- Writer Unboxed - https://writerunboxed.com -

Dehumanization in Fiction


My favorite film is Shawshank Redemption, an adaptation by Frank Darabont of a novelette by Stephen King. The story perfectly hits my trigger spot, injustice, and my sweet spot, hope, and its resolution feels more satisfying to me than any other movie on the planet. So even though you can find it on television frequently – I’m often convinced it runs there on a 24-hour loop – we recently donated our standard DVD (which was an upgrade from an original VHS tape) and purchased the updated DVD to have access to extra features.

As always, the story of the story creates insights for writers. But what caught me up, made me hit pause and ponder, was an interview clip with actor Clancy Brown, who played Captain Hadley. For anyone has hasn’t seen the movie, Hadley is a horrible human being, ready to beat the hell out of anyone, at any time, for any infraction. In the extra features, actor Brown talked about an offer that had been made to him early on to interview former prison guards in order to get into character. He declined. His character was simply so bad that he didn’t want to pin inspiration for him on any living human. It was something he struggled with initially as an actor: Who was this Hadley, and why was he so evil? How could he connect with that to play the character authentically?

Here’s what got me. Bob Gunton, who played fellow horror-show human, Warden Norton, told him… Well, why not listen for yourself? My video clip of the video is just below, which I’m hoping is legal as this is being shared for the sake of education.

Interesting thoughts, no? Narrative as memory play, skewed purposefully to one side because the point-of-view character thinks about another character in black-and-white terms, therefore that character can be portrayed as black and white, and/or that character is simply the personification of something that lacks dimension in the rendering of a story–like a corrupt prison system. It’s a flip on the more usual (for me) translation of place coming across as character in a story.

Can books get away with these tricks–the dehumanization of a person so that person can stand for a no-shades-of-gray-here concept like corruption, exploitation and barbarism? I’m not sure. King’s novelette didn’t play the same as Darabont’s adaptation in a number of important ways (e.g. There were three wardens in King’s story, and Hadley had a much lesser role in King’s original version). But I think it’s there, thematically, just the same. (Consider how Andy Dufresne did his secret work behind iconic pinup posters of the time–representing both idealized womanly perfection and the hope, or folly, of freedom.)


I was musing these ideas when I read about North Korea seeking help after a flood, and I’ll admit that one of my first thoughts was something like, ‘oh, so now you want our help.’ Then I caught myself up. I was doing it, making people–real people in real crisis–stand in for a place I’d come to associate with a great many negative thoughts. It’s what war-time soldiers must do, what some world leaders do, too, every day.

It made me wonder if stories–whether in books or movies–make it easier to dehumanize people in general, and if that’s something we should contemplate when drawing characters. Or if we shouldn’t worry at all, because art is art is art, and Shawshank is pretty damned perfect as it is. I certainly wouldn’t change a single syllable of that screenplay.

What do you think? Can stories be authentic with dehumanizing black-and-white characters? Should it matter; is art is art is art? What, if anything, do we owe our readers?

About Therese Walsh [1]

Therese Walsh (she/her) co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [2], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [3] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [4], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [5] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [6] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [7]). Learn more on her website [8].