May 19 2011 3:04pm

Criminal Behavior

One of the great things about teaching is that looking at other writers’ unfinished work gets me thinking about knowledge I haven’t consciously claimed from my own mind, the assumptions and thoughts about the world that develop, like compost, as I accumulate life experience. Some of these ideas and observations are so ingrained that they don’t come up in my fiction, even when they should.

I was reading one such novel not long ago. The protagonist was in a jam, as protagonists usually are, and she had decided to set up and then blackmail the person who was causing her problems.

The scene wasn’t working for me, for a number of reasons, and as I thought it through I found myself writing:

There is a whiff of Veronica Mars in this scene (Veronica was always a blackmailer) and I am not sure what to make of it. To blackmail, even with a good reason, is a fundamentally sleazy and cowardly act. Veronica gets away with it because she’s usually doing it on behalf of someone weak, and to someone deeply unsympathetic.

This wasn’t something I’d given much thought to before. By and large, my characters don’t blackmail; the one exception who comes to mind is indeed sleazy, and ends up dead pretty quick, as blackmailers in fiction so often do. And the thing is, I love moral ambiguity. I should be interested in blackmail, I thought. No matter which way it’s going, it dirties up everyone involved. How cool is that?

Some of the most interesting moments in fiction come when characters cross the line—when the guys we’re supposed to like or admire resort to deceitful, underhanded means to get their way, or when the bad guys find themselves behaving with surprising decency.

As villain behaviors go, blackmail is at once bloodless and incredibly intimate. It’s a crime most of us have experienced, in some form, as kids: “Do X or I’ll tell Mom/Teacher.” The intimacy comes both of being known and of being guilty. You have to at least believe you have done something wrong for the blackmailer to have any power over you. Blackmail requires something rather complex from both parties—a conscience or fear of consequences on the victim’s part, and privileged information and a certain lack of empathy in the culprit.

It is this reptilian lack of empathy that makes blackmailers such great targets for homicide in any book with a mystery plot. (By which I mean: novels of any genre that have a bit of a mystery in them.) Readers are usually happy enough to see blackmailers die. From a mystery plotting perspective, the blackmailer is golden because he or she creates a wide suspect pool: as soon as you know a dead guy had the goods on one person, you know it’s probable they were abusing someone else’s secrets too.

What about Veronica Mars, though, and “good” blackmail? As a writer, how does one set up a blackmailer among the good guys without sacrificing too much reader sympathy?

In the case of Veronica Mars, it was often an act she embarked upon on behalf of someone else. The goal wasn’t personal gain but her particular idea of justice (which rarely included the police) and it was pretty often the case that she had offered her target an out—gave them some chance to do the right thing. (Offering the villain an easier way out is a classic way to build sympathy for a good guy before he does something hard core. This is one of many reasons why Doctor Who gets away with wiping entire evil races off the face of the universe.)

Blackmailing an antagonist offers a middle ground between killing them or sending them to jail—if either is within a given hero’s power in the first place—and letting them win.

Another thing that’s cool about blackmail—as a story construct, remember, don’t try it at home!—is that it relies on the moral weakness of the victim. If the target comes clean and decides to face the consequences of their prior actions, the blackmailer’s power is utterly dissolved. The victim takes a hit, invariably, when the truth comes out, but the blackmailer takes a bigger one. Nobody thanks them for dragging the truth to light.

Of course, “Go ahead and tell” is one of those things that’s easier to say if telling isn’t going to land you in jail, divorce court, or on the unemployment line. This is why the wringer of blackmail can reveal so much about a character. Whether they give in, stand firm, lash out or try to wriggle off the hook, the victim’s reaction will tell the reader volumes about who they are.

Finally, to be a blackmailer is, in itself, something of a shameful secret... isn’t that interesting? We have loads of books and comics with somewhat-admirable assassins—your Wolverine types, your Xenas in search of redemption, you name it—but the blackmailer, even though she or he hasn’t killed anyone, is too far from heroic to be worthy of fictional redemption.

We talk a lot, as writers, about how to deepen the characterization of antagonists and villains... how to make them scary without making them inhuman, how to give a protagonist a credible challenge or a dark mirror. What I have realized lately is that the bad guy’s preferred crime is a big part of the puzzle.

That our actions shape who we are shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone. For some writers, though, looking at a villain through the window of their go-to criminal activity may be a great strategy for understanding them on a deeper level... and then passing that understanding along to our sometimes-bloodthirsty readers.

A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on—an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010.

Alex Washoe
1. Alex Washoe
In Lawrence Block's novel "The Sins of the Father" his hero, Matthew Scudder, investigates the murder of a blackmailer who was his friend, and does it by impersonating the blackmailer. We get a very good sense of what a dirty business it is, but the targets are even dirtier than the blackmailer. And one of them, of course, is a murderer.
Scott Moore
2. Delta-Slider
Thanks for the nice portrait of a blackmailer, Alyx. Good stuff, love reading this kind of writing advice.
Alyx Dellamonica
3. AMDellamonica
That's a good point, Alex, and one I missed. Yes, the targets will always be that little bit dirtier!
4. Madeline
Ah, but then there's Le Carre-esque spy stories! People who may be mostly decent get caught in honey traps, and inch by inch, through careful application of blackmail and rewards, turned into agents of a foreign government... It's pretty clear that the "good guys" aren't perfect as they do this, but the act of corrupting other humans isn't the main focus. I suppose in those tales it's about how if you deal in corruption you become corrupt, no matter how noble the cause you're claiming to uphold, and yet it's still sometimes worth it...

Hm. Something for me to chew over and sort out more, the difference between spies and criminals. Thanks for the thinky post!
Alex Washoe
5. Eugene R.
Blackmail is a two-edged sword for an author. On the one edge, it can only occur if the target (presumptive villain) has some vulnerability to be exploited, which weakness could provide sympathy (even unintended) for the devil. On the other, it also requires the targeter (presumptive hero) to be in possession of a secret that shames or threatens (possibly of illegal actions taken) and to not act upon that knowledge, which inaction could generate questions of moral turpitude. So, a very tricky weapon to wield.

On the other page, many of the noted detectives of mystery fiction do seem to resort to blackmail to solve non-legal or extra-legal problems. My gateway drug to the fog-shrouded streets of London, "A Scandal in Bohemia", is essentially a double-blackmail resolution to the duel of Sherlock Holmes and "The Woman", Irene Adler.
Danelle Mallen
6. astrophilia
As I was reading this post, I had a different blackmailer in mind: Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In her case, she's a blackmailer who was the original victim. She has priviledged information because she was the initial targt. Her action isn't sleazy: it's empowering. And not a little cathartic. It's not necessarily moral, but Salander is described more than once as having a different morality. A commenter above said this was a thinky post. I know I'll be thinking about it at least for the rest of the day!
Alyx Dellamonica
7. AMDellamonica
Of couse, what Lisbeth does is also definitely revenge... but yeah. I was entirely in sympathy with her.

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