Black in white is great for photography. In stories? Not so much.
“The problems of the human heart in conflict with itself… alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” ― William Faulkner
Villains with hearts of gold, heroes with dark sides and detrimental temptations: these are the foundations of memorable fiction. Why? Because characters with no depth, no contradictory elements, are unrealistic and, quite frankly, boring. If your goal is to put people to sleep, then stick to these spotless white knights and mustache-twirling bad guys.
Now, when I say “unrealistic,” I’m not excluding fantastical stories or fiction that takes us out of our world. Readers may turn to fiction as a means of escape, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be at all relatable. In fact, take a sec and think about why it is so many of us love to hate the villains in our favorite stories, or why these paragons of virtue kind of make us want to punch them in the face. Could it be because we know that, even in a fictional world, such people simply can’t exist? Does it piss us off to think that the author just assumes we’re hapless morons who can’t handle the complicated truth of their characters?
As a writer, asking yourself these kinds of questions is the best way to ensure that your characters aren’t flat, two-dimensional clichés that turn your readers off to your stories. The trick is to insert just enough ambiguity without making your efforts too obvious. Or, missing the mark entirely and confusing the hell out of your audience in the process.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Flat, unyielding fairy tale villains never existed; there is always more to the story. That can mean there’s a sordid tale that explains why your monster is, well, monstrous, and generates a little sympathy from your readers once it’s revealed. It could be that your baddie has some attractive qualities to help balance out the ugliness: honesty, patience, maybe even the occasional show of mercy.
But I’ve found that one of the most effective methods writers can employ to convince their audiences that a villain isn’t solely bad is to give him or her a reason to show a softer side. In other words, your bad guy needs motivation, and sometimes that motivation reveals a bleeding heart. It might still be a black heart, but at least we’ll know it beats. Those palpitations should, in turn, be enough to change your villain’s pattern and shed some light on his or her overall character.
Take Severus Snape. Throughout most of the Harry Potter series, he’s considered a villain, constantly taking pleasure in Harry’s failures even though he steps in to help deal with one wayward creature or another, too. We all assume it’s because Snape used to be a Death Eater and therefore a supporter of Harry’s would-be murderer, but J.K. Rowling later reveals that Harry’s father, James, bullied him back in the day (sympathetic backstory: check). And if residual childhood trauma and the fact that he seems to be totally on board with the Order of the Phoenix isn’t enough to convince readers that Snape might just be a guy trying to deal with his issues, the final book shows us why he’s a reformed baddie in the first place. Snape was all for Voldemort’s mission until it threatened the person he’d loved for decades: Lily, Harry’s mother. When he switched sides, he promised Dumbledore he’d protect Harry, too, if only because he was Lily’s boy. And that is what we call a bleeding, not-totally-red-but-not-exactly-black-either, heart.
Another great example is one I’ve mentioned before, but he’s definitely a bad guy who’s determined to remain so, with one crucial exception to the rule. Long John Silver is your classic, devil-may-care pirate: loves shiny stuff, is out for himself, and won’t hesitate to orchestrate a mutiny if it means getting the gold. But mess with Jim Hawkins? Suddenly he’s got a conscience again. Suddenly, this kid is his soft spot, and he very nearly costs Silver his freedom as well as his loot. While we never get a clear straightforward explanation as to why these two latch onto each other (what fun would that be to read, anyway?), readers can easily assume that Silver sees something of himself in Jim, whereas Jim is a fatherless boy looking for a male role model. Jim’s iffy judgment aside, Silver proves that while he’s in no hurry to change his pirating ways, he is willing to alter his M.O. to protect someone he cares about. This is that black, but still beating heart I mentioned.
No one is perfect, so why would you write your hero without any weaknesses or character flaws? A good hero, one that your readers can identify and empathize with, has got to have a few characteristics that make us roll our eyes or grit our teeth from time to time.
You can consider how you’ll do this in much the same way as we approached humanizing the villain. Strong backstories are your friends, even though the audience will never know them in their entirety. Say you have a real stand-up guy, willing to lend a hand to anyone in seconds flat, but he’s got a minor issue responding to authority figures because his dad was a hard-ass cop who would never give an inch. Or maybe your hero had his heart broken one too many times, so while he typically does the right thing, he has a hard time trusting anyone else to do the same. And sometimes, your hero’s worst enemy might just be him- or herself.
One such example is Victor Frankenstein. Sure, a lot of people like to assume that his creation was the villain of the story simply because he winds up a murderer, but there’s plenty of evidence that points to the contrary. Victor, a young, ambitious man wants to use science to change the world and conquer death itself―sounds heroic, right? But many bad guys start off on their paths with the best of intentions, and we all know that the road to hell is paved with those. We understand where Victor is coming from, and we might even applaud him for wanting to change the human condition in a time where people didn’t live as long, didn’t have access to the kind of medical science we do now. But does that excuse the fact that he abandoned his macabre creation, left him out in the world without the decency to at least put him out of his misery? Call it karma, call it dramatic irony, but Frankenstein’s monster killing Elizabeth was a roundabout result of Victor’s negligence, his failure to be that knight in shining armor he may have once considered himself to be.
And what about temptations? Heroes aren’t immune to those, and everyone’s got a vice. Following the examples of countless private eyes, Jessica Jones has a pretty serious drinking problem. Does it stop her from going out and kicking ass on behalf of those who can’t or won’t do it for themselves? Nope. This is one way to use that character backstory to justify something going on in the present timeline of your narrative. Jones has a dark past, was once held against her will and tortured. After all that, PTSD and a drinking problem seems par for the course. And yet, even with her flaws, she’s still the hero of the story, taking on shady cases and confronting bad guys. She just happens to go home and get sloshed at the end of the day. That doesn’t make her less of a hero than, say, Bruce Wayne, who holes up in his mansion and pretends to be a playboy who couldn’t care less about the outside world.
Not sure how to make your characters―good, bad, or somewhere in between―jump off the page? Find out more about the editing process and how it works for writers like us, or subscribe for more tips, tricks, rants, and anything else that comes to mind.