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Bad guys: characters who are unpleasant, embarrassing, evil, heinous, or even unsexy.

September 27, 2007 

Dear Writers,

This may the be first in a series of posts on bad guys, on miserable, annoying, cruel and unusual, evil types. You know, all that stuff we like to believe we contain not even a speck of within ourselves.

In the good old days, a writer could name their characters something so that when the name was sounded, you could hear the chorus of hisses telling you, Evil walks, watch out! Or, some annoying character would enter the room, always with the same mincing walk or the same facial expression or the same incredibly uncool outfit, and we would mouth as we read, “Oh, no, not him again. What a jerk!”

Now, there is a very strange phenomenon one might be able to observe. In 2007, when many of our top guns in power might be characterized as all of the above — see the title of the post — and more, when the consequences of their actions are such suffering and destruction that it puts many of us in a fairly constant state of rage or despair, or moves us into activism of all kinds, there is more and more discussion one comes up against in the publishing world about making sure your characters are likeable.

Excuse me? All of them?

I just watched a film thanks to Netflix, Tsotsi, from South Africa, about a young man who, among his many cruel deeds, shoots a woman and drives off in her car. He is part of a little gang of thugs. He discovers a baby in the backseat, and, well, you can imagine. He is certainly redeemable, although a terrible guy when we meet him, a loose cannon, a pointedly cruel little gangster. I am not denying that a character like this has to be handled with great skill in order for the viewer or the reader not to just turn off and be unable to see or appreciate the complexity of the character and the character’s struggle; indeed, director of Tsotsi (2006) Gavin Hood discussed this difficulty in an interview. His solution had to do with bringing forward the complexity of the character and his circumstances, showing the cracks in his character armor, allowing us to see not the “good side” of this “little gangster” as he is often called, but more of the fullness of his very complex truth.

“Making a character more likeable” for popular consumption doesn’t seem to me to be the answer. I have certainly gotten this advice and likely should have taken it, but my heart, my characters and story, and most importantly my deep desire to understand what makes for the astonishingly evil acts of some people in this world, push me into a hopefully honest attempt at a fuller examination of evil in some of my writing.

Salvadoran writer Manlio Argueta was imprisoned and tortured in El Salvador during the 1980s. He fled to Costa Rica and wrote Un dia en la vida or One Day of Life, a novel which looks at the events of the early ’80s in El Salvador, including the activties of the U.S.-supported death squads and the murder of Archbishop Romero. Argueta listened to tapes of, and did live interviews of, members of the National Guard who had either realized and lamented something of the horror they had supported, or wanted to brag about it. In a stunning chapter called “They” (which begs the question as to which they — the victims or the perpetrators) he speaks in the voice of a National Guardsman who had been taught to look at the poor, at women, at workers and peasants, as bringing down the country by their very nature. Of course, many of them came from the poor, and all of them were “born of women”. They were learning self-hatred under the guidance of “gringos” and others. And the results were sheer horror and brutality.

One question about evil I have, and will work with in my novel-in-progress, is this: If one experiences horrific evil and survives, where does that evil then live? Is it only outside the survivor, or is that intimate knowledge of evil something that contaminates and breaks the victim? or informs and illuminates the victim? Where does evil reside?

Philip Levine says, in his poem “On a Drawing by Flavio” — a drawing of the Rabbi of Auschwitz:  

I am this hand that / would raise itself / against the earth / and I am the earth too.

I want to read about, and write, complex characters. I want to NOT take the easy stance of those who always point away from themselves to indicate evil. I want readers to care about my characters in their wholeness, or, really, in their brokenness and complexity. I want to learn how to develop these kinds of characters and stories and explorations in my work, at a higher level each day, each and every urgent day.

So, I ask you, please respond— what do you think about this? What do you WANT to read?

How do you deal with questions of evil in your work?

And how does a character of yours prove Levine’s words? How does that character both experience evil directed against her or him, and have evil within?

Thanks, writers.

Peace, Anya

Comments

Comment from Marcia Fine
Time: October 3, 2007, 11:29 am

I am in awe of your ability to face evil head on. I saw Tsotsi when it came out in the theaters and will never forget the character or his relationship with the baby. i couldn’t breathe during most of the film. My greatest challenge in writing is conflict between characters. I appreciate the boldness of your perspective in making us squirm. It’s the only way to create social change.

Comment from Nadja
Time: October 3, 2007, 6:08 pm

Hi Anya,
Interesting topic. It is also one that I have been tackling myself. This is an issue I face daily as a human being and as a writer. There is the knee jerk reaction to only see the deeds of a person and nothing else. Suddenly the person/character is little more than the sum of their actions. This is not true. As individuals we are a collection of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and their unique arrangement results in beliefs evident in our behavior and choices. This humanity, common to us all, runs under the surface of even dislikable characters like water beneath a frozen river.

As writers I believe we have a unique vantage point in that we get to explore this, the psyches and motivations of our characters. This includes the anti-heroes of our stories particularly because they are the expressions of the less palatable of human characteristics.

What I find is that the people that behave in the most destructive ways honestly believe they are doing the right thing. Their inner life is composed in such a way that makes their actions sensible or even necessary to them. This can be hard to digest when the behavior of the character disturbs us. From a writer’s POV I have to be willing to find out the how/why and let that truth come through in the writing.

Our protagonists already have our support and compassion but I think it’s the unlikable characters that need us just as much, if not more, to swim around in the murky waters of their souls and when back on the shore of the page to share what we found there. There is, like anyone else, heartbreak, triumph, humor, sadness, and the FULL range of human experience. When writing I have to remember that the character, at least for some fraction of their existence, was not a monster. I must allow for soft edges. I try not to fall to the temptation of seeing him/her from a single dimension. They do not have to be likeable, but to be real they do have to be complex because that is what human beings are–complex. If not, then suddenly there’s a blank spot where a person should be. No matter what I think of him, his humanity remains present beneath. My job is to find it.

Sometimes I imagine the person doing an average normal thing. Like eating a meal. I picture her/him sitting alone and chewing their food. Nothing more. Even the most horrific person on this earth has done that. It’s human and common to us all. Somehow that makes me see them in a different light. A human one.

One of the most difficult things is honoring the human intricacy in ‘evil’ characters. But it is what makes them multi dimensional and down right interesting. One of the most challenging things to do is write a decadently wicked character then have the reader connect with him/her. But otherwise we get a stereotypical villain that might as well be twisting his mustache as he is tying Penelope to the train tracks.

Comment from Anya
Time: October 3, 2007, 6:22 pm

Dear Marcia,
Sometimes hard not to think metaphorically, or rather, symbolically — when Tsotsi carjacks the vehicle with the baby in it, he enters a situation which opens his heart. I keep thinking of those who have kind of hijacked whole nations, with the children along for a terrible ride, and still are unmoved at the beauty and the plight of the children. Harder for me to imagine and truly write that kind of evil. And yet, we must find ways to do it.
Thanks so much for your kind words, and your serious work with evil and its consequences in the human psyche and personality.
You are terrific!
Anya

Comment from Anya
Time: October 3, 2007, 6:28 pm

Dear Nadja,
You have certainly been dealing with and thinking about all this. I love your discussion about working with the characters in situations where they are doing little normal things, like chewing their food — that’s so great — so grounding and real and it works, bringing us into the character and their very physical movement, jaws and teeth doing what beings of all sorts have done through time. I love that, and the idea that our “evil”, difficult, characters need our attention and love as writers, to bring them out, bring them forward, so that they can give us knowledge in a way. Make a place for them and that makes a place for our understanding of them to grow — this is great!
Thanks so much, and I know your stories are filled with fullness and truth!
Peace, to you, a writer with a big heart — that kind of heart brings knowedge and an informed development of characters,
Anya

Comment from Wendy Brown
Time: October 9, 2007, 12:06 pm

Hi Anya, I have a comment to your question about evil. I certainly felt invaded by evil or darkness after I was raped by a man who had demons tattooed on his back. But I think it was my perception of how I felt more than true. My response was to dedicate myself to God and taking care of others. PTSD can feel like an unwillingness to live. It does require healing many times over to get all of it out. It is not enough to tell a therapist or to be loved. For me, it took standing up for myself and claiming my power back. Interesting to consider from a writer’s point of view. I saved my life by being sympathetic to the man inside the demon, by knowing his story. And he admitted that he knew he was doing something evil and felt powerless to stop himself. As a writer, can you help the reader see why someone makes a choice to inflict their pain on others instead of trying to find healing for themselves?

Comment from Alison Ross
Time: October 17, 2007, 8:38 pm

It is only when we are aware of the evil within ourselves that we can work to transform exterior evils.

Thanks so much for that wonderful post, Anya.

Comment from Anya Achtenberg
Time: October 17, 2007, 8:51 pm

Dear Wendy,
I love what you say about standing up for yourself and claiming your power back. That is healing. That transformation. That change. That work that says, well, this horrific thing will never not be. It is. It cannot be undone or disappear. It lives with us. But the standing up is something even greater. The standing up above such a terrible experience makes that experience lose its power, its barbed hooks, its tentacles. Makes IT cower, not you. And seeing someone as human and broken rather than as all powerful makes both of you more human.
I think this a kind of powerful story, a story that shows the history of such a decision, that reveals the layers of complexity that makes a decision to cause harm to others rather than take back into oneself the horrible pain that has caused one to lash out in the first place. Maybe these acts have a source in horrible and hidden pain. Maybe they have a source in absolute numbness, in absence of life. But yes, a writer can help the reader understand this choice, as a writer can help a reader see all kinds of choices, by embodying this choice in a character and their moment, their situation. Have you written a story that does this? have you read Indian Killer, by Sherman Alexie?

Comment from Anya Achtenberg
Time: October 17, 2007, 8:54 pm

Dear Alison,
And thank you for this–”It is only when we are aware of the evil within ourselves that we can work to transform exterior evils.” I think this is true. And I think then we can do it in a way that is not out of superiority, but real compassion and knowledge. A way that doesn’t duplicate the arrogance of power, the arrogance of a position of moral superiority that usually come out of a position of privilege. I believe in the “who know what I would have done, although I like to think…” principle.
Very thorny, evil. Working on it in my current novel.
Best to you, Alison.
Anya

Comment from Alison Ross
Time: October 19, 2007, 6:20 am

I agree with the compassion part wholeheartedly. It’s easy to assume a certain haughty air about evil, as though we are not capable of it ourselves. I myself assume this arrogance all the time when writing about Bush, and I will continue to in my polemics, because that’s the point of my polemics (acidic tone). However, I have written more thoughtful essays about the inherence of evil in all of us, and so I think certain genres like fiction, poetry, and essays lend themselves to this type of reflection.

We must ask ourselves: WWTDLD? (What Would the Dalai Lama Do?)

Comment from Anne
Time: January 28, 2008, 10:44 am

Anya, Thank you for bring this up as I have been struggling with it myself.

Evil is an interesting place to live. The real question for me is how do I get into evil’s head. If I’m going to write about a bad guy I need to understand him from the inside out. What drives someone to do these acts? How do they feel or do they? That is something I struggle with when trying to create that character. My life has been good and rarely touched by true evil. Perhaps the worst “bad guy” is one that we know and trust. One that betrays our picture of him. That person you love or take into your family circle. Then when he hurts you and your family it is the biggest betrayal. I know my family will never be the same. I didn’t recognize it’s importance before he made my family into something else. That is his evil’s greatest accomlishment. However, I agree that by seeing something else inside him I can come to terms with it. Possibly even be at peace with it. Perhaps evil is always there lurking inside us and that is why we can let others think we are good. Perhaps they don’t know it’s evil at all.

Comment from Nethra Samarawickrema
Time: February 18, 2008, 8:32 pm

Dear Anya,
Thank you for opening the space for questions such as the one you raise above. You thoughts, which embrace the unknown, unsteady, unsafe spaces in writing soothes the part of me that runs, skirts flying, away from this unknown. They also awaken the parts that are able to pause in awe.

One such place is the question of evil. I’m writing a story because I need to chip away, tenderly, fiercely at the constructed boundary between the violent and gentle. I sense that the violence in overtly brutal and controlling forces and individuals also courses through the quiet, the timid, the people and spaces that are seemingly stable. I sense that cruel and gentle mutually constitute each other. Yet, tracing these intuitions, tracing their political, historical,mystical contours pose deep challenges. I can feel the forces in my body, see them in my dreams but I find it so hard to put them into words, into the interactions between my characters. This is mostly because when I try, I try to control the process, throttling the writing with my hurry to put words to my intuitions. And in this aggression, I see again, painfully and shatteringly, that the violence I locate outside, in truth, resides intimately and inextricably inside. How to nurture even this with gentleness?

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