When you’re a kid, the world is so much simpler. It’s black and white. Yin and Yang, baby. Good and bad, there is no middle.
No one tells you any different when you’re a kid. No one tells you that the bad guys have motivations outside of wanting to rule the world just to rule it. Because why? You’re a kid. You don’t need to understand things like motivation. Plus, it makes the story line a lot simpler if the bad guy just wants to rule the world. It’s easier that way.
Ratings, baby. It’s all about the ratings.
Now, granted, some shows are much more complex. They are few and far between. MY LITTLE PONY on the HUB, GARGOYLES being the biggest one when I was a kid. And also AVATAR which, aside from TMNT, is the only good show Nickelodeon has to its name.
Teen Nick just needs to die.
Characters are neither all good or all bad. That was a hard lesson for me to learn. Happily, I’m still learning, but it took a while for the lesson to sink in. Dave and Brion (and Cherie Priest!) over at the Roundtable Podcast told me over a year ago, and a few other friends of mine have tried to drill the lesson into my head with various edits and blunt objects. But, I’m one of those people that learns by experience, and experience with Annie has taught me that characters are neither good nor bad. Characters have distinct traits than can be classified as good or bad. We classify people as such. Hannibal Lecter is a perfect example of this.
Hannibal Lecter, as written, is a pure sociopath. There is no one like him. There never will be again. Hannibal Lecter has killed his patients, philharmonic symphony musicians, mortally wounded Will Graham and played with Clarice Starling like she was a well-tuned violin. Why?
Because he can.
According to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Illness) also known as the
‘Psychologist’s Bible’, Sociopathy comes under the heading of Anti-social Personality Disorder and is defined* as such:
Antisocial personality disorder is a mental health condition in which a person has a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others. This behavior is often criminal.
There is more to it, a LOT more, but we aren’t in a psychology class. I recommend taking them (once finished with my business degree, I might go back and pursue a Master’s in Psychology), but that’s beside the point. What you DO need to know is that anti-social personality disorder is usually brought upon by a lack of bonding with the primary caretaker, this causes a whole mess of problems for the kid and can lead to criminal behaviour. In Hannibal’s case- insofar as I understand it-his trauma was brought on by men eating his little sister Mischa and then feeding her to him. This was, of course, WWII and the men were starving. They had also taken over a house on Hannibal’s father’s property and kept Hannibal alive to be consumed later. Now, knowing that and knowing what Hannibal does later in life -playing with lives, killing because he finds offence, lack of remorse, masquerading as a psychologist-is he a bad man?
He is a Doctor. An M.D. as well as a psychologist. He did save lives.
Does that redeem him for killing and eating people?
The comments section is open.
Good characters are neither bad nor good. Well written characters react to their situations and can make good or bad decisions. The decisions then shape them into good or bad. I won’t say that people are born good or bad. They are. Seriously.
Look up any serial killer/mass murderer/cult leader and you’ll see the same personality traits (or rather lack thereof) show up.
This lesson came to me with editing Annie. I had a character who was supposed to be the ‘bad guy’. The slave driver, the murderer, the woman beater. He was easy to write because I already detested him. Easier to write made easier because of the zombie apocalypse that is currently invading Pleasant, Oklahoma. Bad people just get worse with bad things, right?
Needless to say, my slave driver turned into a copper and this copper is generally a good guy who has a few flaws, but nothing that would make him into the terrible person I originally thought him out to be. Now, is that going to change? Yes. Desperate times call for good people to make desperate calls, and maybe some people get hurt in the middle of it. Maybe they don’t. We’ll see. Interesting too, is one of the female characters originally conceived as a ‘mother’ to Annie. There was a good character turned if not bad, then supremely annoying with very rigid standards and a view of the world that will not budge for anything. Even zombies.
Once your characters take on a life of their own, once you’ve tuned into them and start listening to what they have to say, and learn how they (not you!) react to situations and others, then and only then can you call them ‘well-written.’
If they’re real to you, they’re real to your readers.
* the term defined is used loosely in the context of this post. For a more thorough understanding of Antisocial Personality Disorder the author recommends you look into the DSM-V, the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Illness for more information. This article is neither meant to diagnose or treat any mental disorder, merely to use for associative, explanatory, and allegorical means. And to open the table for discussion. If you are worried about your state of mind or that of a friend’s, please STOP READING IMMEDIATELY and seek proper medical attention.