sympathy for the devil?

I think it is a very limited sort of person who can’t find compassion and forgiveness for ordinary human faults. We probably all know a difficult, demanding person who expects too much from people and has no time for normal human shortcomings. Is it a lack of imagination, or simply a deep self-centredness that makes such people so intolerant of others’ faults? I don’t know, but I do know that this, too, is an ordinary human flaw, and it is the sort of thing I can spend hours thinking about and discussing, in an attempt to see the truth underlying it all.

Compassion arises from and encourages understanding of what it is to be human. When we understand someone, it’s easier to have compassion for them, and if we strive to have compassion for someone, we begin to understand them. This is good stuff. And I believe that writers need to develop our capacity for understanding, because we are on a quest for meaning. Aren’t we?

But whilst I like the idea of compassion and forgiveness, and try to cultivate those qualities in myself, I think that they have their limits. There is no need, for example, to forgive those who have abused you, raped you, gained your trust and then betrayed you in terrible ways. The only reason to try to find compassion for these people is if it helps you to live your life better. It may help you more to stay angry, or deal with it in some other way, and I think that is perfectly legitimate, in real life.

But in writing? I’ve realised lately that the limits of my compassion and understanding are also the limits of my ability to write real, human characters. For example, I have a story I’ve been writing for a while, which is very nearly an excellent story. The problem is that there is this character who is a child abuser, and I hate him. No matter what I do, he comes across as a cardboard cut-out villain, and he turns my interesting, subtle story into a cartoon, because he has no depth or realness.

I know that the answer to this (and to almost every) story problem is to go deeper into character. To find his motives, his way of seeing the world, to understand what makes him tick. In other words, to understand and have compassion for him, to acknowledge his humanity. But I don’t want to.

I’m not sure I can properly articulate my thoughts about all this yet – I’m just exploring some ideas. What do you think? How do you go about writing believable villains? Do you have to love them, even though they are evil?


3 Replies to “sympathy for the devil?”

  1. My thoughts are jumbled up with stuff I’m not about to disclose online, so hopefully this will make sense…

    I don’t think *you* have to love the character by any means. Your other characters might do though. Exploring that could be a way in.

    Furthermore: the abusers I’ve known did not want to see themselves as abusive. They rationalised their aggression with what they saw as compensatory actions – showing concern, trying to alleviate fear etc. I think that depicting that disconnect does make an emotionally complex character, even if you as the writer find his actions unforgivable.

    Finally, it would be possible to show how vulnerability in one area of a character’s life informs their abuse of someone else (I guess The Bluest Eye might be an example of that approach; I am not generally keen on abused-turns-abuser tropes). But the abuse itself is still entwined with power/gratification/entitlement in ways that would make me question if understanding motives always leads to love and compassion for a character.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Kate. And I agree that it is a difficult thing to talk and think about for many reasons.

    I think my problem is precisely that: in order to get to a real, nuanced depiction of a character, I need to think about them. I need to understand them. Understand why they do what they do. And I have a big block about doing that with this particular character. I just hate him. I don’t care what his motives are. He is a despicable person and I don’t want to spend time thinking about what makes him this way.

    Maybe you are right, though, that understanding and compassion aren’t necessarily linked so closely. It has just always seemed that way to me. I wonder if I could approach the character in a completely different way. (Although at this point, it seems easier just to cut him out altogether – I have another idea that might work better.)

    I absolutely agree with what you say about the abused-turned-abuser trope, and in addition I am tired of the huge number of novels and stories told from the rapist’s/abuser’s point of view. It is rarely done well, and often seems simply to be providing justification for the abuse they carry out.

    But I did love The Bluest Eye. That is one hell of a book!

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