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Despicable characters- how to present them.


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I have a villain in my current story who is thoroughly despicable. I want to present him in such a way that the reader is revolted by him, but not so much that he is unrealistic or that goes over the line. I have an abuse scene which does not actually present the abuse, but skirts it closely enough that the reader knows what is going to happen, but isn't subjected to reading a graphic description of it.

Have any of you created a revolting character who committed atrocious acts? How do you create him? What do you do to avoid crossing the line, yet still present him in a way that will disgust the reader as they should be? Do you hope the context of the situation will be enough to convince the reader that you're not being gratuitous?

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I would guess there are many ways to accomplish that. I've had despicable characters, and what I tried to do was give them excuses to explain their behavior as plausible and rational to themselves. If it isn't really excusable to themselves, then I think it crosses the line into implausibility. But if it makes sense to them, I can see using that excuse and thinking they're justified.

C

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Here's how Faulkner did it: http://www6.semo.edu/cfs/TFN_online/hearn.htm.

Here's an excerpt from this essay:

"Consider the three short stories, "Barn Burning," "Dry September," and "A Rose For Emily," for instance. In "Barn Burning" a young son "betrays" his father for abstract principles. In "Dry September" a lonely woman indirectly causes the murder of a totally innocent man. In "A Rose for Emily" the main character murders her lover. Yet, through the use of metaphor and imagery, Faulkner manages to make the reader feel that these acts are totally understandable."

You might find this helpful.

Colin :icon_geek:

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In fact, isn't that the mark of a sociopath? Someone who believes that his every action is justified, and who believes in himself implicitly, while having no regard for morality, ethical behavior, or the rule of law.

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A despicable character doesn't have to be a sociopath. They can be rational and reasonable and even likeable, but despicable regardless. This is supported by synonyms of 'despicable':

contemptible, vile, worthless, detestable, disgusting, mean, low, degrading, base, wretched, disgraceful, disreputable, shameful, abominable, loathsome

Colin :icon_geek:

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Thank you, Colin! I appreciate the link. The essay is very helpful. In fact, I used "Dry September" in a college tern-paper about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 which started with a false claim of a sexual assault on a white woman by a black man. The resulting riot ended in 300 dead and the entire black district of Tulsa burned to the ground. I am ashamed to say I haven't read Faulkner since college, but the essay is wonderful for reminding me of things I had forgotten. I am going back now to rewrite several passages in the story in light of this. Thank you!

However, I now have to change the name of the despicable character. His first name WAS Colin! :redface:

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Nothing wrong with Colin. Good to have some balance. I"d say go for it.

C

Remember, I can see where you live (see my post "And you thought your cellphone camera was a piece of crap..."). :wave:

Colin :icon_geek:

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In fact, isn't that the mark of a sociopath? Someone who believes that his every action is justified, and who believes in himself implicitly, while having no regard for morality, ethical behavior, or the rule of law.

They've made a lot about the definition of sociopaths on the Showtime series Dexter, and one of the strong traits is a complete lack of empathy. My belief is that there are degrees of sociopaths, even conditional sociopaths, and there was a recent British book about how many top corporate CEOs are afflicted with this condition to some degree... but not murderers. Just people who can use, degrade, and step on people to get anywhere and anything they want without feeling any guilt or remorse.

Dexter does have a kind of morality in the show -- "The Code" as he calls it -- where he can only kill people who really, really deserve it. And he has a kind of love and empathy for his sister and even his own son... so there are signs that at least fictional sociopaths might have the ability to change or at least learn and grow to overcome their flaws over time.

As for me, I think the best kinds of villains are those who have a kind of charm and redeeming qualities to go along with their awful behavior. And several of my stories have had villains who either regret their crimes or have many shades of gray to go along with their black deeds. None are completely reprehensible, because I think that makes them more interesting.

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They've made a lot about the definition of sociopaths on the Showtime series Dexter, and one of the strong traits is a complete lack of empathy. My belief is that there are degrees of sociopaths, even conditional sociopaths, and there was a recent British book about how many top corporate CEOs are afflicted with this condition to some degree... but not murderers. Just people who can use, degrade, and step on people to get anywhere and anything they want without feeling any guilt or remorse.

This is a good example of what I meant when I was talking about despicable people justifying their acts. Some CEOs are perfect examples of this. They do what they will with utter disregard for employees' lives, and justify it by claiming they're helping their investors by improving the profits of the company. The thing they manage to hide from themselves is that they make small gains for investors and devastate the lives of the employees.

Not all CEOs, of course. But, in my mind, too many.

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This is a good example of what I meant when I was talking about despicable people justifying their acts. Some CEOs are perfect examples of this. They do what they will with utter disregard for employees' lives, and justify it by claiming they're helping their investors by improving the profits of the company. The thing they manage to hide from themselves is that they make small gains for investors and devastate the lives of the employees.
While I'm generally an Apple fan, and followed Steve Jobs' career for many decades, he would be somebody I would put in that category: a despicable human being with bad manners who screwed over many people, sometimes destroying lives and punishing people who didn't deserve it. And yet... he was also a brilliant CEO. Just a lousy human being.
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This is my theory- if you have a despicable character, give him a reason.

Even despicable characters start out as people. Things happen, people get religion, they stop smoking, they go crazy, they get divorced, they bully and are bullied.

Of course its possible just to create a guy that is a gigantic asshole just because. There are plenty of stories where that works just fine.

Giving him a reason adds depth and understanding.

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If the reason your character is despicable is important to the development of the story and the outcome of the plot, by all means build it into your narrative. But in real life when you encounter an asshole you rarely stop to consider if he is that way because of some trauma in his childhood.

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Deep analysis of a character is not always necessary, but considering the wealth of studies available on sociopaths it is somewhat interesting to go into battle armed with an idea or two about that condition. It seems that we are defining a despicable character in terms of mental disorder, or a motivational deficiency in awareness of the needs of others, particularly, as it relates to the human condition. In other words, as my dictionary says, despicable: morally reprehensible.

The assumption being made is that the despicable are variations of human character that deviate, or are corrupted, from the idea that we humans are basically, good. Goodness of course is not subjective in this sense, but refers to the Socratic basis of regarding truth and beauty as the highest good. It is then, necessary to gauge the character by how much it should abandon goodness, its own sense of compassion , assuming it has any at all, and how much it is self serving to the detriment of others.

Erich Fromm discusses The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness in his book of that name, where he uses Hitler and Stalin as case studies. This is most relevant to the discussion in a number of ways, but mainly in the observation that there are instances of despicable people reversing their personality, complete with contrition and the accompanying self-condemnation for past actions.

One of the criticisms against the film,The Last Days of Hitler starring Bruno Gantz, was that it made Hitler seem human, but surely this was the point, the most horrifying point, that it is possible for humans, for any of us, to descend to the abandonment of any regard for decency in respect for the lives of others.

Whilst we might reduce this to a simple description of disregard of compassion, it should also be remembered that the juxtaposition of desire, hate and love can render a character as seeming to be a monster when, in fact, he is nothing more than a person who responds to what he thinks is advantageous for himself without due regard for the welfare of others. The fact that the regard for the welfare of others can also be twisted by the bigot into proselytising zeal seeking to "save" the souls of heathens is one of the more bizarre examples of misconstrued compassion ever devised by religion.

However these extremes of gods and monsters, are not always necessary to depict a character that exhibits sociopathic attitudes. Indeed, showing some humanity, in a despicable character, allows the author the manoeuvrability to examine and discuss where and how the sociopathic condition arises with a view to illuminating both, why the character is the way that he is, as well as understanding the wider implications of how any of us may find ourselves trying to avoid being despicable. How close we, as authors, take our readers to that line of absolute contempt, which should not be crossed, may be what makes the despicable character so enticing. Just remember that we may all be surprised when the despicable character exhibits a moment of decency.

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The Last Days of Hitler in the states used the title Downfall. It is an eerie movie, making Hitler seem personally sympathetic, which he may have been.

Regarding despicable characters, Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem is subtitled A Report on the Banality of Evil. I haven't read it in decades, but her point is that evil is often engendered by banal men (and women) not monsters -- clerks and petty bureaucrats.

As with Hitler, these people are extremely difficult, in my opinion, to nail down in fiction. But the lesson, I think, is that fictional despicable characters can be written with recognition that there may be a multidimensional common-person element within them but often are written as larger-than-life evil people as they are in thrillers and mystery novels, such as in the Jack Reacher stories.

The upshot of this rather rambling note is that the presentation of despicable characters will depend largely on the intent of the writing.

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vwl, I found your 'rambling note' interesting and informative.

I'm more inclined to think that evil is not necessarily banal, though it can be, but consider instead, the evil of banality. That seems more common to me.

And yes, the intent of the writing does determine the nature of the despicable character. Over the top villains can be fun and also permit stark contrasts.

My own 'rambling' was made with intent to briefly consider variations of the human condition in depicting the despicable.

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One of Dom Luka's villains was a brilliant piece of work. Can't remember his name but, Dom did a great job with the villain as a human being.

What most people saw was a swaggering rich-boy jock asshole.

Later in the story, you got close enough to find that he was a trembling, frightened son of an abusive father who doted on his cocker-spaniel and was terrified of losing her.

In the day to day bluster, we don't get this insight into people but as writers, we can provide it.

I'm also a big fan of themes that show character growth and redemption.

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