Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Love Your Villain As Yourself

It's become the fashion, among authors in Christian circles, to say, "I'm not a Christian Writer; I'm a writer who is a Christian." There's good enough reason for this: to pin the label on an author changes the way people view his book. Correctly or not, it alters expectations. In some ways it raises them: this book will likely uphold Christian Values. In other ways, it lowers them: the writing will likely display weaknesses common to Christian fiction. One can draw a short line from the first expectation to the second: the felt obligation to present a positive witness so easily stifles a writer's abilily to paint the darkness dark, to draw three dimensional heroes with real faults and three dimensional villains with real virtues.

But I set myself one rule when I first began to write fiction, that actually improved my writing, though my purpose at first had more to do with behaving Christianly toward my readers. Or rather, toward my reader: at first, I thought only of the one woman whose story had provided the outline for Dara, my main character in To Dance In the Desert. Would this woman recognize herself in Dara? And if so, would she feel that I'd treated her badly, by misjudging her motivations, or minimizing the experiences that had led her to act as she had done?

As I progressed, I realized that Dara had changed enough in the writing that the woman on whom she was based would never recognize herself in the story, but by this time I understood that other woman or men might well see themselves in my characters. When I held that mirror up to show them their faces, I wanted to do it kindly, with love.

That went for Finis too, that legalistic, worst-nightmare of a self-help preacher. If some minister heard his own voice in the cadence of Finis' sales pitch, he must sense the same understanding and grace that each one of us needs.

This morning I discussed with a friend the rare insight a parent has into the core personality of her grown child, because she was there early to see what caused him joy, what made his eyes tear and his shoulders curl in around his heart.

I believe we should have that same insight into our characters - especially the less positive ones. Not only does that uphold the golden rule, but it rounds out the writing as well, adds a complexity that both rings true and offers insight to the reader.

To illustrate, here is a picture that has fascinated and troubled me since I first saw it several years ago. A beautiful, sweet-faced boy, who loved to play cowboys and Indians, whose childhood ambition was to be a priest. What was his name? Adolf Hitler.

What happened to this child? What was he thinking, as the photographer took his picture? What was done to him as he grew, and why did it affect him one way, and not another?

We all come out of the box as children, beautiful, with joys and vulnerabilities. To quote Marcus Zusak in The Book Thief, "I am haunted by humans."

Please Lord, let my readers be, as well.


emma said...

Thank you for this. The photo of Adolf as an infant is jarring. I am director of a non-profit creative writing program here in Memphis TN, and the kids can be (as kids everywhere can be) rude, boastful and dismissive to each other. The most important thing I tell our volunteers is that every single one of our participants, mentors and students alike, were once cherished and loved little infants filled with hope and dreams of the adults who cared for them. We are to treat them that way no matter what they do. Every day presents its own difficulty in doing so, and we persevere!

Dina Sleiman said...

Wonderful article! I think I've done a decent job of this in my writing, but I'm going to make this a rule for myself now.

heavenlygurl said...

In my novel, the protagonist is a good guy turned despicably evil. I sometimes shutter at his thoughts, recoil from his awfulness... fearing I'll end up like Heath Ledger, who in my estimation, went into the dark side, never to return. That's silly... isn't it?!

You're right tho, there is a fine line; a way to make this one as strong as he wants to be; maybe by allowing myself to fully hate his actions.

Thanks for forcing these thoughts from the back of mind so I can bathe them in prayer...

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I heard a speaker once say that we shouldn't soft-pedal evil in our writing. It only serves to magnify the overcoming goodness of God by comparison. Maybe we draw back because we identify with the dark side of the villains just enough to touch that point of humanness in them and think "there, but for the grace of God, go I."

Nicole said...

There's a razor thin line here. A beautiful infant yet born with a sin nature. All the nurturing and instruction by loving parents and wham! they embrace the devil's serenade. Why?! We all ask and mourn the results. The sin nature. The freedom of choice.

What is a sociopath but the evidence of a sin nature gone completely awry? Yet: woe to those who call evil good and good evil.

Laser fine line.

Anonymous said...

But I don't want to love my villain. Because he's big and bad and stinky and...and...a little like me. I'm not big, bad and stinky. But I am selfish and temperamental and grumpy sometimes.

Thank you for reminding me to love my villain. Because, at one point, there were a few people who loved him (in my novel). And there are many people who love me despite my villainous moments.

Zan Marie said...

Great post!I agree with Debbie, we can't soft pedal evil or the story lacks credibility. The success of our characters demands true challenges. OUr characters must have full dimensions or our stories fall flat.

As a history teacher, I always emphasized Hitler's origins and desires that were so horribly twisted by the events of his young life. What a shame.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Ah villains, treat them with respect and detail because without them we have no conflict and no story. Try writing about life after the rapture when everything is glorious and resolved. Not the kind of excitement people are looking to read about on this side.
I'm not a believer in sweet infant innocence. Think of Jacob grabbing Esau's heel on the way out. His character was well defined in utero. Fortunately, redemption starts even earlier.
A convincing villain must have the possibility of her redemption presented early in the story; the hope hooks the reader whether or not it is ultimately fulfilled. Even better are the possible redemption and the possible complete destruction seesawing throughout the story.

Kathleen Popa said...

Emma, a non-profit creative writing program sounds wonderful. And I love what yoiu tell your kids. Thank you, THANK YOU for persevering. The future will be a better place because of what you do.

Dina, bless your little nose-pierced soul. I know you'll continue to blow expectations out the door. (In a good way!)

Kathleen Popa said...

heavenlygurl, writing can take you into some dark places - especially since, in my opinion, you must become your character, write from inside her internal experience of external events. Do any less, and you will trivialize her story, and that is not respectful. I don't know about Heath Ledger, but it may be that we believers have an advantage in this, because Jesus promised to walk with us in the valley of the shadow of death.

Debbie, yes - there but for the grace of God. But look at the hope inherant in the willingness to look another's darkness in the eye. We only dare not look if that person is beyond hope. To seek to understand another's story is to believe in redemption.

Kathleen Popa said...

Nicole, for what it's worth, I think Hitler's father was less than nurturing. Many parents are, and their children do not all grow up to be sociopaths.

Susie, it does take humility, doesn't it?

Kathleen Popa said...

Zan Marie, a history teacher! I love history teachers! And yes, what a shame. Because while all terrible childhoods do not produce sociopaths, it is true that our prisons are populated - much more than the general public - with victims of extreme physical, mental and sexual abuse. I often think of C.S. Lewis's illustration of the staircase. Examine a snapshot of a person on a staircase, and you may have trouble determining whether he is moving up or down. So a felon in prison may be fighting a more ardent battle with darkness than, say, a church deacon who grew up in a wonderful home. Only Jesus can sort it all out.

Henrietta, Jacob is an interesting study, isn't he? Because he wanted God enough to steal him, while Esau sold him for a bowl of soup. Hmmm...