Monday, December 17, 2012

No Big Thing

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. 


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Mystic River is an excellent example!

Catriona McPherson said...

I just read it a couple of weeks ago. (Under a rock, that's where.) And yes, the journey of that character was amazing to read - inevitable-seeming after the fact although couldn't have been guessed at in the beginning. Tell you what, though, it's a terrible book to read just before you start rolling your own mishapen little first draft up the foothills.

Reece said...

Thanks, Sue Ann! Writing this post made me want to reread that one.

Catriona - I know exactly what you mean. They say reading great books is supposed to make you a better writer, but Lehane sets the bar uncomfortably high with that book. Another aspect to the ending that I really loved (SECOND SPOILER ALERT!) was when Jimmy realizes that his wife actually fell in love with the bad guy in him, so it was sort of a double-reveal.