Here’s a fun fact you probably didn’t know about Walmart: people steal condoms. You wouldn’t expect shoplifters to be socially conscious enough to worry about birth control, but it must pretty high on their list of priorities because nearly every day, you can find a partially empty box of condoms sitting on the shelf in the Toy Department (apparently there’s no security coverage back there or something, but it’s still really unsettling to see a box of Trojans sitting next to Sleepy Time baby dolls.)
Note that I said the box was only partially empty. That part used to bother me a lot. I couldn’t figure out why people wouldn’t just take the whole pack. It’s not like you’re going to get into any more trouble for stealing the whole box instead of just taking three.
But then it finally dawned on me: the reason people don’t empty out the whole box is because somewhere in the back of their minds they are trying to justify what they’re doing. They’re thinking to themselves, “Well yes, it’s wrong to steal, but this isn’t really stealing because I’m not taking the whole box.”
This realization helped me to understand something broader about the human condition: people do not like to think of themselves as “bad people.” They almost always construct some kind of rationalization for why what they’re doing isn’t really that bad. Often they’ve even convince themselves that ultimately the crime they’re committing is in the interest of the greater good.
For instance, take Adolph Hitler. No seriously, please take him. He’s been haunting my blender for far too long. But while he was alive he did horrible things, unspeakable things. And yet even Hitler the man who has become the very image of the clichéd villain had to justify himself, had to convince himself that the people he was trying to wipe off the face of the earth were somehow less than human, that they were evil conspirators, responsible for keeping the real people down.
People in fiction don’t often think this way. People in fiction to bad things because they’re EVIL. Kids movies and fantasy are particularly bad about this sort of lack of characterization. They throw some guy in a black cloak and give him glowing red eyes and suddenly that character is the VILLAIN, a person completely without scruples or sympathy.
And all the time I’m asking myself, why? Why does this character hate the hero so much? Why does he want to murder tiny unicorns and take over the world? How did he go so far wrong?
In my opinion the best stories are the ones in which all the characters have convinced themselves that on some level they’re doing the right thing. I’m not just talking about giving the antagonist some tacked-on motivation for what he’s doing and then going on to portray him as utterly unsympathetic. I’m talking about crafting characters that people can genuinely empathize with on some level.
I know that there are plenty of good stories out there that don’t follow this rule. In Lord of the Rings no one really cares what Sauron’s deeper reasons for trying to rule the world are. But for my part, I always get more enjoyment out of reading a tale where you can understand where all the characters are coming from.
It may be more difficult to craft this kind of story, but I believe that creating villains who are not simply doing bad things FOR TEH EVULZ will serve to make the kind of story that speaks to readers on a far deeper and more meaningful level.
Hilarious – yet absolutely true. I can’t say I don’t enjoy the outright good vs. evil battles, but a story is certainly more intriguing if all of the characters are flawed.
Two alternate theories about the partially empty boxes: the box is harder to sneak out of the store. (I’m showing my ignorance here because I have no idea how big the boxes are.) More likely, the box would set off an alarm on its way out the door. Or… they’re a commentary of some kind. Little kiddies need to learn about birth control? Stem the flood of baby dolls?
Good post. Have you read ‘Bullies, Bastards, and Villains’ by Jessica Page Morrell? Great book on building believable antagonists. I prefer villains that aren’t the cardboard ‘black hat’. Though my crushes when growing up were usually on those black hat guys…
I’m delighted your other post was Freshly Pressed, because it allowed me to find you. Great thoughts.
How much of “I’m not really a bad person” do you think is actually narcissism? “I’m entitled because I am so awesome. See? My awesomeness is demonstrated in this, I’m not greedy and didn’t take the whole box.”
People also like to steal underwear and bras. I think we should team up and write a book about retail. I think you’re right about their psyche, not wanting to be bad people. I’ve had to sit in on a few apprehensions, and it’s never a “Yah, got ’em!” feeling, it’s always uncomfortable and sad cause they all knew better, but for whatever reasons they rationalized why it was ok: brother’s birthday, look cool to friends, gotten away with it before, whatever. Hearing the why does make them mean more to you than just knowing they steal, so I believe the same will occur in our writing.
Getting some pieces from the box of condoms? Seriously? Is the box going to set off alarm going out of the store? That might be it. Still, they’re still breaking the ten commandments–don’t covet other people’s properties. The point is, it’s still stealing and there’s no way around it so steal the whole way. 🙂
So that’s why some stores lock those. 😀
Kidding aside, I’m always fascinated with turning the villain into a hero. I mean, we can turn Erik (a.k.a. the phantom) of the Phantom of the Opera into a hero depending on how we tell the story. When I was still starting to write, I try turning Lucifer into a hero of the story. They did that with Wicked.
This post gives me ideas!! 🙂
No I didn’t mean the condom- stealing-type-of ideas – I mean the ones that rationalize every quirky facet of human nature.
Complex characters with flaws and strengths are creations of adept authors to wield against the sea of too-prevalent 2D characters.
Your writing has layers of unique thoughts – and you develop them so well.
Speaking of “evil”, while reading on the science of eugenics and how men of no visible or obvious superiority (except the superiority to which they entitled themselves) deemed other fellow-men to be subhuman and not fit to live, I find it refreshing to read that men of exception,like G.K. Chesterston,spoke lucidly against the pseudo science.
But anyway, great writing. Felicitation!
We humans are so good at the self-justification. I find a villain who is convinced of his/her own rightness to be far more terrifying than one that just does evil for evil’s sake…most of the time.
I just read several books on improving various aspects of writing. Apparently it’s not that easy to create a multidimensional villain but he/she is more rewarding to readers instead of being a cutout. I, too, like it when characters are flawed and we can know why the villain is so villainous. 🙂
This is actually very reminiscent of writing advice from my favorite writing advice blog, http://www.johnaugust.com. In particular, this post with the great title, Every Villain is a Hero – http://johnaugust.com/archives/2009/every-villain-is-a-hero.
His blog is more about the screenwriting side, but it’s still a very good point that not enough writers consider.
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