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!