By Reece Hirsch
When I write a character that might be considered a villain or antagonist, I like to think that he or she isn’t necessarily “bad.” Instead, they’re just the hero or heroine of a different story. To my way of thinking, the world view of that story may be selfish, greedy, sociopathic or even psychotic, but it should be understandable and relatable – even if we’re relating to our darker impulses.
Some characters are crippled by guilt and remorse, and that can make for an interesting story. But, in my experience, most people (and most memorable villains) do not believe that they are bad or have done wrong. They have their reasons for doing the things they do, whether it’s robbing, cheating or killing. They find ways to live with themselves. And, while they may start out by justifying those actions with a rationalization that is so transparent that even they can see it, over time those rationalizations calcify into a belief system of sorts.
The lawyers that I write about are masters of argument and rationalization, so this goes double for them. Even if they behave despicably or criminally, they usually can find a justification. As one character in THE INSIDER put it: “It just came down to a choice between him or me, and I chose me.”
In Mystic River, one of my favorite books, Dennis Lehane does a masterful job of taking an initially sympathetic character, a protagonist, and allowing the reader to slowly follow him over to the dark side. I am now going to engage in a SPOILER ALERT, but if you haven’t read Mystic River, then you should not be wasting your time on this blog post – you should leave now and go read Lehane’s masterpiece immediately.
When the realization comes for that character that he has crossed a line that he can’t uncross, he puts it this way:
“He left the window and splashed warm water on his face, then covered his cheeks and throat with shaving cream, and it occurred to him as he began to shave that he was evil. No big thing, really, no earth-shattering clang of bells erupting in his heart. Just that – an occurrence, a momentary realization that fell like gently grasping fingers through his chest.
So I am then.”
As Lehane demonstrates over the course of that novel, the difference between good and evil isn't a big thing -- it's a lot of little things.