Do You Judge Your Characters?

judge“What a jerk!”—My one-second assessment of the person who cut me off, and then tried to make me miss the light by deliberately slowing down as we arrived at the left turning lane to ensure his being the only one to go through the light.

I’m guessing you might have a similar reaction to mine. Why? Because you’re only hearing one side of the story: mine. I provided only the facts that put this person in a bad light, because I want you to think badly of him, since he made me angry. But I don’t know this guy. I only know what he seemed to do. So, I think you and I would agree that I’ve labeled this person as the “villain” of my story without much evidence to go on.

I can’t help linking this incident to some thoughts I’ve had about a character. Years ago I wrote a novel about a prince who kidnaps my main character, thanks to the help of his twitchy minion, and tries to force her to marry him. I didn’t give any thought to the prince’s story beyond his immediate actions. He was a stock character—the “bad guy.” I didn’t make the effort to know him below the surface. He was the antagonist. What else was there to know? He came to a bad end, because he “deserved” it. Why? Because he was “bad.” But what factors contributed to his turning to the dark side? Unfortunately, I have no idea.

I sometimes hear authors say they hate a particular character—usually a villainous one—in their novel. I wonder why. And no, I’m not naïve. Some characters do reprehensible things. An author can make a convincing argument for why a reader should dislike a character. But is bad behavior the only thing for which that character is known? And are you telling me to think this way, because you judge the character based on his or her behavior, or are you showing me why I might form a specific conclusion? If you’ve shown this character in a convincing way, I can decide for myself. Do you trust me enough as a reader to do that? Do you trust yourself to be that convincing? If so, then you’re one up on me. With the prince story, I didn’t trust myself or the reader enough to do the work of fully developing the prince.

You might say, “Some things are black and white. I’m writing a story about ultimate evil. How can I help painting a character in one light or another?” That’s a fair question. I’m not arguing absolutes here. I’m asking you what you think about your character. Is your first thought, Man, I hate him? Why? Does that mean you love only the “good” characters? And by “good,” does that mean these characters are faultless? More than likely, they aren’t, are they? If your “good” characters have layers, do the ones considered “bad” have them too?

207546In Paradise Lost by John Milton, Satan, who set the pattern for many a dark lord, is portrayed as complex. Now, before anyone emails me in horror for making that assessment, please understand that I’m talking about Milton’s epic work here. Also, admitting that a character is complex isn’t the same as saying that character’s behavior is admirable and worth emulating. If you read C. S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost, you know that’s his opinion as well. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are C. S. Lewis’s words: “It remains, of course, true that Satan is the best drawn of Milton’s characters” (100). Lewis goes on to say this:

It is therefore right to say that Milton has put much of himself into Satan: but it is unwarrantable to conclude that he was pleased with that part of himself or expected us to be pleased. (101)

Does that mean Milton was saying, “Man, I hate this character, because I hate myself, and you should too?” Well, I can’t speak for Milton in that regard. I would suggest you read Paradise Lost and Lewis’s book and discern for yourself.

I could have followed Milton’s example by giving my prince a rich interior life. Instead I spared myself the effort. That novel, by the way, was the poorer for it.

Have you ever judged one of your own characters? Why or why not? Do you think antagonists need layers? Why or why not? Is a stock character good enough for a villain? Why or why not? Who are you favorite antagonists? Why?

Lewis, C. S. A Preface to Paradise Lost: Being the Ballard Matthews Lectures Delivered at University College, North Wales, 1941 (revised and enlarged). London: Oxford University Press, 1942, 1961. Print.

Judge image from jesustrek.wordpress.com. A Preface to Paradise Lost cover from Goodreads.

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30 thoughts on “Do You Judge Your Characters?

  1. Interesting questions you pose here. I really like the antagonists in the story House of Sand and Fog, because they aren’t totally. In fact the protagonist turns into the antagonist at the end. I find that endlessly fascinating and engaging and troubling, when I watch (film but was a book first). 🙂

  2. I think antagonists having layers is generally a good thing. Even if your protagonist see’s things as black and white, I think readers appreciate nuance when it comes to characters. Characters who are all good or all bad often seem boring and unbelievable. If you are going to use a stock character (which I am definitely guilty of doing) it might be best to put some interesting twists and quirks into the person.

  3. Darth Vader, in the original trilogy, is the quintessential ‘bad guy in black’. (Think of those old westerns-baddies in black hats, goodies in white). Even though in the final scenes of the third film he found redemption, he was always the dark figure who dominated the scenes he was in. In the newer trilogy, we learned is story, the character behind that mask. Starting out as that little, cute kid who adored his mother.
    And in regard to Satan, remember that he is described as being once an angel himself.

  4. This is a question that has been plaguing me lately. My antagonist, President Andrew Jackson, couldn’t have been born a mean and hateful man. My current WIP has been slowed to a crawl as I research to try to find his motives. I can’t imagine my story being worthy of reading without exploring his many “layers”. Excellent post!

    • Thank you, Ol’ Big Jim! And thanks for the shout-out. Hope your research goes well! One of these days, I might revisit my prince character and delve deeper into his psyche.

  5. Pingback: L Marie judges her characters; do you? | olbigjim

  6. I just hit this with a new villain in my series. I despise this guy and it took me time to figure out why he made my skin crawl more than the other villains. With villains, it shouldn’t be that they only do bad things, but their mentality that should be judged. This guy I made revels in being evil to a point where you’re waiting for him cry tears of joy at his deeds. Reprehensible and loving it is a good way to describe him. I can’t tell if he’s a stock character or not because I gave him depth, but it seems to always be a deeper level of ‘yikes’.

    • It sounds like you’ve given him a life by exploring what makes him tick, even if what makes him tick involves harming people. But do you know why he became this way? Personality disorder? A couple of months ago, I watched a video interview of a woman who had murdered a guy in such a brutal way. She calmly described her act without showing the least bit of remorse. I couldn’t tell if she was so buried within herself to avoid acknowledging her feelings or not. I’m sure psychologists are having a field day analyzing her.

      • I’m not sure yet since it’s only the first book that he’s shown up in. He has a lot of arrogance and disdain for ‘weaker creatures’ because he’s so powerful. I know he’s returned from the dead once or twice. He’s not even the main villain of the series, which might be why him being the most evil one there is throwing me off. I would say a personality disorder is a big factor. Narcissistic sociopath maybe?

  7. I think an antagonist definitely needs layers. We need to spend as much time developing their back story, their wants and needs, as we do with our protagonist. It’s important to give the reader some reason to sympathize with the antagonist, even if he is a villain.

    • Very true, Jill. I adhered to the “do as little as possible” school of writing at one point, which would be obvious to anyone who read my earlier work. So yes, knowing a character’s journey is helpful.

  8. When I finally read Paradise Lost, I wondered if it was weird that I loved the Satan character. I see now that I am not alone is holding deep respect for the drawing of that character. I also had a stock bad guy in my first novel. I spent an entire NaNoWriMo writing his story and, as it turns out, I really like him now! He still makes very questionable decisions that put my main character’s life at risk, but I understand why he makes the decisions he does. I know what drives him, so he seems more human to me. GREAT topic! Thank you for posting.

    • That’s cool, Laura. I think you’ve mentioned this character. I like the antagonist in my current novel. But I was not of that mindset when writing the book with the prince antagonist. My thought was, “Oh I’m writing humor. I don’t have to go deep.” And I read Terry Pratchett’s books and realized the error of my ways. My advisors helped reinforce the error of my ways.

  9. Most of stories have had the same problem you mentioned – plain old bad guys. The stories stink because of that, so I now make a conscious effort to viewing them with a magnifying glass, trying to illuminate any hints of goodness that may be hiding in the cracks. I don’t always succeed, but I keep trying and I think an interesting villain will fall to into place eventually.

    • It’s tricky, Phillip. But with the effort you’re putting in, it sounds like you’ll come up with this individual soon. I can’t help thinking of Hannibal Lecter (which is unfortunate, because I’m eating a piece of cheesecake while typing this (amazing, huh?), and I can’t help thinking of what he would eat.

  10. Great post, Linda. I need to work on developing my “bad guys” more. I’ve certainly been guilty of giving them short shrift. Hmmm… must think more deeply about them.

    • Well, for every well-drawn character like Loki, there are villains like the Chitauri, who didn’t have a ton of depth in The Avengers. Yet The Avengers didn’t suffer for that. So, there must be room for both types. But I know I could put more effort into character development. I was just being lazy.

  11. Nice post, Linda. I like characters that are complex–perhaps that’s why so many like the show Breaking Bad. The characters are incredibly complex and, while they are doing horrible things, we understand why (sort of). That’s got to be so difficult to write!

  12. I’m working to expand a villain now, and I really, REALLY love him. I used to love to play bad characters on stage, too. Because, wow, I could do really awful things with NO CONSEQUENCES WHATSOEVER…….

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