“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?
In 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.