Monday, February 18, 2013

Writing a Character's Dark Side

The dark side is not only for two-dimensional villains and vampires. It's part of everyone in real life who has lived more than a couple of years. To express that in a character—whether villain or hero—to tap into the power that comes from showing truths about the character's deepest self, and thereby creating a complex, conflicted character, is one of the biggest challenges writers face. Why? Well, there are probably lots of answers to that particular question, but I'm going to suggest that it's because our "deepest self," warts and all,  is something most people are uncomfortable examining, much less expressing for public consumption.

But most people aren't writers, you say. We writers examine these things.

Do we? Well, yes, with varying degrees of bravery and skin in the game. I'm just sayin . . . it ain't easy. But it's sure as heck worth it.

The most riveting characters in literature are the deeply conflicted ones—the ones who are driven to behave in certain ways that go against the grain of what they know to be upright and good, for example. Anti-heroes are classic examples of that type of inner conflict. Think Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind and Rick of Rick's CafĂ© Americain in Casablanca. 

At least Scarlett and Rick get a chance for redemption at the end of their stories. But then there's the even more complex character, the dark tragic hero who honest-to-god believes himself to be someone who strives to do what's noble (and makes sure the world sees him that way), but is, in fact, driven by lower orders of need and desire. Dick Diver, the brilliant young psychiatrist in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, is such a hero. The tragedy is not that he sacrifices himself for truth or right (as a more conventional hero might), but that he doesn't, in the end, actually see his own truth (although the perceptive reader does). His sacrifice is not heroic, after all. He turns out to be a lost soul and doesn't know it. He just knows things didn't work out for him.

Of course, the same is true of villains—the most memorable, impactful ones are the most complex and conflicted.

What is it, as a general rule, that gives these complex heroes and villains their dark side? If we can answer that question, we can learn how to add dimension and power to all our characters.

We have to consider not only whatever happened in the person's lifetime that affected them—whether they grew up in wealth or poverty, privilege or deprivation, or experienced a broken heart, violence or emotional trauma, for example—but intrinsic character, or personality, as well. It's not as if we can say that two plus two always equals four, because when it comes to character, that is just not true.

What does seem to be true, whatever the character or personality, is that darkness is most often the result of betrayal (large or small).

In simpler characters the betrayal may be represented as entirely external (the character's true love is killed in a senseless act of violence, e.g.), and his response is direct and proportional (he sets off on a path of bloody revenge).

In more complex characters it's never that simple. It just about always comes down to a powerful form of self-betrayal at a deep, soul level. Once that happens, the odds of being able to turn back are practically nil. I think that if we focus on what that involves, we can get to the source of how to write complex, conflicted, dark characters.

Life is messy. No one can go through it without doing some damage to their heart and values unless they live in a bubble. When the damage comes from the usual, average-impact behaviors of unhealthy selfishness or overweening need, it can usually be mended, leaving only slight scars that have the effect of toughening and strengthening the core with their mending. But people can also make choices that do insidious lasting damage to their deepest selves, and that is what our dark, conflicted characters have done.

There's something our character wants, something he desperately needs. When he sees the opportunity to grasp it he does so, and damn the consequences. Maybe it's love at any cost, or revenge, or power. Maybe it's safety, which he can get by remaining silent in a volatile situation. Maybe it's to be revered by others. We all want and need something like these things sometime. It's part of being human. But our character's need is ramped up. The stakes are high. When he reaches out to grasp what he wants, there's a little voice telling him that there has to be a better way—it is wrong to get it this way. That voice comes from his deepest self, but it is silenced by the need. The character takes what he needs in spite of the warning from deep within.

A deeply conflicted character can only exist in someone who is aware of and in touch with his deepest self and knows the purity that existed there, then behaves in a way that is contradictory to that knowledge. That is self-betrayal. And you know it's going to come back to bite. A shadow begins to grow.

VoilĂ . The inner conflict. The complexity. The dark side.

Who are your favorite dark heroes or villains in literature?


24 comments:

  1. Great tips. So agree that life is messy and it's great to use this concept in creating our characters, especially the darker ones. They have to be as complex as our main characters.

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  2. Linda, this is fabulous. I think we like the conflicted and tormented characters because we can all empathize,(depending upon degree) and hate, (depending upon degree)... what happens is they should create emotion. Of course we're not villains (most of us)... But we are filled with the reality of life. It's often not pretty. The dark side is buried deep within. Things we want to hide. Those are the things that can bring reality to our crazies.

    I also think the characters we love to hate... like Hannibal Lecter... are fascinating because of the conflict in character traits. Brilliant and eating people is such a complete conflict of what we would believe.

    Okay... back to creating characters that are deep. Sometimes if we're afraid to go within, we can go to the library. There are some fascinating studies on the disturbed. If you don't want to go into your brain, go into another.

    I love your tips! Your posts always inspire!

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    1. That's an excellent observation, Karlene: "things we want to hide are the things that can bring reality to our crazies." Perfect, because yes, we recognize those things at an empathetic level. Thanks!

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  3. Ooh, you have me thinking about the character in my next book now. Thanks Linda.

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    1. You're welcome, Lydia! How exciting that you're on to your next book!

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  4. This is excellent, and so timely! We're chatting about antagonists tonight on the WritersRoad. Thank you for giving me so much to think about for the chat!

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    1. You're so welcome, Heather. It's such a chewy subject, isn't it? I'll try to drop in for the chat.

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  5. I like dark people and I write about them. Trouble is, I get feedback that they're so dark they're hard to relate to. Hmmm, wonder what that says about me, LOL!

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    1. I think it says you know a lot about serious darkness. You might have to ramp up the strong positives for these same folks in your books to balance things out so people will accept the darkness. A trope of fiction :)

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  6. Great post, Linda! Needed to see this so I popped over. Hi!

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    1. So nice to see you, Lorelei! I'll pop over to your blog to see what you're up to :)

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  7. Great post! There's nothing quite like a powerful cognitive dissonance within the viewpoint character that's our avatar in a storyworld...

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    1. It IS cognitive dissonance, Veronica--that's exactly what happens. Who among us can't relate to that?

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  8. "When he reaches out to grasp what he wants, there's a little voice telling him that there has to be a better way—it is wrong to get it this way. That voice comes from his deepest self, but it is silenced by the need. The character takes what he needs in spite of the warning from deep within."

    Aha! Self-awareness - on the part of the dark character. I think that's what keeps me going back to Dexter, that the show uses voice over (and other tricks) to give us that dialogue inside his head.

    Dexter is essentially first person pov, single character. As readers/viewers we are not given an alternative - either we like him and his story, or we don't watch that show (my family thinks I'm nuts).

    I'm writing a three main character novel, third person (close) pov, and have given part of myself to the dark character. I find her fascinating, in the sense of watching a train wreck, but your words have me toying with the idea of having her realize that what she wants is wrong, and do it anyway.

    Right now her attitude is "Someone is going to get this - why NOT me?" which is a very reasonable attitude: she wants it, someone IS going to get it, and there is no reason (she thinks) why it shouldn't be her. The example I see of this in TV is shows like The Bachelor - where each of the contestants must be thinking the same thing: Why NOT me?

    But there is only one winner, and there are subtleties in the thing my character wants that she doesn't understand, very good reasons in the story why she would be a very bad person to get what she wants - she wouldn't be able to appreciate it or keep it, and would do a lot of damage in the process, some of it even to herself.

    Thanks for the morning thought starter.

    ABE

    PS Veronica Sicoe's comment (above) - 'powerful cognitive dissonance' - goes into my mental list of how to describe this. Well phrased.

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    1. She sounds like an interesting character, ABE. Her reasoning reminds me of the classic bad actor rationale in corporations: SOMEBODY's going to strip those hills for the wood/sell cigarettes to teens/create more toxic waste that can't be safely disposed of in order to make a profit, why shouldn't it be us? It's gonna happen anyway. If the damage she does is significant, then making her aware of it and conflicted will make her compelling as a character.

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  9. Fantastic post! Im going to add this for our Saturday round-up and adding your feed to my collection. I'm so happy to have discovered this blog.

    Especially love this:

    A deeply conflicted character can only exist in someone who is aware of and in touch with his deepest self and knows the purity that existed there, then behaves in a way that is contradictory to that knowledge. That is self-betrayal. And you know it's going to come back to bite. A shadow begins to grow.


    It is so true! And I love the idea of the shadow. I'm working with a character like this now, and you just made me look at her in a brand new way :) thank you!

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    1. Thank you, Martina. I'm so glad it resonated with your character. I'll head over to check out your site.

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  10. Excellent. Unusual perspective but one absolutely true to life. I'm sharing on facebook and twitter. Julia Robb

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    1. Thank you, Julia. Glad it works for you!

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  11. I always have the best time writing the conflicted and less than heroic characters. I find TV's nightime soap Revenge a compelling guilty-pleasure for that reason. You root for the heroine, even though she's doing despicable things.

    I'm not sure Scarlett O'Hara is actually redeemed. I've read various arguments about this. One that made sense to me is that actually, Rhett is the hero. He's the one who is transformed. Scarlett never learns anything. That may be a little harsh. But it's food for thought.

    Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Anne. So interesting you say that about Scarlett. I was just having second thoughts about it this morning when I reread my post, as a picture of Vivien Leigh as the movie-version Scarlett flashed through my mind. She really didn't seem to transform. She did have to grow up quite a bit to become a responsible landowner, though. Stomping her pretty little foot every so prettily just didn't work any more to get the financial support she needed. Food for thought, indeed. hmmmm.
      I hear Revenge is an excellent guilty pleasure. Sounds worth a look.

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  12. I know I'm a bit late here, but this was just what I needed to read today!

    Your remarks on self betrayal immediately made me think of Raskalnikov in Crime and Punishment. I cringed every time he made a decision but I couldn't put the book down!

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  13. Thanks very much for this post. I'm a writing teacher in the Netherlands leaning on Laurie Hutzlers toolbook to create characters, and I was wondering what the ways are to get a character to his or her dark site. I've learned a lot bij reading your post! Thanks. Simone

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