When bad characters do bad things

Does anyone ever get tired of people who seem to think what you write is any reflection upon you, psychologically?

For instance, I like minor modes as a composer, especially with non-standard tunings, they have a complexity of sound that major intervals don’t have. (Like in Pythagorean tuning, minor thirds have an extra “crunch” to them that they don’t in equal temperament.) Invariably, someone will think I’m depressed, just because I prefer minor modes. The emotional content of my music has no bearing on my emotional state at the time of its composition.

I write prose for fun. It’s a good way to keep myself from being creatively constipated, since I’m not staking my professional reputation on it. Long story short, I’ve got my antagonist (who’s a really evil sociopath) needing to do some really awful stuff, but I know if I write it, somebody is going to think I’ve gone off the deep end. (It’s not going to be graphically described–one’s imagination filling in the blanks can be darker than anything actually “seen,” in my opinion.)

If I don’t need to feel “sad” to write “sad” music, I certainly don’t need to be a homicidal sociopath to write a sociopath. Argh.

I’ve encountered this with D&D, actually–though since I’ve just finished the first draft of my first novel, we’ll see if that translates to writing, as well. I once played a completely amoral character whose only obsession was with legality. Upon learning of a child slavery ring, he wanted to shut it down because it was illegal. One of my friends, another player, got mad at me, and not the character.

The only natural response was to take it a step further, of course, and make him more angry.

Yes, I’ve encountered people like this. They usually tend to be pretty close minded people anyway, so I just ignore them. Using their rationale, I assume they think most thriller writers are probably closet serial killers.

Yeah thanks…it just doesn’t seem right to have the one character hold back. It’s out of character if they don’t do awful things. Meh. Guess people will read into it what they want.

@ garpu - Thanks for voicing what I have been thinking for a few weeks. :smiley:

I have been endlessly starting my first novel for about 2 months now (you know the drill, plotting, outlines, re plotting, more outlines, new ideas, more plotting, more outlines… basically procrastinating so I don’t actually start writing) and one of my characters gets more and more evil with each iteration, going from being nasty to down right amoral sociopathic. Now I know that this is not a reflection on my mental state, but seriously why the heck do other people think that is it!?

I also have a strong female character in the book (using the term ‘book’ VERY loosely), so does that mean that I also want to be a woman?.. Or does that mean I want to be an amoral sociopathic transvestite? Its rather absurd and amusing at the same time.

Thankfully I am not trying to write a story about a talking horse… who knows what people would think of me then! :laughing:

Hmm, that’s a good point. Other characters don’t match you, so why do the extreme ones?

In my book, there’s a character that’s rather…seductive (she’s basically a succubus…it would be wrong for her not to act that way!). No doubt, somebody will accuse me of trying to live out some weird fantasy (because I must secretly dream of having my soul ripped out by a sex demon, I guess). Thanks for this. I now feel more confident showing my book to my family once I’m done editing it.

Of course your characters aren’t you. But there’s a partial truth buried in the assumption that they might be. I’ve observed in my own writing and that of others that all the most alive characters – whether evil, saintly or somewhere in-between – are part of their creators. Somewhere those creators have found those characters within themselves. Note the stress on “most alive”; of course you can create characters from people whom you’ve met or known about or imagined, but unless you’ve experienced some of the feelings they feel – perhaps in very different circumstances – it’s hard to make them seem real. Of course that doesn’t mean you have to be, say, a murderer to be a great crime-writer, but I think you do have to have access somewhere in your being to some of the murderer’s rage.

Currently there’s a very successful male author, some of whose stories are built around strong female characters. No one says that he “wants to be a woman”, but each of those characters has features recognisable to those who know him.

My protagonist is a 15 year old girl - I’m definitely not a 15 year old girl, nor do I have some secret fantasy to be one. I didn’t create her for shits-n-giggles, or the titillation of a male reader, but precisely because she is so different than me. Her character allows me to explore emotional states I hope to never encounter (nor would I wish upon on anyone else). I don’t think she reflects my emotional state at any particular time.

Isn’t good fiction about escapism? For both reader and writer, I think.

I don’t think a writer can ever get away from that. Everything we do is built upon our experiences, our journeys through life. Right down to the language we use. There are always facets of the writers personality woven into their prose - that’s a big part of what makes a writers ‘style’.

Hrm. My antagonist is a racist. She does the kind of sociopathic things because she thinks her species is the best the universe has to offer. (Yeah, it’s sci fi. she’s a human supremacist.) I’m basing her on extreme fundamentalists of my denomination, so we’re probably as polar opposite as we can get. She also had a run-in with an alien race that ended badly in half-remembered misunderstanding, which accounts for a lot of her hate. Would I have reacted the same way in such a situation? I’m not sure. I did spend a lot of time studying the kind of rhetoric her types use, and God only knows what people would piece together from my google history.

I do think there should be some sort of redemption for my protagonist, but I’m not quite sure in what form that should take. (And that’s another debate entirely.)

Of course, some writers are their own worst enemies on this front! They draw heavily on their own experiences in pulling together a character (eg same town, job, basic age, appearance etc, maybe even throwing in a couple of conversations that friends would recognise as being insprired by actual events) and then wondering why people make the leap to thinking that the extreme things and secret motives of the character are also aligned to the writers own!

And there is some merit to the argument that when you write about sick or disturbing events that irrespective of your own actual reaction to these sorts of things, you DID actually think of them. They ARE the product of your imagination.

The fact is - people (mostly) write what they like to read. Writing a book with gratuitous perversions in it does suggest that you like reading about gratuitous perverisons. That doesn’t mean that you want to do those acts, just that you like reading about them.

It’s the same with movies. Quentin Tarantino writes and directs movies with gratuitous violence in them (It’s even in the tagline for “True Romance”). Does this mean that he secretly wants to commit various acts of violence himself? No, of course not. No more than playing “Grand Theft Auto” makes me want to steal cars in real life. But is it a safe assumption that Quentin enjoys watching violent movies? Absolutely!

In other words, people will always draw conclusions about the author from the story. Some of those conclusions will miss the mark, some may be justified. The best bet, I would suggest, is to be aware of the potential impact of those conclusions. There is no “undo” button in real life.

Even some of the (supposedly) best of us do that. Stephen King with Misery, or Yann Martel’s ‘Self’, to pick two books poles apart. It’s forgiveable, I suppose. They (whoever they may be) say you should write about what you know…

Good point! Probably 50% of Stephen King’s books are about writers from Maine, and has John Grisham ever written a book that isn’t about someone who discovers that they don’t like being a lawyer after all?


Hmm. I wonder whether this may not just be forgivable, but absolutely necessary to their ability to write stories that the public buys.

Hell, Stephen King has placed himself in at least one book of which I know.

pigfender, you make a good point about writers writing what they like to read. I also find it irritating, in that if you don’t want people to think you “messed up”, you might have a hard time writing what you really want to write. Unless, of course, you write under a pseudonym and never let anyone you personally know that you’re an author.

So your characters reaction are based on your understanding of what “those other folks” would do. Since this understanding is based on your knowledge and vilification of those she represents, her entire persona and actions are very much based on you.

The part to point out here is that you are applying your view of “the bad guys” to this character, not making her a hero. You are embracing what you know of a perceived evil and extending it into the logical question and answer of “what would I do if I was this person in this position?”

So yes, these characters are very much part of who you are if in no other manner than as an expression of horror toward a political/religious/social position.

Well sorta. I’m taking a specific viewpoint (that I don’t personally hold) and extending it to its extreme, and wondering what the heck a person like that would do in a given situation. But that’s not the whole story, either. The protagonist is responsible for her actions and does make a lot of bad decisions. She didn’t have to choose the things she did, but in the back of her mind she really is trying to do the “right thing,” where that means being a complete evil bastard to a perceived threat. And if a person doesn’t think the threat is sentient, then slaughtering them is not any more “wrong” than using bug spray on flies. Or killing a cow for meat. She really crosses the line when she decides to–metaphorically speaking–pull the wings off the flies before getting bug spray.

I wouldn’t be tired of it. I would glory in it. As I say up-thread, they’re partly wrong. But evil will always find a readership. Many of the greatest writers in history have been at their greatest when writing about monsters in human form – and most particularly when making those monsters tragic, understandable and, yes, in some ways sympathetic.

Those writers have achieved that by finding some parts of those monstrous characteristics within themselves. If you can achieve that as a writer, you will find most other things relatively easy.


What you think “a person like that would do”. Meaning if you were that person with that thought process, what you would expect of yourself. Your evil character is you exploring the possible evil that you would be capable of. Some would say that this is a healthy activity to partake in. The writer exposes their ugly side for the read who may unwilling to admit that they wish they had the guts to explore their own consciousness in this manner. Said reader deflects their own lack of honesty to the writer with baseless accusations of latent evil tendencies.

At least I think that is where I left it with a psychiatrist acquaintance when folks suggested to him that I had issues.

Since you mention a background in a faith, consider that you may actually learn more about the evil that you would be capable of if your faith was not meaningful to you. My own exploration of the darker corners of myself scares the crap out of me. If, as some would tell us, faith has no positive influence in modern society my own depravity denied convinces my otherwise.

Sometimes an evil character is based on someone you knew, hated, and would like to drop off a bridge wearing concrete shoes. In an interview in the NY Times today, Lee Child gleefully admitted that his arch villains are based on three terrible bosses he had in his television news days.

So, is the baddy half Me and half an Other? I would say yes, for certain. The hate you feel for someone evil verifies that they got inside you and planted a seed. If we could be truly good and nonviolent, they wouldn’t reach us at all.

But there’s a paradox: if you ever have to boss someone, they hate you simply because you have authority over them. This happens no matter how generous and understanding you try to be. You earn more and have more power.

Another situation is that people hate you for your success. Write a best-selling or well-reviewed book, and see how many dear “friends” care to buy or praise it.