Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Character Development: Villains versus Heroes

When you read Paradise Lost, John Milton's epic poem about the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, who are you rooting for? The poet was certainly on the side of the Angels. And we should be, too. But despite Milton's best efforts, the most memorable character in the story--the one who commands your attention--who fascinates you--isn't Adam or Eve or the Messiah. It's the Devil, the Fallen Angel.
At first, he's the star of the show in Heaven--the light-bearer--Lucifer. However, he has a dark side--too much pride. And when he leads a rebellion against God, he is banished forever to Hell. He has become Satan, the personification of evil.
And what does he say about his new home? "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."
In another classic work, Moby Dick, it's hard to decide whether Captain Ahab is the hero of the novel, or the villain. Like Lucifer, Ahab is driven by pride to rebel against Fate, against God--in the monstrous form of the White Whale. Ahab seems to be saying, "Better to reign on the Pequod than serve in Heaven." And isn't he the most fascinating character in the book? (Unless you're really into whales.)
Why is it that we are often attracted to the villains in books, movies, plays, although we don't like to admit it? And more important, as an author of fiction, how should you take advantage of that tendency?
The fact is, most of us aren't heroes--pure, noble and brave. So it's a lot easier for us to identify with a character like us, who has flaws, weaknesses, issues. When Satan says he'd rather start a business of his own than take orders from someone else, we get the message. We know the feeling. When Ahab defies his Fate, we can share his anger, if not his ecological recklessness. Our lives may not be as difficult as his, but we've got problems of our own.
When you're working on a short story or a novel, keep that in mind. Your characters will be more believable--more human--if they are a mixture of good and bad, strong and weak, angel and devil. Because that's true of all of us. The real world is complicated. Morality isn't a straitjacket: it's a day-to-day struggle. You win some, you lose some. Your characters--heroes, villains and everyone in between--should reflect that reality.
The French author, Albert Camus, used the ancient Greek "Myth of Sisyphus" to describe the constant struggle to live a good, meaningful life. After his death, Sisyphus, a greedy king, was condemned to push a huge boulder up a steep hill in Hades. Every time he reached the top of the hill, the boulder rolled back to the bottom and he had to start over. Eternal frustration? Not to Camus. He believed that as we try to live a meaningful life, we may never arrive at the top of the hill--the perfect answer--but it's the unyielding effort--the search itself--that gives the true meaning to our lives.

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