By David Corbett (Originally Posted on Writer Unboxed)
The only etchings I’ve seen have been behind glass
And the closest I’ve been to a bar is at ballet class*
Last week Kathryn Craft and Don Maass both addressed particular issues related to portraying protagonists—Kathryn pointing out the essential role of willfulness, and Don exploring the crucial role of shame in defining what the character fears and what it will take to overcome it.
I’m going to turn the focus around on the character I call the Opponent, but others call the Nemesis, the Antagonist, the Adversary, or the Villain. (Some resist this terminology. The crime writer Les Edgerton rejects it outright, preferring instead Main Character #1 and Main Character #2, an approach I actually like a lot.)
I define this character as the one with the power, the will, and the desire to deny, destroy, or claim for himself what the Protagonist wants.
This can be as benign as a reluctant love interest, or a competitor for the same job. Even when the character commits genuinely bad acts, he may believe himself justified, whether out of desperation for a better course, out of devotion to a cause considered worthy or even noble, or some other belief that “the ends justify the means.” (Of course, these justifications may mask a deeper, truly insidious purpose, but I’ll leave that to another post.)
I’m going to focus here on something far more blatantly malevolent, and discuss those characters who genuinely long for harm, cruelty, destruction, chaos, etc., whether that seems to be the only way to escape some profound sense of affliction, to claim power in the only way that feels truly significant and meaningful—or simply because they take pleasure in the misery of others.
You know. Like Captain Hook.
Yearning and Wickedness
I want to be nasty, I want to be cruel
I want to be daring, I want to shoot pool
As most of you who follow my postings know, the central issue I explore with my characters is their Yearning—their “dream of life,” i.e., the kind of person they want to be, the way of life they hope to live.
This encompasses identity, morality, and interpersonal relationships, as well as the character’s tribe (the group to which she feels a unique and compelling bond) and sense of home (the place where she believes she belongs).
It is sometimes easy to fall into the trap of believing that, in their original, unpolluted essence, all Yearnings involve a greater largeness of heart, generosity of spirit, or some other enhancement of virtue: courage, honesty, compassion, forbearance.
This is a natural extension of the psychoanalytic ideal of individuation, which presupposes an instinctive drive to integration, wholeness, and health.
As gratifying or reassuring as it might be to believe to interpret one’s Yearning only in its most positive light, the truth is a harsh mistress. Not everyone wishes to sing in the choir.
This is not the place to explore the question, Why Does Evil Exist? It’s an exhaustive issue, studied for centuries, with each generation offering new insights.
But to the extent the question is relevant to characterization, we need to at least ask why certain characters not only commit crimes and do harm, but strive for it, derive pleasure from it—even fashion their identities around it.
Are Monsters Born or Made? Does it Matter?
I want to be wicked, I want to tell lies
I want to be mean and throw mud pies
Although the conviction that some people are simply “born bad” is a favorite conceit in certain quarters, writers risk lackluster results if they permit themselves such an easy out with their characters.
That’s not to say there isn’t some truth to the claim.
Not everyone wishes to sing in the choir.
Consider what is commonly referred to as the Dark Triad of personality disorders (ironically, the three such disorders most commonly found in successful people):
- Narcissism (characterized by grandiosity, pride, egotism, and a lack of empathy)
- Machiavellianism (characterized by manipulation and exploitation of others, a cynical disregard for morality, and a focus on self-interest and deception)
- Psychopathy (characterized by enduring antisocial behavior, impulsivity, risk-taking, selfishness, callousness, and remorselessness)
If you suffer from a personality disorder you can genuinely claim you were “born that way.” But that’s not the end of the discussion as the fact that there are “successful” and “functional” narcissists and psychopaths attests.
This means either that there are varying degrees of these disorders, or that even people who possess them are not necessarily trapped inside their pathology. They may not be able to “heal” or transcend their condition but that doesn’t make them impervious to experience.
This gets us back to the old nature vs nurture argument, which is always inclusive. Both factors always apply, the only question is to which degree. In characterization this means discovering how the character’s intrinsic disposition and life experience interact—supporting, reinforcing, contradicting each other.
A character’s past experience is NEVER irrelevant. Backstory is behavior, even with a calling from God. Or an organic disorder.
There are indeed cases where individuals suffer personality disorders that render them impervious to insight and change. But that is typically not how they themselves see the matter. Nowhere is the dictum that every character is the hero of his own narrative more applicable—and more necessary—than when creating a character whose ambitions include violence, destruction, and cruelty.
Claiming a character’s behavior is entirely explained by some neurological condition risks creating a “plot puppet” in scientific drag. The character becomes a mere victim or automaton, albeit of a horrific sort, draped in psycho-babble.
Backstory is behavior, even with a calling from God. Or an organic disorder.
Also, labeling a character as a psychopath or a narcissist risks violating the first and most essential rule of characterization: Justify, don’t judge, the character.
Attaching a label to a character is an implicit judgment, exhibiting a need to confine his behavior within a descriptive straitjacket, which only diminishes the character (and the writer). Since the protagonist will be measured by the opposition he overcomes, a slight or cartoonish villain will diminish your hero as well.
The way to rectify this is to once again reclaim the character’s dignity through imagining his Yearning. As long as he is conscious, he is more than just a robotic response to unconscious stimuli. He is convinced he wills his actions with intent, and that intent is an expression of his Yearning: the dark avenger he longs to be, the righteous nightmare he hopes to bring to life.
Summing up: Even if your character is “born bad,” you need to explore how his life experience shaped that pathology—reinforcing it, reining it in, tempering it, encouraging it. You can’t escape backstory, even if you never address it directly in the text itself (more on that below).
One key moment to explore: the first time the character recognized that he was “different” than others, or expressed his tendency toward cruelty, indifference, manipulation, grandiosity. What happened? Who else was present? What reaction did the other person have? How did that affect how the character felt about what he did, and who he was?
Another key moment: the first time the character suffered some physical or psychological harm, whether accidental or in the form of punishment or abuse. Just as with normal people, the desire to get even and seek retribution is powerful. In those with personality disorders, it often takes extreme form.
Further Exploration of “What Made Me This Way”
I want to be evil, I want to get mad
But more than that, I want to be bad
The French philosopher Simone Weil devised the term “affliction” to refer to experiences of relentless, unmitigated, and horrific violence, deprivation, and shaming—such as repeated child abuse, rape, torture, even combat, especially when civilians are targeted. Children are especially vulnerable, including those fleeing drought, famine, war zones, or confined within refugee camps.
Such experiences, especially if the sufferer feels not only that there is no escape, but succumbs to a deep and personal shame because of his suffering, can result in such an utter loss of faith in human decency, such a loss of confidence that well-being will ever return, that the ability to love or accept love is forever lost. Such individuals live in a darkness so profound that escape no longer seems possible.
This sort of prolonged, repeated, malicious abuse finds its way into the biographies of numerous violent offenders, especially sexual predators. What might appear to be simply a “malignant heart,” as the legal texts would phrase it, in fact is the consequence of unthinkable victimization, usually in childhood.
Such experiences … can result in such an utter loss of faith in human decency, such a loss of confidence that well-being will ever return, that the ability to love or accept love is forever lost.
This can be thought of as an extreme case where experience has forged—or malformed—the Yearning. Whatever innocent or benevolent “dream of life” might have once existed is lost for good. Another Yearning has risen in its place, marked by a craving for power and dominance that, in turn, echoes back to an underlying terror of weakness, even if the individual remains unaware or unconscious of that fact.
My late wife, during law school, worked pro bono on a death penalty case involving just such a defendant. He was accused of killing three young men, each one younger than the last. In his interviews with defense psychologists, he described the repeated sexual abuse he suffered in a progression of orphanages and foster homes. And the increasing youth of his victims represented, in accordance with what is known as the repetition compulsion, a symbolic attempt to return to the age of his own victimization, to relive the event but this time with a different outcome, where he is not the victim but the victimizer. As unforgivable as his actions might be, they were nonetheless evidence of a disturbed attempt to heal.
In cases like the one just identified, the victims serve as totemic replacements for the sufferer himself, helping him to erase the memory of his own violation by inflicting it on someone else. I’m not the victim, you are. In still other cases, the victim will represent the wholesome world of caring concern the killer has lost forever. See what the world is really like? If I can’t be innocent neither can you.
An example of a similar character from fiction is Francis Dolarhyde in the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. From the outside, Francis conforms to the usual diagnostic profile of a sexual predator—a victim of severe sexual and psychological abuse as a child, resulting in fantasies of sadistic and murderous domination.
Harris, however, does not limit his character to that biography. Exemplifying what C.G. Jung referred to as “psychopathic archetypal inflation,” Francis reveals not just a fascination with William Blake’s painting “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed With the Sun,” but a psychic identification with it. He believes himself to be the physical embodiment of the Red Dragon.
This vision informs how Francis views not just himself but his sadistic longings and murders. He is not the mere product of his painful, humiliating past. He is a monster in the truest, greatest, most transcendent — even beautiful — meaning of the word.
It is tempting to conclude that what Francis suffered as a child transformed him into that monster, distorting whatever childlike Yearning he might have had into the diabolical one he came to embrace as an adult. But that’s not entirely clear.
It remains an open question whether Francis’s tortured childhood created this Yearning or merely awakened it. We can also see, however, from the writer’s perspective, where the question is moot. Whether Francis was born with the Red Dragon already nascent in his psyche or turned to it in the face of his torments is largely irrelevant. The point is this: As the story begins, that image now defines his identity and chosen way of life. It represents his Yearning.
To Reveal or Not to Reveal
And in the theater, I want to change my seat
Just so I can step on everybody’s feet
Not all characters possess backstories that might explain their turn toward criminality. Shakespeare provided us with two such villains—Iago and Richard III.
The Bard was notoriously stingy in providing his characters with explicit motivation, and this is particularly true of Iago. Though he clearly resents being passed over for promotion by Othello, he could easily have rectified that slight by merely carrying out the first part of his plan—engineering a drunken brawl involving Cassio, guaranteeing his demotion.
Iago’s decision to keep going, to destroy Othello through manipulation, causing not just the Moor’s fall but the murder of his innocent wife, Desdemona, speaks to a craving for more than vengeance and vindication. It speaks to an essentially hateful nature that revels in deceit and mayhem.
Richard III, as befitting royalty, is even more manipulative, deceitful, and murderous, with a body count Iago would envy, including as it does not just nobles but women and children.
Though Richard’s disfigurement is sometimes cited as a reason for his malevolence—the real Richard of Gloucester contracted idiopathic scoliosis in adolescence—he offers no such justification himself, nor does anyone else offer this as explanation. Describing himself as “determined to prove a villain,” he simply seems possessed of a “malignant heart.”
Interestingly, though both characters are clearly reprehensible, they typically mesmerize audiences through the simple trick of speaking directly to them, making all who listen unwitting co-conspirators.
A similar device is used by the modern incarnation of Richard III, Frank Underwood of the American TV series House of Cards.
Not only does Frank share the technique of scheming with the audience, he also, despite flashes into his past, offers no satisfying justification for the degree of evil he is willing to embrace in furtherance of those schemes.
Like both Richard and Iago, he has been passed over, but that never seems to genuinely account for his lust for not just sidelining his adversaries but, whenever possible, leaving them crushed, humiliated, even dead. Being passed over merely provides the spark that lights the fuse. The bomb was there the entire time.
The reason none of these characters need explicit backstories may lie in the fact they all bear a strong resemblance to Lucifer, whose sin is pride, and whose resentment at being overlooked, and then banished, is an unquenchable thirst for corruption, destruction, and ruin. That narrative is instinctively understood by readers and audiences, since it is so central to the cultural iconography.
The reason none of these characters need explicit backstories may lie in the fact they all bear a strong resemblance to Lucifer.
Given the apparent void where a motive should be, how do we address the issue of the character’s Yearning? Is he responding to an organic disorder or some other instinctive disposition in fashioning his dream of life—who he wants to be, how he hopes to live? Or are there experiences unmentioned in the text that explain how the character’s malignant heart was forged?
We shouldn’t confuse the reader’s and audience’s understanding with the writer’s. One reason Shakespeare deprived characters of explicit motivations was to better allow the audience to devise its own, deepening its engagement with the play. That doesn’t mean he himself was unclear or unaware of what drove the character to act.
Refusing to overtly state the character’s motivation can be a powerful technique, especially with characters whose actions are not just surprising but shocking, even horrifying—as long as the silence as to why he acts as he does isn’t mere avoidance of the issue on the part of the writer.
That said, just because you the writer understand the matter doesn’t mean you need share it with the reader or audience. Leaving the monster’s Yearning unexpressed, remaining silent about the cause of his passion for carnage and cruelty, can intensify the terror he evokes. We are never so frightened as when we fail to understand.
One final word on the technique of having the villain directly address the reader or audience: John Fowles in The Collector allows his villain, Freddy Clegg, to address the reader in first person. Patricia Highsmith in The Talented Mr. Ripley uses close third person, but the effect is largely the same. Unlike the supremely devious Iago, Richard, and Frank Underwood, however, Freddy and Ripley, though aware of what they are doing, lack any genuine insight into the fact their actions are deliberately cruel—an effect that interestingly only enhances the terror their actions invoke, for an individual who sees no evil in what he does is capable of virtually anything.
The “Cartoonish” Villain–a Reconsideration
I want to be horrid, I want to drink booze
And whatever I’ve got, I’m eager to lose
As a final exercise in villainy, let’s consider The Joker as portrayed by Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight
. A more cartoonish villain would be hard to come by. And yet he’s one of the most complex, compelling, and fascinating villains around. That’s because he transcends that cartoonish stature in three distinct ways, all echoing remarks made above:
- He lacks an explicit backstory. Rather than being silent on the matter, however, he gives two distinct, contradictory explanations as to how he came by his hideous face, which obscures any real understanding of how his past explains his behavior. That opacity intensifies the terror he incites. He will actively subvert any attempt to “understand” him.
- He exhibits “psychopathic archetypal inflation.” He not only believes that life is a cruel joke—life has no meaning, there is no such thing as noble suffering, people are feckless, corruption and cowardice are universal—he embodies the archetypal manifestation of that joke. It’s not a mask, it’s his truest self–which reinforces his lack of backstory. Resorting to childhood experience or other real-life causes to explain his evil simply represents one more way lesser minds cling to false hope. They fail to grasp the real nature of existence—it’s all a sick joke.
- He reveals his Yearning in a moral code. His psychopathic inflation also reflects his “dream of life”—the kind of person he wants to be, the way of life he hopes to live. “I’m an engine of chaos,” he says. “And you know the thing about chaos: It’s fair.”
This last point deserves special mention. One of the ways that villains truly becomes memorable is in their moral argument—how they justify to themselves and others what they do. That deserves a post all its own, and I’ll get to that in the future. For now, I’ll just point out that the Joker is by far the character with the most eye-opening lines in The Dark Knight
. I don’t know to what extent Christopher Nolan admires or even reads George Bernard Shaw, but he followed the Nobel laureate’s example of giving the most compelling arguments to the most ethically compromised character.
*The lyrics quoted throughout the post are from “I Want to be Evil,” written by Lester Judson and Raymond Taylor. For the definitive performance of the song, see this Youtube video of Eartha Kitt’s rendition.
Concerning the images used, they are all from the Internet Archive of Book Images. The first (the featured image for the post) is from page 471 of “The history of Our Lord as exemplified in works of art: with that of His types; St. John the Baptist; and other persons of the Old and New Testament” (1872); the second and third are from page 153 and 98, respectively, of “Religious emblems: being a series of emblematic engravings, with written explanations, miscellaneous observations and religious reflections, designed to illustrate divine truth, in accordance with the cardinal principles of Christ” (1868).
David Corbett, HWA Master Class presenter, is the award-winning author of the writing guide The Art of Character (“A writer’s bible” – Elizabeth Brundage) and six novels, including 2018’s The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday, nominated for the Lefty Award for Best Historical Mystery. His short fiction has been selected twice for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, Narrative, Bright Ideas, and Writer’s Digest, where he is a contributing editor. He has taught at the UCLA Writer’s Program, Litreactor, Book Passage, and at writing conferences across North America and Mexico, and is a monthly contributor to Writer Unboxed, an award-winning blog dedicated to the craft and business of fiction.