Thursday, January 3, 2013

Steaming and smoking?

I'll explain the title in a moment but, before I do that, I'd like you to think back to any film or book with a memorable dénouement or exposé of the lead villain that you've recently come across. How did the producer or author handle it?

As you'll know if you're a regular reader of my posts, I'm obsessed with the characters of my bad guys. Any fool can describe someone who's holier-than-thou, always squeaky-clean and has a certain ‘savoir-faire’ about them. But a book stuffed full of such individuals would be like eating neat honey. That's OK for Winnie the Pooh but, for the rest of us, a couple of spoonfuls and enough's enough.

No, it's the bad guys who matter. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

Now to my title but, first, think of that dénouement I mentioned earlier. How often have you seen situations where the bad guy can't wait to explain his (or her) devious plot to our hero/heroine? Is that realistic? Does anyone really think that our resident psychopath/criminal genius/black-hearted scoundrel is going to blab out the nitty-gritty of their chicanery?

Of course not.

However, your storyline may well require them to divulge their plans without having the hero dredge these details from them. Obviously the latter is better but I appreciate it may not be possible. That's why I'm going to introduce you to the psychology of steaming. At the same time, I'd also like to let you in on a little secret of mine for learning about human behavior under pressure.

I'm going to ask you to record and then watch a TV poker program. If it bores the heck out of you, I'm sorry, but believe me, it's well worth the time and trouble. All life is to be found around a cards table - the smug winner, the guy who wins by annoying everyone else and then taking advantage of the other players’ errors, the obvious loser, the strong silent type. You name the sort and you'll find them there.

There's one in particular I'd like you to watch out for and that's the chip leader (the guy with the most chips) who gets what they call a bad beat. That’s when a (for them) bad card comes up that defies the laws of probability and which ironically pays dividends for a player with a hitherto lesser hand who's maybe got in too deep. See the analogy with your hero in their moment of adversity?

Let me continue.

The bad beat shakes the chip leader to the extent that they get so desperate to win back their chips that they play the next few hands recklessly merely because they feel they need to do something, anything. In fact, they'd have been better just passing and taking time to sort out a new strategy. You'll see players go (quite needlessly) from winner to loser in three or four hands.


This out-of-control gambling is called 'steaming' by the poker profession and it's similar to how your anti-hero needs to behave if he or she is going to go off the rails and collapse in front of your hero. With that in mind, go back and watch the steamer's behavior in more detail. Look at their body language, note their comments and see how they are perceived by the other players.

In almost all cases, you'll see that they don't suddenly collapse: it's more like a block of flats being demolished. It starts with a small wobble and then gradually builds up momentum until it's almost chaotic - well, it would be if it weren't for the skilled actions of the explosives experts who plant and orchestrate the charges.

Now think about the dénouement scene. Consider your 'bad guy' falling apart and remember the steamer. Have something go wrong that unsettles them and then let them start unraveling. Don't make the mistake so many others have made of just having them woodenly spouting out all their bad-guy activities. It's not realistic.

The steaming poker player feels cheated by Lady Luck (never the most monogamous of mistresses) and this gradually leads to paranoia which induces panic and that adversely affects the brain's ability to function logically. Your villain should emulate this in whatever way is most appropriate to your story.

Do that and turn a steaming villain into a smoking book.

Clive West has written an anthology called 'Hobson's Choice and 15 other twist-in-the-tail short stories' and a full length novel called 'The Road' which is about white collar crime and how every crime has its victim.

Here's a brief excerpt from one of his stories which describes one of his bad guys who's building up to get his come-uppance.

The removal van had had to park across a shared drive to unload the relatively few personal possessions that he had allowed himself to bring. Less than five minutes after it had parked, Jason was met by a young man who somewhat stiffly introduced himself as his new neighbor before asking how long the drive would be blocked for.

Jason immediately took the opportunity to tell him where to go and what to do when he got there – just in case the man was in any doubt. Jason’s strong words and his large physical presence had not been what his neighbor had been expecting and he had beaten a hasty retreat indoors, muttering about ‘consideration’.

Since then, Jason had planted Leylandii to block the sunlight from his neighbor's house, had held loud parties that were not quite raucous enough to get him an ASBO, and left his wheelie bin open as near to his neighbour’s kitchen window as possible so that they were plagued with flies. Also, and knowing how his neighbour felt about blocking the drive, Jason had abandoned his Mercedes diagonally across it at every opportunity.

Not that the neighbours on the other side were exempt, either. Jason had hacked back their mature fruit tree where it ventured over the property line into his garden, making sure to coat the cut ends generously with herbicide, set up halogen security lights that shone directly into their bedroom window, lit bonfires whenever the wind was blowing in their direction, and so on.

The odd solicitor’s letter arrived asking him to desist but, as Jason well knew, he was doing nothing illegal and he carried on heedless of their thinly veiled threats. This continued for some months until eventually, the mainly elderly people and young families living in the little group of houses, formed a residents group to discuss Jason and what to do about him. They had also elected a representative, one of whose functions was to explain the group’s grievances to the perpetrator in person.

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