The only etchings I’ve seen have been behind glass
And the closest I’ve been to a bar is at ballet class*
Last week Kathryn Craft and Don Maass both addressed particular issues related to portraying protagonists—Kathryn pointing out the essential role of willfulness, and Don exploring the crucial role of shame in defining what the character fears and what it will take to overcome it.
I’m going to turn the focus around on the character I call the Opponent, but others call the Nemesis, the Antagonist, the Adversary, or the Villain. (Some resist this terminology. The crime writer Les Edgerton rejects it outright, preferring instead Main Character #1 and Main Character #2, an approach I actually like a lot.)
I define this character as the one with the power, the will, and the desire to deny, destroy, or claim for himself what the Protagonist wants.
This can be as benign as a reluctant love interest, or a competitor for the same job. Even when the character commits genuinely bad acts, he may believe himself justified, whether out of desperation for a better course, out of devotion to a cause considered worthy or even noble, or some other belief that “the ends justify the means.” (Of course, these justifications may mask a deeper, truly insidious purpose, but I’ll leave that to another post.)
I’m going to focus here on something far more blatantly malevolent, and discuss those characters who genuinely long for harm, cruelty, destruction, chaos, etc., whether that seems to be the only way to escape some profound sense of affliction, to claim power in the only way that feels truly significant and meaningful—or simply because they take pleasure in the misery of others.
You know. Like Captain Hook.
Yearning and Wickedness
I want to be nasty, I want to be cruel
I want to be daring, I want to shoot pool
As most of you who follow my postings know, the central issue I explore with my characters is their Yearning—their “dream of life,” i.e., the kind of person they want to be, the way of life they hope to live.
This encompasses identity, morality, and interpersonal relationships, as well as the character’s tribe (the group to which she feels a unique and compelling bond) and sense of home (the place where she believes she belongs).
It is sometimes easy to fall into the trap of believing that, in their original, unpolluted essence, all Yearnings involve a greater largeness of heart, generosity of spirit, or some other enhancement of virtue: courage, honesty, compassion, forbearance.
This is a natural extension of the psychoanalytic ideal of individuation, which presupposes an instinctive drive to integration, wholeness, and health.
As gratifying or reassuring as it might be to believe to interpret one’s Yearning only in its most positive light, the truth is a harsh mistress. Not everyone wishes to sing in the choir.
This is not the place to explore the question, Why Does Evil Exist? It’s an exhaustive issue, studied for centuries, with each generation offering new insights.
But to the extent the question is relevant to characterization, we need to at least ask why certain characters not only commit crimes and do harm, but strive for it, derive pleasure from it—even fashion their identities around it.