle in the Land of the Living gets translated into the Land of the Dead. The more popular you were while alive, the more likely you’ll remain ‘alive’ in the Land of the Dead, as long as someone remembers you. The richer you were when alive, the better your accommodation when dead. There’s one very big problem with this rule–there are plenty of people who have been truly horrendous and are remembered fondly by their followers.  There are plenty of very rich people in the Land of the Living who will be remembered long after they’re dead, even though they were terrible human beings. Somewhere in Pixar’s version of the Land of the Dead, Hitler along with assorted serial killers and despots, is having a terrific time. And neither he, nor any of his evil friends are in any danger of disappearing any time soon. And that is why Coco is a goddamned horror story.

I saw The Shining when it was first released all those decades ago. The responses by critics were mixed and I remember thinking that Jack Nicholson’s and Shelley Duvall’s performances were extreme. Especially Shelley Duvall. Wendy seemed like a meek housewife who did nothing but cry and run around screaming. Stephen King said exactly the same thing, “(S)he’s basically just there to scream and be stupid, and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.” I’d also read the book and like Stephen King I was disappointed with Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of the novel. But despite it all, I’ve seen the movie multiple times and over the years my fondness for it has grown.

The Shining recently turned up on Netflix and I sat down for another viewing.  As I watched I found myself re-evaluating the character of Wendy Torrance. I also gained a new respect for Kubrick’s casting choices. Shelley Duvall’s physical look (the large eyes and slight build), along with the quality of her voice makes us subconsciously assume that Wendy Torrance is a pushover. A woman too child like to ever stand up for herself–a dull person without much interest in the world. A woman who, rather than leave her husband when he injured her child, remained in the marriage.

However, Wendy’s actions are in complete contrast to her appearance and her words. She’s an intelligent woman who goes up against evil and wins.

So, lets look at the actions that tells us more about Wendy’s intelligence and strength rather than her surface emotions and appearance.

When we’re first introduced to Wendy and Danny, she’s reading The Catcher in the Rye. The main room is packed with books. The coffee table holds a copy of The New York Review. The subtext seems to be that Wendy is the voracious reader in the family. When Wendy is talking with the doctor, the titles of the books can’t all be seen, but the ones that can be viewed reveal a wide spectrum of genres.

When the Torrance family arrive at the hotel and settle into a routine, Wendy is the one who keeps the hotel running. She’s the one that checks the generators and checks the phone lines. She’s the one that contacts the rangers’ station when she realizes the phone lines are down.  When Wendy and Danny go into the maze they’re able to walk to the center (after a wrong turn or two), and navigate their way out again. When Jack has his terrifying nightmare at his desk, Wendy immediately runs to him to see if she can help. When Danny appears in the room she tries to get Danny to go upstairs while she helps her husband. When she thinks Danny has been hurt by Jack, she doesn’t hold back in her opinion, and rushes Danny out of the room.

Thinking someone else may be in the Overlook with them, Wendy is the one that gets a baseball bat. When Jack begins to threaten her on the stairs, she initially tries to warn him off, but when he lunges, she smacks him in the head. Then she drags him down into the kitchen and locks her violent crazy husband in the storage locker. After that she grabs a knife and heads into the garage to use the snow cat. But the snow cat has been sabotaged.

Back in their bedroom, when Jack enters with an ax, she quickly gets herself and Danny into the bathroom and locks the door. Then she lowers Danny to safety out of the bathroom window. Trapped in the bathroom after Danny’s escape, she positions herself close to the door and cuts Jack’s hand with a knife.

After Jack leaves, and despite being terrified out of her mind, she exits the bathroom to try and find Danny.

In the final minutes of the movie, Wendy bundles Danny into the functioning snow cat left outside by Dick Halloran and drives away from the hotel and towards safety.

Wendy’s actions (what she does) and Wendy’s emotional state are in complete contrast with each other.  How Wendy speaks seems boring and uneducated, but Wendy has all the hallmarks of a woman masking her intelligence. She says what she needs to get along, and to ensure her husband’s rampant entitlement and ego remain intact. And yes, there’s the unfortunate scene earlier in the movie where Wendy appears to justify Danny’s arm being dislocated by Jack. But the look on her face implies that Wendy has been scared of her husband for a very long time. Later, Wendy screams, sweats and cries her way around the Overlook, clearly frightened out of her mind. But who wouldn’t be a nervous wreck dealing with a psychopath of a husband, cut off from the outside world in a haunted malevolent hotel?

Now, let’s contrast Wendy with Jack. Isn’t Jack Torrance wonderful? So bright, so creative. A former school teacher (and therefore an educated pillar of the community), and a writer. He’s working on a new project.

In the interview for the caretaker’s position, and at the hotel, he talks about his writing.  His demeanor says that as a writer he should be held in high regard. His conversations about his writing go unchallenged. At the hotel, rather than go outside and take a walk with his wife, he brushes her off. He should, “Try to do some writing first.”

Jack’s words keep saying, “I’m a writer Goddammit. And I’m important.”

And just to reinforce this message, we’re introduced to how little Jack knows about Wendy during the job interview and what he thinks about certain other fiction genres. When Stuart Ullman tells Jack about the Grady murders, Jack responds, “As far as my wife is concerned, I’m sure she’ll be absolutely fascinated when I tell her about it. She’s a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict.” This is followed by a smile and dismissive laugh from Jack and Stuart.

But what do Jacks’ actions say? First off he thinks dragging his wife and child up a mountain to live in isolation is a good way to get a book written. Despite having zero ideas. Once he’s settled into the hotel, he does nothing except throw a ball around, and sleep until 11.30 AM. His wife takes care of Danny, keeps their apartment clean, cooks the meals, and keeps the hotel running. He doesn’t lift one finger to help her. In a moment of irony, she serves him breakfast on a silver platter, signifying Jack’s position as king of this particular castle. Jack Torrance is also a dry drunk. He spends a lot of time complaining and justifying his decisions and actions to Lloyd.

Although it’s not stated outright, the implications in the film is that Jack may have been fired from his position as a school teacher. He’s been an alcoholic for a long time. His dreams of being a writer, are just that–dreams. And he probably has a habit of hauling his family from place to place thinking a new town will fix his life. Wendy says at the start of the movie that they moved to Boulder three months ago from Vermont. Her husband, “(…) was teaching school there.”

Jack’s actions show how much he hates the woman in his life who does everything for him. He’s thinks that whatever Wendy does isn’t enough. She should offer him encouragement, but the right kind of encouragement. She should automatically understand what he wants without him having to express it. She should do all of the work because he’s too talented and creative to hold an ordinary job. When Jack decides to kill her, she should just lie down and accept it like any good wife would.

And that is the genius of Stanley Kubrick. A surface viewing of The Shining seems to show a frail, stupid, hysterical woman pitted against a powerful intelligent man and the evil forces of the Overlook hotel.  The woman spends a lot of time running around screaming and reacting to whatever is happening in the moment.

Another viewing of the The Shining shows a woman who decides that this time around, she’s not taking any more abuse from her husband and she’s not going to let her son be hurt a second time.  She does everything in her power to escape with her child.

Wendy Torrance is a bad ass.

Wendy Torrance


I bumped into this amusing YouTube video earlier in the week. I have no idea why YouTube recommended it to me. Maybe it was because I accidentally viewed a video about umbrellas the week before. For whatever reason the algorithm decided to highlight it for me, and there it was, waiting to be clicked. Out of curiosity I did and it is pure comedy gold.

It turns out issues with call centers are the same for everyone, even if that everyone bought a $500,000 Rolls Royce Dawn.

The scenario starts with the owner talking about the Rolls Royce umbrella. Rolls Royce puts an umbrella in the door frame of the car so that you can pull it out and not get wet (well, more to the point, your chauffeur can). The owner does not know how the umbrella works.

So, the owner decides to call Rolls Royce (because he thinks the instructions won’t be in the manual). Only BMW answers the call. Because they own Rolls Royce. And there in follows the typical exchange where the call center is utterly unhelpful, although in a pleasant way, while passing the call from person to person, and offering precisely zero information.

Skip through to 3:10 to see the start of the umbrella dilemma and then to 12:26 to hear a high-end call center for a very expensive car in action. Then keep watching for the attempt at reading the owner’s manual, which doesn’t quite spell out how to open the umbrella but hints at the correct technique by describing how to close the umbrella.

The upshot of this video is: despite paying huge sums of money for a car, the owner’s manual is still terrible, and the call center can’t help.

Somehow this makes me feel better about my average lifestyle.