06 August 2011

Characters you love to hate...or hate to love?

In my first completed manuscript (which is still growing mold in some long-forgotten drawer) my focus was so ferociously on the hero & heroine that the antagonists didn’t even make an appearance. They were just some faceless entities that had, for no apparent reason other than that They Were Evil, scarred the protagonists’ careers, psyches, and lives in general.

My second manuscript, Beaudry’s Ghost, had a bad guy on stage, even a scene from his POV. Confederate Lt. Zachariah Harris was one of those gleefully vicious, vindictive villains that seemed easy-—too frighteningly easy-—to write. (Did I just use three “v” words in a row??) All he had to do was wield sharp objects and attempt to kill the hero in the end.

Third time around with A Ghost of a Chance, I went with a more insidious villain with a subtler technique for working his evil-doings. A method that, in real life, too often sucks otherwise intelligent women into bad relationships. (Aside: How funny that in a book full of concepts like astral travel and all manner of psychic phenomena and sexy shapeshifters, one reviewer zeroed in on this villain as the least believable part of the story! But that’s fodder for another post.)

Creating three-dimensional heroes and heroines seems to come much easier to me. I’m still working on developing equally rounded villains. Not too long ago I was surprised to learn even the great Stephen Spielberg looks back at “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with pangs of regret. After completing his masterpiece “Schindler’s List”, he said something to the affect that in comparison, the bad guys in “Raiders” were ridiculously cartoonish, almost to the point of being an insult to those who suffered an died at the hands of the Nazis. By the time “Last Crusade” hit the screens, he’d given at least one or two of the Nazi characters some depth.

George Lucas, as well, spent three entire Star Wars movies making us fall in love with Anakin Skywalker before he vanished behind Darth Vader’s helmet. Did it change the way you watched Luke Skywalker's story arc? It did for me.

It’s fascinating to know that everyone, even the best of us, goes through a learning curve.

When I think about it, the stories I like best are the ones that make me ambivalent about wholeheartedly hating the villain. After all, no one is born inherently bad. At some point, he or she was someone’s child, grandchild, brother or sister…maybe even a mother or father. As a writer I think it’s my job to bring all those factors into play when creating a character, even the ones who—-for the purposes of that particular story—-were born to be bad. :)

Can you think of characters, evil or otherwise, in a book you’ve read or a movie you’ve seen that leave you waffling over whether to hate or love them? Or who came back as a hero in a sequel? Here are a couple of mine:
  • Jimmy Angelov in “Practical Magic” (okay, only because Goran Visnjic is freakin’ HOT!)
  • V in “V for Vendetta” – Hero or psychopath?
  • Ilsa in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”
  • Walter White in “Breaking Bad”
  • Severus Snape in the Harry Potter books/movies. Whose heart didn't break for him when we learned his real motivation? (Mine did, and Alan Rickman's on-screen interpretation brought tears to my eyes.)
Love to hear your thoughts!


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