“The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” C. S. Lewis.
Fanatics make terrific villains, whether it’s an animal activist destroying labs where lifesaving drugs are developed, the mother who ruins her children’s lives in order to save their souls, or a terrorist blowing up civilians to trigger the holy war. Because fanatics are obsessed with a single idea, they’re impossible to reason with. They’ll cling to their idea regardless of evidence or argument. They’re often blind to the damage they cause as well, continuing to destroy the lives around them with impunity because, as Lewis says, their hearts are pure.
Yet this sincerity makes them easy to humanize. Psychopaths, by contrast, don’t feel that the people they hurt are really people, which makes them less than human themselves. It can be frightening to watch a character fall into the hands of a serial killer, say, but in some ways it’s no more emotionally engaging than if the character is attacked by a wolf.
Fanatics, though, are generally working for what they see as the greater good. And the ends they’re fighting for aren’t necessarily bad things. Animal testing is often cruel. Everyone wants the best for their children. And as John LeCarre proved in The Little Drummer Girl, readers can even be brought to understand a terrorist’s aims.
Giving your readers a sympathetic heavy draws them more firmly into your story. Both sides of your conflict become human. And while readers may still want your main character to win, they’ll feel pity for your villain, giving the conflict a new emotional level. Javert, who dogs Jean Valjean out of a fanatical devotion to the rule of law, is in the end more tragic than evil. Readers feel sorry for him when he throws himself into the Seine.
But Fanatics are easy to get wrong. [Read more…]