Bad guys: characters who are unpleasant, embarrassing, evil, heinous, or even unsexy.
September 27, 2007
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?