by Keith Morrison
©2008 Keith Morrison
The private stood on guard in the damp spring evening and tried to ignore the taunts of the growing mob. Hed already defended himself against one of the them earlier, driving off the rowdy with the butt of his musket but the mans friends (or so theyd named themselves) had appeared out of the darkening streets and alleys. It seemed he had a great many friends. A few were arguing with the officer on duty, and the private shifted his weight uneasily as a rock struck the cobblestone nearby. He breathed a sigh of relief at the familiar sound of marching boots. A squad, bayonets fixed and led by a captain, appeared and took up positions in an arc facing the mob. More pebbles began hitting the troops. The private opened his mouth but a quick look from the captain and he settled back. The officer had placed himself between his men and the crowd, trying to reason with them.
None of the soldiers knew that agitators were running through the city to bring yet more people, nor that a vocal opponent of the government had been pushing the residents to create a confrontation. He wanted violence, something to stir the passions of the public, to get them to rise against their oppressors. Blood on the streets would be the spark for the war he wanted to unleash, and hed ignored the counsel of others whod told him his idea would not only fail but doom them all.
None of the soldiers knew, and if they had, none of it would have been relevant. The mob, and the debris they were throwing, was growing larger. They yelled at the soldiers to shoot, daring them, calling the cowards, and worse. The private swallowed, the mob seeming to close in on him.
No one knew for sure who had fired first, but in minutes it was over. A few bodies were on the street, none of them the soldiers. They were still alive, but the captain, concerned that the mob might return in greater numbers, busied himself with getting ready for the counterattack.
Now for a test (and those of you how know what scenario I just described, keep your answers to yourself): Given the preceding situation, who are the bad guys?
For the Americans in the crowd, does your answer change if I tell you its a March night in Boston, 1770; the officer trying to keep the peace was Captain Thomas Preston of the British Army; and the shadowy figure trying to create an incident was Sam Adams? Admittedly I took some liberty with the story but the reason I did was to make a point: In some conflicts, who is right and who is wrong depends on your point of view. The standard American myth is of ruthless British soldiers massacring innocent civilians. The reality behind the myth, contrariwise, is far more interesting; its a story of scared soldiers facing an unruly mob, both groups being placed into that situation by events far out of their control.
Being inspired by historical events, myths, legends, and folk tales, is a time-honoured tradition of writers. Some, instead of carbon-copying the original so we have yet another Anabasis with muskets, or Rorkes Drift with lasers, instead flip around the common perception of good guy and bad guy. Saberhagens The Dracula Tape is an example of this sort of thing, retelling Stokers classic from the point of view of the vampire, explaining how that idiot Van Helsing misinterpreted what was going on, or how things transpired were completely out of context. However, even if you arent interested in making the Sheriff of Nottingham a hard working and dedicated lawman out to stop the bloodthirsty gang of cutthroats inhabiting Sherwood Forest, taking the time to imagine the situation from another point of view opens up some conflicts and story possibilities you may not have thought of. And it will give your characters some potential depth.
Lets take a look at an example where it might have helped an otherwise execrable story. For todays lesson, and since we started with the American Revolution, well take that historical trainwreck of a film, The Patriot. Leaving aside the historical well, gross negligence is the least insulting thing I can say about it and focusing on the story, what have you got?
A colonist who is the epitome of both manliness and honour. A British officer whose only excuse for not wearing the black-and-silver SS uniform hed so richly earned, is that he was born a century and a half too soon. A clean cut case of who was right and who was wrong, assisted by the fact that the side in the right was all good and shiny while the side in the wrong was escapees from EVIL IZ US central casting with not a redeeming quality among them.
As I mentioned in the previous column, being right and being good are not interchangeable synonyms. In real life, Francis Marionthe inspiration for Gibsons characterwas a psychotic bastard who raped native women for amusement. Even if youre American, and consider the rebellion to have been a good thing, and the ultimate end that Marion fought for a good, you have to admit that not everything about it was as pure as the driven snow. Hardly any conflict ever is. Taking the time to look at it from the point of view of the British, or even the colonists who chose to be Loyalists, could have added some nuance.
Better yet, consider the possibility of an English officer from a family that opposed slavery; he arrives in the southern colonies, and hes charged with defending the people who want to stay a part of the British system, against the terrorism orchestrated by some fanatic who hides in the swamps. And, to put the cherry on the sundae, a slave-owning fanatic, at that!
Now whos the hero?
One of the other advantages of taking a given story, filing off the serial numbers, and setting it in Bizarro World so the point of view is switched, is that you can have a lot of the story background just sitting there, readily available but not as easily seen as being a retelling because youve switched the familiar point of view. Instead of the March Upcountry, the story of a local militia commander fighting to save his people from the marauding band of mercenaries tearing through the countryside. The aforementioned lawman dealing with the criminals hiding out in the woods. The overstretched Imperial forces trying their damnedest to deal with a bunch of terrorists who blow up defensive space stations, led by some fanatical religious nut who has an incestuous relationship with his sister
actually, I think Ive probably read that last one on a fanfic site somewhere. But I digress.
The ability to place yourself on the other side may make you uncomfortable, and in some cases its completely understandable if youd be appalled to even consider it. However, not every bad guy is a Nazi, and not every conflict is World War 2. As I said, who is right and who is wrong can very much depend on the point of view of the person considering it.
So try taking a gander from the other side.