A while back, I wrote a blog talking about making your bad guys human. The idea is to avoid making them two dimensional. Like everyone else, a bad guy has dreams beyond the next score. Some of them are downright Walter Mitty in comparison, where they wish they were anything except what they were.
Example, in Family Secrets I have a character running around called Zorro. Now Zorro is based on a real-life person I knew rather well. I gave him the nickname of Zorro because as a child he admired the heroism and daring of the character Guy Williams played so well.
Zorro started life with a promising future. He graduated Valedictorian from his school, but then got drafted. He went into the Army and became an Infantryman, and found himself in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Because he was wiry, he ended up being the Tunnel Rat. He was the guy who went into tunnels the Viet Cong had dug. His job, find out what was down there, and engage and kill the VC if he encountered them. Often all he had was a pistol and a flashlight. Stripped to his skivvies, he’s wiggle through the hole with no idea what he’d run into. Often times he ran into snakes. Other times, mines that had been left behind for him. Sometimes he ran into the VCs and ended up in a fight for his life. The stress of his assignment led to drinking, which in turn led to heroin addiction.
He came back nowhere near the same person he used to be. The brilliance he’d shown in high school was gone, lost somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam. And he had a streak of PTSD ten miles wide. A jail cell would drive him to almost suicide.
When I took over the helm of being a cop in that community, he was one of the first people I ran into. The first encounter wasn’t a pleasant one. He smacked me alongside the head, and I had to wrestle him into the handcuffs.
Realizing that he was just a hurting person, and knowing I’d be dealing with him again, I needed to find out the best way to approach him without having to engage in an altercation. I found out that one of the city councilmen was married to his sister, so I asked her for some insights into him. What she told me floored me.
The man was a Silver Star and Bronze Star winner and had a handful of Purple Hearts. So I knew he was a brave person. I’d never expected that out of him. It was from her that I learned what had happened to him in ‘Nam. I started seeing him less a total screw-up and more as a victim and very hurt person.
She also told me that as long as you approached him with respect, and treated him as a man, you’d get it back with dividends.
So, I did. The next time we crossed paths, I treated him that way. After that, we started understanding one another.
I also discovered that his word was his bond. It seemed there was a warrant chasing him around for failure to pay a fine. He approached me about it, and I told him, “There are two ways we can do this. We can take a ride over to the jail right now, and your mom can bring the money.”
“Or?” he asked.
“You come in tomorrow morning with the money. We’ll walk over to the courthouse together and pay this off.”
He nodded. “What time does the courthouse open?”
He said he’d be at the Sheriff’s Office at 8 AM. He showed up at 7:59 AM.
Zorro even started dropping into chat once in a while. I think he just needed someone to listen, and I was happy to do that. I ended up finding respect for him that few other officers shared. Because he trusted me, he often time gave me information on stuff that was going down. Everyone, including the criminal element in town, looked at him as a dullard, a pothead, and worse, little realizing they were opening their mouth around a man who still had some honor in him.,
A lot of the local cops hadn’t found the key to handling him, and numerous times I was called to talk to him down. Once he even barricaded himself in his house when they needed to arrest him, and said he’d come out if I were the one who put the cuffs on him and took him to jail.
I did, and the incident ended peacefully. But I got a real insight into him when I went in. There were several hunting rifles and ammo in the gun case. He’d made no effort towards them, and judging from the dust on the rifles and ammo, hadn’t even disturbed them. When he noticed I was looking at them, he said, “Hey Man. I’ve killed enough in my life.” I suspect that was true. He might take a swing at you, but your life probably wasn’t in any danger.
One of the funniest stories involving him happened after I’d left. There was a new bunch of deputies running the show, and one of them went out to arrest him. Apparently, he hadn’t taken the time to try to figure out the man, and they ended up in a struggle.
Now, I knew this deputy well. He and I had worked together as EMTs and had walked through scenes where there were buckets of blood. He never even blinked. But let one drop of that blood be his, and he’d pass out cold.
So, he’s trying to subdue Zorro, and during all this, he gets a small scratch. A little blood wells up, and you guessed it. He kills right over. Zorro freaks. But being a decent human being at heart, he dragged him out of the house, loaded him into the patrol car, and drove to the Sheriff’s Office. He turned himself in, with tears in his eyes and told the Sheriff, “I’ve killed a police officer!”
Of course, he hadn’t. And they never did charge him with Resisting Arrest, Assault, or any other crime. I assume they didn’t do so out of sheer embarrassment.
So, I needed a character, and I drafted him. In my story, he and his young nephew were hunting arrowheads when they stumbled into the area where bad guys are hiding out. They club Zorro over the head and leave him to die out in the desert, and his nephew is taken. They’re in the business of selling people, and a child would fetch a good price.
Only Zorro doesn’t die. When he wakes up, he goes for help, only to find out that no one believes him. Indeed, as far as most Law Enforcement officers are concerned, he’s the prime suspect in the disappearance of his nephew. They take one look at his checkered past and decide he’s lying, and the boy is most probably out there someplace dead.
He turns to Will Diaz for help, little realizing he’s providing the final confirmation Will needs that they’re onto the area the villain in the story in hiding. Zorro ends up going in with the assault team because he feels responsible for the boy. When things go wrong, he’s forced to face his demons head-on, overcome them, and like his boyhood hero becomes one himself.