Cardboard Characters (and share the weird)


The amazing thing about Charles Dickens’ writing (or one of them) is that all his minor characters feel round and whole–like they are real people with lives and dreams and hopes and fears. Like they continue to exist when they walk off the page. I imagine that he puffed them up and stirred in some magic and made them dance across his pages, then when he was through, he ironed them out, then put them back in a box until they were needed again. I do my best to follow his example.

But there is one character who is very difficult to write–the one who is too ___________ (fill in the blank) to be true. In the case of my example today, too mean to be true. I’m thinking about real people who are so obnoxious, so batshit crazy, arrogant, mean, condescending, self-centered, shitty, angry, and so on, that they simply seem like caricatures. The trouble with real people is that you can hate them without knowing why they are who they are. You may have to deal with them, handle them, maneuver around them, but in general, you don’t really have to understand them. You might wonder why they are they way they are, but often you dismiss that with a ‘who cares?’ and go to complaining about them, commiserating with others, or just drinking. (Yes, I know one of those, why do you ask?)

But writers don’t have the luxury of not understanding. We have to understand if we are going to do the two things necessary to make them round characters–make them understandable/accessible to readers, and make them sympathetic. And let’s stop here and define sympathetic here. Readers don’t have to really sympathize or feel sorry for them, empathize with them, or even care about them, but the reader does need to see that there’s some sort of reason for the character to be the way she is. There should be something that legitimizes that in the reader’s mind–even when it’s truly ugly. Remember, truth is no excuse for fiction. So even if you know someone exactly that way, it won’t be believable unless readers can connect.

Unless. Yeah, I know. There had to be one, right? I’m thinking that sometimes there’s a way around that. Before I explain, let me talk about why that might be a good idea. One reason is if your POV character can’t know or understand the new mean boss or the violent boyfriend or puppy-killing neighbor. How do you make that evil character accessible? Especially if you don’t want to overload your story with narration that doesn’t have direct impact, and you don’t want some convenient moment where the evil character explains his dastardliness. You have to do something else.

There are a few things you can do in this case. One is you can build a wacky sort of world where anything is possible (Elmore Leonard). You can build a dark world where this sort of behavior is quite natural and normal (Pulp Fiction, Justified, Faith Hunter, GRRM. I’ve done it too in most all my books). If your mean/evil character isn’t out of character for the book, then readers will accept him as part of the worldbuilding. With this approach, you can give hints from the evil character that there is more to her than just her actions–perhaps she is afraid of cockroaches or hates mothers or what have you and allow your readers to draw conclusions about what motivates her, while you still indicate that cutthroat nastiness is part of the world’s culture.

One thing to remember is that mean/evil people don’t know they are. Usually they think they are set-upon, unjustly attacked, betrayed, just watching out for themselves–they skew their sense of the world to make that work for them. So remember that even though someone might like to destroy other people, they are doing it for a good reason. (Psychopaths excepting). And remember, other people deserve what they get, if it’s bad. The evil mean character only deserves what’s good, and if anything bad happens, he’s a victim of someone or something and is willing to make others pay for it.

There may be other ways to do this, and if you can think of any, do jump in and let me know. Also, I’d love to hear about some of your batshit crazy, mean, or otherwise inexplicable acquaintances. Share the weird!




18 comments to Cardboard Characters (and share the weird)

  • One person in my life whose trait I would love to harness is the twister. Should you bring a complaint against this person in conversation, this person will then engage you in a circular conversation, which will go on and on and on until they’ve turned it around and the fault appears to be yours. Until they’ve “won” and you leave, chastised for thinking you could possibly make a point. I could see this being a trait in a bad guy who gets ahead in his life with these lies, where anyone who dared to call him for his crap gets convinced (magically perhaps) that they had it wrong all along, that he’s a good guy. Oooh. Brainwave! 😀

  • […] a snippet. Hope you enjoy. Also, I’ve got a post up on Magical Words on Cardboard Characters today. Do come and […]

  • Yes. I know someone like that. I decided he was toxic and left the organization. Some 25 years later, other people are saying, “He’s kinda not right…”
    Ya think?

  • kwlee

    I’ve always thought Evil is a rather touchy subject. You’ve got those folks who think it is something of point of view, and then you have others who believe it is a tangible, physical force. So yeah, a bit murky.

    In the context of a writer, however, I’ve always dealt with it as those who were willing to cross that invisible ‘line’. I’ve had friends who were so competitive about certain things, that they’d do anything within reason to cut you down before the competition. Evil might be that fella who takes that extra step… the whole Tanya Harding/Lead Pipe to the Knee action that crosses the line.

    I suppose the trouble might be determining where that line is — which comes back to your point about worldbuilding and society in the book. Do they condemn the antagonist for trying to drown the protagonist in a well? Or applaud him because he thought he was saving the world from the anti-christ? Or do nothing.

  • Razziecat

    I’ve always hated cardboard villains…the kind that laugh every time they do something bad and run around talking about evil they are *rolls eyes* I agree that people do things for specific reasons which seem right and good to them, even if the rest of us think they’re nuts. The ones that scare me are those who do something horrible and don’t really seem to know WHY they did it. I try to give my fictional villains real, solid reasons for their actions. Usually they feel they’re doing it because to them, it’s the only thing that makes sense. Even the ones who are selfish and mean still think they have a larger purpose which justifies their actions. This also seems to define the few people I know in real life that I believe are evil.

  • Laura: Now I want an example of that because watching the Twister work would be an education.

    Faith: ditto. One day when we’re at a con together, we will exchange stories.

    Kwlee: Yeah, I’m sort of using ‘evil’ fast and loose here. But to your point–it brings to mind the mob mentality where people do in mobs what they wouldn’t do alone. It also prints to mind those Germans who followed Hitler. They weren’t bad people to begin with. They were normal. But they allowed and participated in the Holocaust–how did they get there? The worst part is that I can’t write about people who are ‘evil’ or bad without understanding what motivates them. That’s really hard if I don’t understand them.

    Razziecat: How hard would that be to write? The bad guy who doesn’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing. I remember a Criminal Minds where they did that. Gideon leveraged the killer into telling stuff in exchange for explaining why he was the way he was. It was an interesting take, but it would be hard to do that and I wonder how worthwhile it would be in a book. I think ti would need to be seriously tied to the plot. And of course that’s one thing I didn’t discuss here–the influence of the plot.

  • As a reader I absolutely can’t stand bad guys who are only bad for the sake of being bad (or the sake of the plot), so I’m trying hard to avoid those cardboard villains in my writing. I like to know why characters act the way do regardless of whether they are good or bad. In real life I guess I’ve been pretty lucky since I haven’t had to deal with many “bad” people or even people doing bad things. If you want to talk about people doing stupid things, though, I have TONS of examples of those!

  • Razziecat

    Diana, yeah, I think it wouldn’t work very well in a book. As a reader, I would feel cheated if it turned out that even the bad guy didn’t know why he was bad! It would feel as though all the bad stuff happened for no reason. Surely the villain’s motivations need to be part of the plot?

  • Nathan Elberg

    Do bad guys have to have a psychologically coherent profile? What if we “bracket out” (phenomenologically speaking) the concept of psychology, and treat a character as an “is,” leaving out the “why.” I’m not trying to be Zen, or anything like that. Rather, can we create a bad guy character, give the reader the same knowledge of him as another character from the story would have, and still make the bad guy believable?

  • I think Nathan raises a really good question. But I think that usually there is a “why” that makes psychological sense to those who do awful things, and it’s usually a why that doesn’t require the person to be insane or abnormal, just human. I heard a thing on the radio that really backs up what Diana is saying here about people who do awful, awful things and think they are doing the right thing. Not just an okay thing in some cases, but the best thing. Imagine that an entire country rounded up hundreds of its own women, stripped them naked in public, raised them up on a stage and shaved their heads so that they would forever be publicly humiliated and labeled. Sounds barbaric, right? Something so alien that we just couldn’t imagine the good guys doing it, especially not modern, Western good guys. Certainly not the Greatest Generation. Except that is what happened in a lot of Allied countries, especially the Nordic ones after WWII was over. Women who had sex with German soldiers were subjected to the same ritual humiliation that used to be inflicted on medieval prostitutes. If they had children with a German those children were labeled as enemy aliens and made to register their existence with the police on their birthday each year until they turned 18. In Norway, the government tried to find a way to deport several thousand infants and young children to foreign countries, but couldn’t find another country that would take them b’c the children were “German.”

    Ritualized sexual humiliation of women who may or may not have had a choice. Mass deportation of innocent children. Sounds like something out of GRRM’s books, (or King Arthur’s May Day child massacre in Mallory) but it was done by the “good guys.” The people who did it were in the majority, not certifiably insane, and saw themselves as cleansing the shame of their country, restoring its honor and glory.

  • Nathan Elberg

    Sarah, there’s no shortage of examples of horrors that people do, even the good guys. For example, if not for Vlad Tepes (the historical figure on which Dracula is based) having impaled alive an enemy army that he captured, many historians have posited that the Ottoman empire would have swallowed Europe in the 15th century (and don’t anyone say that would have been an acceptable outcome). Can we ever understand what made a man so cruel? More to the point, can we make him into a three dimensional character without an understanding? Certainly, he’s been the inspiration for many literary characters and configurations.

  • I think that if you want to make your “evil” characters intriguing, the best way to do it is to go the hint route:

    Show their evil, hint about possible causes, but never explain it directly one way or the other. There’s something to be said for having an understanding of all sides of an issue, but I think it’s just as legitimate to stick with one side of it for narrative purposes. Plus, letting the reader try to work it out themselves can be an even more effective way to make them invested in the “evil” character.

  • I have a minor bad guy, originally an offstage throwaway used to facilitate another bad guy’s plans, who when he did finally walk onstage, proved an utter sociopath — he is the only person in his universe, and he can “justify” anything he does or wants to do. I hadn’t expected him to be this rotten, and it’s nothing that “happened” to him either — he’s just wired wrong. (I’ve known a couple felons with similar attitudes…)

    Tho he got a nasty lesson at the hands of my MC, heh heh.

  • quillet

    I think I once knew one of those Twisters Laura mentioned. He was Mr. Never-Ever-Wrong. He could argue you in circles till he was somehow arguing your original position while convincing you that you’d been wrong all along! He did it — I think — by employing what the world (and Wikipedia) is pleased to call “Logical Fallacies” but which I personally call “Dirty Tricks to Cheat At Arguing.”

  • Quillet – Yes, that’s it exactly. This person talks and talks and will keep talking, and if you keep trying to speak, they will continue until you go away. My one “victory” came at a time when this person tried to argue with me about something they knew very little about, as it pertained to something that I was dealing with that was affecting me and actually had nothing to do with them. Much though they’d like to play the all-knowing, superior person. Now, this one loves to interrupt to get their point across. I was frustrated and fed up with the situation, and when they cut me off this time, I said in a short, fast breath, “Can you please let me finish my sentence.” They pressed their lips into a forced smile, blinked several times very fast, and nodded. I took a moment to realize, holy crap, they haven’t said anything, so I stumbled a bit over my words, and they just kept nodding and smiling until I went on my merry way. I realize that it sounds so crazy, and petty to get frustrated about it, but that’s part of the problem. I feel like I’ve been under hypnosis after the conversation, unable to do anything at the time. I could totally take that a step further in a story and make it manipulative magic. 🙂

  • Sisi: stupid is a whole nuther kettle of fish. But that’s the thing. If your character doesn’t know anything about the villain but that the villain is bad, then she’ll perceive him as relatively flat. But of course, it’s through showing the villain and giving him quirks and facial expressions and hinting at something in the name of depth. But that comes back to why if he’s just evil? Or just enjoys being a killer?

    Razziecat: I’d think it would need to be some part of resolution, but there are certainly books where that hasn’t happened. Where the mystery of why is never explained and that’s part of the theme. That you don’t always get to know why, but you carry on anyhow. I’m not particularly satisfied by that as a writer. Not sure how I fear about being the reader–so much depends on execution.

    Nathan: that’s the heart of the question. Will a reader believe that a character is simply bad without some sense of why or perhaps why s/he’s target these victims? It might seem too random, or too coincidental.

    Sarah: wow. That’s awful. And yet so powerful because it’s true that people do terrible terrible things in the name of good or God or morality or so on.

  • Nathan: typically literary representations try to explain Vlad. The Gary Oldham version of Dracula (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) had his wife dying and terrible rage and guilt motivating him. But part of the reason was to explain how Mina could be attracted to him, since she isn’t entirely under his spell.

    Atsiko: I think that’s a good way. In the end, monolithic evil for the sake of evil isn’t really interesting to readers. It’s the part where you wonder about the depth of evil and how it will play out and what my trigger rage or action–that’s what gets readers enthralled.

    Reziac: sociopaths are tough. I don’t particularly care for Dexter. He just has no appeal for me. But on the other hand, I do find myself liking Hannibal Lecter. I think part of it is the knowledge that they don’t exist. That gives me the ability to feel okay liking them. It wouldn’t be the same with Charles Manson or Ted Bundy, for instance. But Dexter is so inexplicable and he really shows is indifference to people in a lot of ways (at least what I watched early on). He is probably the best written sociopath out there, and I think that’s why I don’t like him. How’s that for irony?

  • There you go Laura–go write!

    Quillet: I taught about logical fallacies in my composition and speech classes. Made students watch political speeches of every stripe. They are nothing but fallacies. I had a friend in grad school getting his PhD in rhetoric who was kicked off the jury list at selection as soon as they heard he was studying rhetoric. I guess they figured he’d spot what they were doing.