Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Making A Bad Guy Bearable

In my novel, one of the main characters is bad. Not in a nuanced, complex, a-few-nice-traits-that-are-difficult-to-reconcile-with-the-rest-of-his-life kind of way. He's just a monster, who happens to look like the rest of us (think Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley). No matter how I try I can't find any softer qualities that might make him multi-faceted or interesting. He just goes after what he wants and won't stop for anything or anyone.

He's only part of the story, but I'm wrestling with how to write him so that he's at least interesting enough to keep the story moving. I'm realizing that this is one of the challenges of writing fiction: As the author, I know that the characters around him either don't know he's a dangerously self-centered creep, or are choosing for their own reasons not to notice. But they don't know. I feel like a spectator, wondering how the story will unfold, even though I've already laid out the major plot points. And every word I write about this guy gives me the shivers.

This is where you come in: I need inspiration for how to do this well! Can you think of books or movies you really love where one character is just awful? Where even the seemingly good things s/he might say or do are tinged with ulterior motive?


ficwriter said...

Tom Perrotta brilliantly evoked sympathy for the pedophile sex offender, Ronnie, in Little Children. Just the thought of him still gives me the creeps. Yet, I felt sorry for him. How did Perrotta do it? Well, Ronnie's mother loved him, and he loved his mother. And the pedophile was portrayed as victim more than perpetrator of his own demons.

Joan Ball said...

In his book "The People of the Lie" M. Scott Peck describes a couple whose son he treated for depression as "evil". He was a psychiatrist, so this was not a statement he made lightly.

According to Peck, they were a nice looking couple who presented themselves as concerned about the welfare of their son who was having a breakdown. As he worked with the boy one-on-one, he learned that the boy's brother had shot himself the previous year. Further conversations led to questions about the parents and a gift they had given the surviving son the Christmas after his brother had died -- a gun. Peck was shocked when the boy reported that his parents had given him a gun just months after his brother had taken his own life. The 16 year-old replied, they didn't give me A gun, they gave me THE gun. The one his brother had used to kill himself.

This anecdote was non-fiction, but chilling. This paradoxical version of evil as a coldness/lack of love housed in a woman in a pill-box hat and her husband in a sensible suit, is described in detail by Peck in the book and might be quite helpful to you as you develop this character.

LEstes65 said...

I guess it depends on whether you'll give us enough of his back story to explain any of his issues. Like, in Thomas Harris' book 'Red Dragon', he gets into the abusive background of the killer, Francis Dolarhyde. He's still a horrid monster. But when the murderer befriends a blind girl, he shows her a human side that he never allows for his victims. It's quite a nifty dichotomy that I think is portrayed better in the 1986 movie 'Manhunter' than in the 2002 remake 'Red Dragon'. Just a thought.

Rachael said...

I think Marian Keyes did a great job in her book "That Charming Man" describing an incredibly handsome, charming (as the title states) man who is, in reality, abusive and abhorrent. You can see how the women in the book fell for him but yet you as the reader want to scream "NO - stay away! He's awful!"

kim said...

I brief study on non-violent psychopaths should do it. Check out "Without Conscience" by Robert Hare. They are often charming, seductive, possess an innocence, etc.,...but watch out...they are the among the most toxic! And the frustrating part is most people can't see their true colors and adore them--that is, until they leave a wake of destruction behind them.