Friday, January 20, 2012

What A Character!

I have a character in one of my books that’s mean as the devil. When I enter this particular manuscript in contests, there’s always a judge or two that tell me he’s too mean--on the basis of a chapter or two--and that I need to give him a redeeming quality. Sheesh, you’d think there’s no such thing as pure evil in this world! Just watch the news, will ya?

Okay, okay, I understand the need for redeeming qualities, though I’m not sure this guy has any. He just doesn’t have a good heart. I also understand that if more than one person tells you something, you need to pay attention. So, I’m paying attention.
As a test, I put myself in the heroine’s point of view and I watched him for awhile. He’s her brother--quite a bit older. He moved away long before she got out of high school. Lord only knows what he’s been doing. Up to no good, I can assure you. He’s popped back into her life because their mother just passed away so yeah, he’s there for his inheritance.

Anyway, I jumped into her skin, stood at her front door and watched him. He slouched off the front porch not using the steps, walked across the dead grass, stopped and looked around, eyeing the neighborhood as if he had big plans for it. I kept watching, wondering what he was thinking. He looked down and there beside the tire of his banged up car was a little orange and white cat. I was surprised when he scooped it up, held it to his cheek. I could hear him talking to it but I couldn’t make out what he said.
So the guy does have a heart, I thought.

Right before my eyes, he took the cat in one hand and threw it as hard and as far as he could. I’ve never been so shocked--I mean, me the writer, his creator, was stunned--on behalf of his sister too! Believe me when I say his actions put a little fear in his sister. I didn’t cause him to throw the cat; he did it all on his own.
I was searching for some goodness and I saw pure meanness. I told you this character is evil, useless as a human being, and he plans to get what he wants one way or another. What redeeming quality can I possibly give him?

Do you have any characters that are completely void of decency? Do you think it’s necessary that ALL cruel, hateful, evil characters have a redeeming quality? Teach me something about redeeming qualities and evil characters.


LD Masterson said...

I had a character who was completely evil in an earlier version of my WIP but I'm toning him down a little. Not exactly giving him redeeming qualities just having him hesitate a couple of times before doing the evil deed. Like there might have been something good in there once upon a time but he's long since buried it away.

Jan Rider Newman said...

No, I don't believe evil characters need redeeming qualities. I don't think that's the right way to put it. A guy who pets, then throws, a cat isn't going to have redeeming qualities. Something has squashed his humanity--or he was born without any like a sociopath. Hannibal Lector was a sociopath. He was charming, brilliant, and a fascinating conversationalist, but he had no redeeming qualities. He didn't let Clarice Starling live because he had a nice bone in his body. In fact, I think she's living on borrowed time. :) And then there's Norman Bates. Need I say more? So let your bad guy be a villain through and through, just make his villainy interesting and particular to him--like the thing with the cat.

Charles Gramlich said...

Personally, I like these kinds of characters. Not every single thing in writing has to be nuanced. There is a certain elegance to utter brutality, for example, which is a comment I had one of my villains make once upon a time to the hero.

Jess said...

LD - hesitation. Yeah, I like that word.

Jan - you ought to be teaching a fiction writing class at McNeese!

Charles - I like those kinds of characters too. Elegance, huh?

Li said...

I don't want a truly evil character to suddenly display a warm heart or heroism. Too "Disney". If I hate a character, if my blood pressure goes up by actions, then the writer is doing an excellent job IMHO.

Jan Rider Newman said...

Haha. No thanks!

Jess said...

Li - Good point. Thanks. And I just bought your Flash Fiction book.

Jan - you need to share your knowledge with someone other than me. :)

Sylvia Ney said...

Perhaps the redeeming quality is to show how he ended up this way. It didn't happen over night. Don't excuse the evil, but show what might have caused him to be this way - can the reader relate to that transformation? Understand how we might have ended up the same way if no one helped us?