If we like the villain, surely that means we are bad, doesn’t it?
Many beginning writers feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of techniques, devices, and so on, that they should remember when all they wanted was to write an enjoyable story.
I always find that if I focus on character, I’ll stay on the right track while I write.
One of the toughest points to writing fiction is to round out a character so that he or she has all the traits of a real human being — bad guy, or good guy.
Without character, there is no story.
What about plot? What about world-building? Could I just make up a plot and start writing people to fit each role?
Putting the cart before the horse never works.
A plot is dead wood without life.
A storyline is a vague idea of something or another happening, somewhere, somewhen, to somebody. Everybody has a storyline, but to have a great character, and no plot, no story, yet, is worth gold to you.
If you ask a friend about a book they read, a film they saw, how do they answer when they tell you about the story?
“Well, it’s about this comedian guy, he’s a wimpy weirdo who is basically hated by everybody. He then goes on to change things by doing… (this and that).
The ‘this and that’ part of the sentence is where the plot points come in. The “this guy, who is a comedian”, is a necessary description of the main character, albeit scant, but enough to give an idea of who’s who in the plot.
Your friend is trying not to ruin it for you, so it’s hard to tell a person what happened, but to describe the character helps give a story a bright colour.
A weird and wimpy comedian who the world doesn’t understand isn’t a story. But the explosive potential of such a person is full of threads and thoughts about how deep this weirdness goes, and why is he a wimp? The character builds the story off the back of his personality. The questions raised suggest a storyline.
The personality presents us with questions. And we try and answer them as much as the character does in his own world.
His personality is something we want to find out about. That’s why backstory is essential in a story where the characters aren’t simple cut-outs.
If we look deep enough into Joker’s world, his past, which comes to us as small flash-backs, we can get an idea of why he’s a bit of a wimp at first. He has been abused, and treated as if he’s an ‘easy touch’ by everybody around him.
His own mother, who he tolerates more than adores, holds the secret about who his real father was.
He is living in apathy — but he’s sneering inside, and his world his moulding him into a person who needs to do something to show the world that he isn’t a wimp, that he is a somebody.
The Joker is full of questions, and we go along with him at first, our feelings about his desire to know where he came from is reasonable.
As the story begins, and we get an idea about the Joker, we learn that his name is Arthur Fleck. He is a comedian, and he is having a tough time.
He has a ‘weak character’, but so what, he’s still likeable. Most of can root for the underdog. Arthur Fleck is an underdog.
Once a reader likes a character, it’s hard for them to unlike them. That character can go out and kill a few people, and we will try our best to justify his actions — we chose him as a friend, so we don’t give up on him so easily.
By the time a villain reveals his or her true potential as a nasty piece of work, we are on their side of the story. We’ve been secretly hoping that they get a break, realise their dreams and live happily. But that wouldn’t be a fun story, we’d just get bored.
As audience and readers, we know that we are falling into a foreign world where we learn things. Arthur Fleck, The Joker, lives in a drab and mundane world, a big city full of unfriendly faces, a place full of hardships.
A few years ago, the 2019 film, The Joker, wouldn’t have worked; audiences only rooted for clear-cut good guys, who were nice from the start, and where we already knew their goals. The bad guys turned up at the first plot point and ruined everything for them, that’s when we would sit on the edge of our seats and hope to God that the good guy is up to the job of fighting these baddies.
As time went by, and the world became more sinister, readers and audiences were primed for new material. The Joker, known already as a pretty nasty piece of work, set us up so that we would adore him, follow him, and feel embarrassed that we actually feel sad for him. And if there was more of him, we’d go and buy a ticket.
The Joker, simply an underdog gone wrong, is enough for us to understand his actions. A reader can understand a character, but not identify with him, they know wiping out a bunch of visitors to your apartment is very wrong, but the audience gets it — he had to do that.
When you think of Hannibal Lector in “Silence of the Lambs”, we remember him as a cannibal, and a slimy character. We shouldn’t like him at all — regardless of his other characteristics. He is also an expert on cuisine, classical music, and he shows formidable intelligence that frightens anybody who has to deal with him. Those last three are the human characteristics that make him irresistible.
Like a snake, he can beguile anybody who comes close to him.
Arthur Fleck, the wimp, finally transforms himself into The Joker. In so doing, he reveals his new self, his criminal self that isn’t afraid of anyone. He can charm people, draw them close enough, then go for the jugular vein. Shoot them, and taunt them. He is having his revenge, and we hate him, but love the character that he has left behind.
The two sides of personality function well in conflict, it’s this conflict in character that fascinates us, and makes us think that maybe there is some good in this evil person.
With The Joker, we don’t forget who he was when we first met him. With Hannibal Lector, we discover as we go along that he is cannibal, and a highly cultured person. We pick the acceptable character traits out and keep them in hope that they will become dominant again. But they don’t, and Hannibal eats whoever he pleases, and the Joker goes way too far and blows his world to smithereens, self destructs, and seemingly disappears into a dark hole.
We leave the cinema in both case, hoping that there will be sequel. We love these guys.
We don’t really love them, but they do fascinate us to our core. I think, just like a psychologist becomes driven by the desire to understand human nature, the reader is driven to understand more and more about bad characters through constant story reading, maybe it will lead to understanding why the world is such an unsafe place, why people do terrible things.
All our fictions stem from the real world, we write and exaggerate character to magnify the horror, but as writers it is important to remember that you can’t show the reader how terrible, horrific, and abhorrent it all is, unless you keep your characters as likeable human beings who do terrible things.
Medium Pages and Articles by Sean P. Durham