Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Karvonen kept an eye on them…”

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"Karvonen kept an eye on them..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 34. You can read the earlier installments here

“You’ve got to stick to your principles,” as Ray Fiennes says at the end of In Bruges, and that’s as true of characters as of authors. I’ve spoken endlessly here about the importance of constraints, which serve as an aid to creativity by focusing the writer’s thoughts within a restricted range, and this applies equally to the actions of the players within the story. We all have codes, stated or unstated, by which we live our lives, and our decisions have meaning only in the way that they navigate between the needs of the moment and the larger values in which we believe. Without that tension, life would be less interesting, and so would fiction. Characters emerge most fully when they’re given something to react against, and while the external conflicts of the plot provide a convenient source of pressure, it can be even more powerful when the protagonist’s dilemma emerges from within. And at best, the two kinds of pressure fuse into one: events in the world push against the internal struggle, and it can be hard to know where one leaves off and the other begins.

This is particularly true, perhaps counterintuitively, of villains. With heroes, we can generally make a few assumptions about their behavior if they’re going to remain sympathetic: a hero never kills without cause, and if he breaks the law or violates what we think of as a reasonable standard of morality, he usually has a good excuse. Villains, in theory, aren’t nearly so bounded—they can do whatever they like, provided that they remain fun to watch. In practice, though, an antagonist who is a pure psychopath, as in so many dreary horror movies or thrillers, rarely holds our attention for long. As countless writers have observed, we’re all the heroes of our own stories, and it’s less compelling to invent a character who wakes up in the morning deciding what evil acts to perform than to create someone who does terrible things for what he sees as a valid reason. This doesn’t prevent us from writing big, operatic villains: think of Khan, whose every action is motivated by what he thinks is justifiable revenge, or Hannibal Lecter, who prefers when possible to eat only the rude.

"The man crumpled to the floor..."

And a villain’s fate is correspondingly more interesting if it emerges from where his code collides with the events of the narrative. Khan, again, is a great example: he’s got superhuman intellect and strength, but ultimately, his drive for vengeance leads him to make a number of crucial tactical errors. In City of Exiles, Lasse Karvonen—and it’s interesting to note how the consonants K and N recur in these villainous characters’ names, perhaps as a nod to Cain—is as close to a pure force of evil as any I’ve written, but he, too, has values of his own. Karvonen’s case is an unusual one because of his background: he’s Finnish, but he’s working for Russia, his country’s historical enemy, because he sees it as a larger stage for his talents. That contradiction fuels many of his decisions throughout the novel, and his actions can best be understood as an attempt to prove that he can play this ruthless game more capably than a Russian ever could. At the heart of it all, however, is a fundamental assumption. He’ll do whatever it takes to keep his employers happy, but he draws the line at hurting another Finn.

Inevitably, he’ll be asked to break this rule, and the choice he makes when the time comes will turn out to determine his fate. For that moment to have any meaning, though, his code needs to be clearly established. I allude to it first in Chapter 26, perhaps a little too neatly—”He had never spilled a drop of Finnish blood, and he never would”—but it’s Chapter 34 that locks it into the reader’s memory. It’s a self-contained scene with little connection to the rest of the story, and I arrived at it mostly just to give Karvonen something to do at this stage in his journey. (He’s on a cruise ferry bound from Stockholm to Helsinki, and many of the details of the chapter come from my research on these cruises, which offer clubs, shopping, and other entertainment options for passengers.) When Karvonen sees a Russian man abusing his Finnish girlfriend, he takes quick, effective revenge, and it’s a satisfying moment mostly because it does triple duty. It’s perfectly in character for Karvonen; it reminds us of the tensions beneath his unruffled surface; and it sets us up for the turning point, more than a hundred pages later, when his principles will be tested for real…

Written by nevalalee

June 12, 2014 at 9:48 am

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