Monday, April 18, 2011

Objectionable Characters Need Love, Too

Sometimes a villain just can't get a break.  All Snidely Whiplash wanted to do was tie Sweet Nell to the railroad tracks (because, apparently, that's what bad guys with curly mustaches do) and that dolt Dudley Do-Right kept interfering with his dastardly plans.

(Aaaah, satisfaction.  I've always wanted to use the word "dastardly" in a sentence.)

In a short, satiric cartoon, caricature works.

In a novel or movie, or even a work of non-fiction, a one-dimensional antagonist is unbelievable and boring.  (Check the reviews for the movie Dudley Do-Right with Brendan Fraser, if you doubt me,)

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Even Hitler had his good points. He was monogamous, a teetotaler, and a loving pet owner.

Up to a point.  Like others who loved Hitler, his dog Blondi did not come to a good end.

I'm not arguing that Hitler wasn't so terrible, okay?  I am saying that the bad guy isn't always seven feet tall, covered with rank hair, foaming at the mouth and easy to spot a football field away.

Sometimes it's only in retrospect that we realize a villain was a villain.  And we need to remember that villains are never villains in their own eyes.  They may do regrettable things, sure, but only if they conquer the world (or whatever their aspirations are) can they bring peace and security to everyone.  They're actually the good guys, doing it for you and me.  (Aka "the ends justify the means.")

The characters that are the most compelling are those who fully exhibit their humanity and vulnerability.  In Unbreakable by M. Night Shyamalan, even though it's based on cartoon superhero and villain themes, we see Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson) being born with too-fragile bones shattered by the ordeal of birth, watching wistfully at the other children on playgrounds he can never enter.  By the time we learn he's the bad guy, he's fully earned our sympathy.  We can despise what he's done, we can wish he'd used used his powers for good rather than evil, but we can see his logic, and still feel sorry for him despite all the horrific things he's done.  If there's a weakness in the script, it's that David Dunn (played by Bruce Willis) isn't nearly as interesting a character.

In many ways, Archie Bunker was a caricature, and  though his bigotry and ignorance was exaggerated, he had his soft spots.  He was clearly fond of Edith and Gloria, and although his logic was often warped, we sensed underneath it all Archie had a good heart and sense of fairness.

 He came to not only strike a chord of recognition in many (who among us didn't have an Archie Bunker among our fathers, grandfathers, and uncles?) but to demonstrate a  hope that love, and life experience, can change those who'd grown up learning their bigotry from their families of origin.

Can anyone ever forget the Sammy Davis Junior episode, where Archie's prejudice against Negroes and Jews ran smack into his celebrity worship?

The possibility of growth and change - the idea that the hero can be seduced to "the Dark Side," and that the villain can be redeemed in the end, is what makes a story great.  One of my favorite fantasy writers is Mercedes Lackey, partly because she's excellent at taking someone we loathe, at the beginning of a trilogy, and turning him into an ally we're rooting for by the end.

Unless your goal is to write a comic book, when you create an objectionable character, make sure s/he exhibits just that range of possibility.  (Just don't forget to give your good guys and girls range, too, or the baddies will steal the story.)

Who's your favorite objectionable objectionable character, & why?