Did you know that ‘monster’ and ‘demonstrate’ come from the same root word?
A monster is nothing if not an example, a reverse role model. Outlaws and monsters move in dangerous circles and they can see just fine in the dark, thank you very much.
Sometimes books and TV shows get you to side with pariahs. That’s one hell of a trick. Slowly but surely, they chip away at stereotypes (mob boss, outlaw biker, drug dealer) to paint a finer picture of the person behind the mask.
I’d like to think that we are growing as a civilization when we move away from absolutes and recognize that people are capable of love and hate in equal amounts. No-one is a caricature. Even freaks have morals.
We’re going to take a brief look at three fictional characters, two of which play a very popular role, that of the villain-protagonist. The third one is a madman with the law on his side.
Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)
Tony Soprano is a two-family man. Not only does he look after a wife and two children, he is also de facto leader of the DiMeo crime family. If you’re looking for an object lesson in character development, spend some time with Tony. The show delves deep into his attachments and foibles: a domineering mother, recurring panic attacks, an overpowering sexual appetite… and a twisted relationship with his psychiatrist.
The Mafioso loves his wife and children. He only wants the best for them. Like you, he harbors self-doubt and finds it difficult to control his impulses.
Things go awry, the veneer cracks and the beast comes out. A strange sense of honor compels him. When associates become inconvenient he has them killed. Nothing personal. But when a dear cousin and childhood friend stirs up the muck, Tony’s got to off the man himself. Families take care of their own.
Jackson “Jax” Teller (Sons of Anarchy)
Jax Teller is the vice-president of a motorcycle club, the Sons of Anarchy, a.k.a. SAMCRO, who operate out of the fictional town of Charming, California. The club deals in illegal firearms – and they’ve got the Chief of Police’s blessing.
Jax’s dead father, John Teller, envisioned a utopian destiny for the Sons, which he describes in a journal, The Life and Death of Sam Crow: How the Sons of Anarchy Lost their Way. Said journal finds its way to Jax’s hands. John’s ‘complications’ infect the young SOA vice-president.
Time and again, Jax butts heads with Clay Morrow, his stepdad, over the nature and purpose of the motorcycle club. Morrow is OK with gun-running while Jax wants to steer SAMCRO away from crime and violence.
Necessity drives Jackson Teller, not bloodlust. Sometimes he kills people for love. At one point, his mother Gemma confesses to Jax’s girlfriend, Tara, that “God wants her to be a fierce mother.” Jax Teller has the same kind of intensity. He engages in acts of violence, but he does not revel in them. Contrast that with Alex Trager, the club’s Sergeant-at-arms: when he and Clay Morrow suspect another club member, Opie, is collaborating with the FBI, Trager practically begs to be the one who takes Opie out. Is the safety of the club his only concern? (Trager is a venal character, but by no means one-dimensional. You should see him on mushrooms when all his guilt bubbles up to the surface.)
At the end of season 2, Jax’s baby boy, Abel, is kidnapped by a True IRA operative. The Irishman abducts the child as retribution for the death of his own son, allegedly shot by Jax’s mother. Jackson will stop at nothing to get his baby back. He’s more than a soldier in a gangland war, he’s a father. And a wounded one at that.
Nelson Van Alden (Boardwalk Empire)
Nelson Van Alden, a Federal Prohibition agent, is a religious fanatic. His back is covered in welts and bruises, because he flagellates himself on a regular basis. When his barren wife finds out about a new surgical procedure that might solve her fertility woes, Van Alden states that God has seen fit to make her sterile – end of discussion. Nelson murders his Jewish partner, Agent Sebso, on suspicion that he is in cahoots with the criminal elite of Atlantic City. “Thou hast fulfilled the judgment of the wicked,” Van Alden bellows over the body of his dead partner.
What truly separates Van Alden from Tony and Jax is not the badge. It’s his lack of empathy for his family and his tyrannical devotion to principle. Nelson Van Alden is a fanatic in a position of authority.
Pleasure is inextricable from guilt. Joy is unthinkable. Only duty, prayer and penitence are legitimate. More than Tony Soprano and Jax Teller, Nelson Van Alden lives in a prison of his own making.
Looking at these three characters, I ask myself: what makes a good villain or a good anti-hero?
What Tony, Jax and Nelson have in common is the conflict between law and justice, past and future, tradition and change. The three men court the abyss and it responds.
They live with ambiguity because they don’t have a choice. The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy and Boardwalk Empire make a compelling case for “hell is other people.”
Corrupted beyond hope, they still cling to a moral code. They face monstrous pressures. Does that mean they’re monsters? What does it say about you and me if we empathize with them?
Outcasts in fiction demonstrate the dangers of crossing the line between civilization and savagery. Swim with sharks long enough and you might become one.
John Magnet Bell is a translator, photographer and blogger with an MA in Comparative Literature. He intends to write 5,000 copyright-free story prompts and post them on his blog, Start Your Novel.
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What a great post! My husband asks me ALL the time why I watch the shows on tv that I do. I feel drawn to understand the characters and what drives them to do what they do as if I might understand whether or not I have the same triggers as they have. I watch them, I study the just as I do people in my family history research or family and friends. I really just want to know what makes them tick. I believe that there’s good in everyone. I find that I’m always trying to justify the villains behavior. I guess I go for the underdog, and hate blind criticism. I can’t say that I enjoy the villain’s crimes or behavior, but I do sympathize with them more often than not. Someone has to. Right?
That’s exactly what I do, Betsy — I study them. I study the writing. One thing that fascinates me about Sons of Anarchy is how verbal manipulation and withholding knowledge leads to catastrophic consequences. Such excellent plotting on that show, really.
The real villain on SOA seasons 1-3 was June Stahl, an ATF agent whose actions, lies and backroom dealing caused a maelstrom of violence.
But Stahl is not one-dimensional. She’s not a cartoon devil. For the most part she seems to care about doing a job well done.
The show doesn’t give you Stahl’s back story, but you get the feeling that she’s been dealing with criminals for so long that it ended up corrupting her. At some point, she went off the deep end.
See, that’s good writing — acknowledging that people can be bad to the bone, that they can be downright rotten and STILL have something of worth about them.
I didn’t know that about monsters and demonstrate. Fascinating.
I have always been intrigued by characters we love to hate. In real life, we tend to avoid evil people as much as possible, but in fiction we are drawn to them.
As a writer, crafting a villain is a monumental challenge. A mustache-twirling ne’er-do-well won’t inspire the reader, but a compassionate villain isn’t convincing either. Writers should try to devise a villain with many layers of personality so the readers can relate to them.
Your examples are spot on. Nelson of Boardwalk Empire fame is especially compelling now because of the predicament he’s in. He’s cold, calculating, harsh, self-tortured, and psychotic, but now he’s stuck with a baby with whom he seems to be falling in love. We need to know what happens next!
Your first paragraph grabbed me because Charlize Theron’s portrayal of the title character in Monster is pure genius. How she got me to feel sympathy for a serial killer, I will never know. (I realize that is a non-fiction movie, but I still am confounded by my compassion for Aileen Wuornos in that movie!)
Thank you for sharing your insights and wisdom on this fascinating topic.
Layers, yes — that’s the key to writing a good villain. Convincing characters are like real people in that they must battle contradiction. Just like us.
‘Monster’ is such an excellent example of the empathy trick. (And a star-making performance for Theron. She should take on more roles like that.) It shows you that Aileen is bad, but the world she inhabits isn’t a nice place, either. She lives on the edge of civilization, where the quality of mercy is never strained. And we tend to pity the less fortunate. The movie shows you a psychopath can be a victim, too. That’s a difficult thing to write about.
Carolyn and John, you are so spot-on with Aileen Wuornos. It was almost uncomfortable watching the movie because of the pull in both directions.
One of my favorite anti-heroes is Gollum. (A face that only a mother could love, but . . .) he is the quintessential pathetic villain that you curse and love, right up to watching his fingers dissolve along with the ring.
hehe, I would remove the ‘almost.’ It was uncomfortable for me to watch Monster.
But you know what sequence gave me a really hard time? That would be the part where Aileen decides she’s going to walk the straight and narrow and look for a job. She’s physically repulsive, uneducated, barely literate and applies to become a legal secretary.
That’s when I really pitied her. You just know her efforts will come to naught. It’s brutally sad; there’s so much psychological violence there.
I feel that anti-heroes or heroes that tread the morally-gray fine line are more real to us so we can form a stronger attachment to them. When we get to appreciate the code that a monster follows, suddenly they are human or at least believable to us.. And we understand and maybe even accept flaws. It’s quite fascinating how that works but heroes that are “perfect” make for uninteresting, anti-climatic, and unbelievable fiction, I’d say. 8)
That’s why I never got into Superman. He’s a boy scout.
It’s not just the powers, I’m OK with that. But Superman is pretty much a god. Minor writers have no idea how to make Superman interesting which, admittedly, must be incredibly difficult.
I’ve always preferred Batman, who’s always been a few marbles short of a sandwich. That’s what makes him interesting to me.
Mostly I prefer stories that do not present the world in terms of black & white. I’m guessing you do too.
Batman is my hero of choice for sure. Super genius with fallible human traits makes for good storytelling. I think Batman could beat Superman easily too.
If you look at the Superman universe, they’ve had to play up his relationships and friendships to keep things interestng. I think of Louis & Clark.. Smallville to a lesser degree.
Justice League has done a good job showing that Superman is not a boy scout after all. He bumps heads with Batman, of course. ;o)
I was totally hooked on Lois & Clark. Dean Cain was believable as Superman and Clark Kent, and Teri Hatcher tempered Lois’s assertiveness (even haughtiness) with her sweet, reassuring screen presence. She just has the look of someone you’d trust.
As for JLA: if you look at it in mythological terms, what you have there is a pantheon, an assembly of divine powers.
– Superman is Apollo/Jupiter/Horus;
– Wonder Woman is Pallas Athena/Hera;
– Zatanna combines Isis, Hecate & Persephone;
– Batman is a composite Hades/Set/Anubis;
– Plastic Man, Flash and Martian Manhunter represent aspects of Dionysus and Mercury/Hermes/Thoth.
With these differing forces working together, you’re going to have some head-butting. It’s inevitable. In the most schematic of terms, Superman stands in for the rising solar god whose apogee comes in summer, and Batman is the night/death/winter god of the dying year. They’re opposite numbers.
Garth Ennis was aware of that dynamic when he created Apollo and Midnighter. Their being lovers is significant in more ways than one – it means that, on the symbolic plane, they’re inseparable.
Quite a few Superman/Batman comics, including Elseworlds stories, have underlined this subterranean link between Batman and Superman. They’re like night and day, you can’t have one without the other.
Which, I guess, is the overarching theme to this post on antiheroes. They’re people caught between day and night, trying to adjust their eyes and find their way in permanent dusk.
Excellent post. Another great example is Walter White from Breaking Bad. Characters like him bring out the morbid fascination in all of us, because we identify with their most basic motivations: love for their family, the need to provide for them once he’s gone, for instance, but their methods are so wildly out of the norm. They make us wonder how far we would go to protect those we love.
I think the rise of the anti-hero is also a product of the times. These days, times are tough. We have no room for pure and righteous good guys who aren’t tempted no matter what, it’s as if their surroundings have no effect on them whatsoever, and people can’t identify with them any longer.
Long live the anti-hero.
That’s just it, B.B. These characters test ethical boundaries and make you ask yourself, “How far would I go? Would I break the law to save my family?”
Such questions are compelling. Especially in troubled times.
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Playing on our own intimate capacity for good and evil can be interesting if it is well done – especially so because most of us are greatly self-deceived about our self, our motivations, and our aspirations. Most of us consider ourselves good, in other words. And that, in fact, is not the case. The exceptions are so rare that a Mother Theresa sticks out like Polaris in the night sky. That kind of disparity is ridiculous.
Most of us are what we are. And I would stereotype what we are as profoundly uninspired, cowardly, and unreliable. Hence, the abyss. To be sure, I include myself among the bungled and the botched though I have long yearned to be a saint, a Confucian gentleman, and a Nietzschean superman.
So, yes, the pot can call the kettle black precisely because the pot knows all about being black. [grin]
Perhaps these characters are the last best hope for any semblance of self-understanding because we strongly refuse to understand ourselves directly and without metaphor. Because we cannot face the truth about ourselves.
I do fear, however, that as we collectively and fully embrace our capacity for evil without a fuller understanding and exercise of the beautiful, good, and true, we’re all going to have more problems dealing with each other. And we do.
I often remind one my very dear friends – a strident vegetarian, atheist, and communist-leaning anarchist – that should his kind ever succeed in their revolution, he will have made himself my bitch because without any rule of law, church, or humanitarian hope to bind my conscience, good will, and cooperation, I will secure my interests with fierce determination, passion, and a keener insight about people. In other words, I would shoot first and leave the doubts for lesser men.
Stan, good points there. Anti-heroes or villain-protagonists like Tony, Jax and Van Alden are the best way we’ve found of explaining ourselves to ourselves through storytelling.
Wasn’t there a famous bank robber that died in a shootout with the police, and when he was dead they found a note on his corpse, saying “I just wanted to be loved”?
And swim with them long enough it becomes the new norm and we don’t realize what we have become.
There are no absolutes and nothing teaches me that more than my volunteer work with the Guardian ad Litem program. Whatever your frame of reference for ‘normal’ is can be thrown out the window. Not everybody is all ‘good’, nor are they all ‘bad’.
The key is just being able to tell what they are and act accordingly with them.
Bill: Good points.
Take Boardwalk Empire, for instance, where we witness the slow corruption of characters that started out with some good in them. (Don’t want to spoil the show for you in case you haven’t watched it.)
Or SoA, where Jax Teller wants out of the criminal life, but he sinks deeper and deeper.
No-one is pure good or pure bad. We all have reasons for being as we are. Thanks, Bill.
This is not a new debate but an interesting one. Shakespeare explored the nature and the attraction of evil and whether good men can do bad things and and bad men good things. His Richard III is a prime example. Currently, however, Dexter Morgan is my good bad guy and btw loved your examples and the post.
You’re right, Babs, it’s not a new debate, but one that each new generation must conduct. It will remain a fertile subject for as long as there are people and conflicts of interest, or a struggle between right and wrong, if you will. Sometimes, what we define as right is unlawful; other times, what we define as lawful is wrong. These things vary from one society to the next.
Dexter is a good example of a nuanced character.
Thanks for reading!
Thanks, John, for this excellent post; and thanks to all you brilliant commenters!
You’re very welcome, Terre. Writing it was a very absorbing experience. I had a blast.
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