Hurt people hurt people. People hurt others as a result of their own inner strife and pain ~Will Bowen
Have you ever seen the Netflix show “House of Cards?”
I really enjoyed the first series—it portrayed the desperate lengths that people can go to when driven by an inherent need to be seen and loved (in this case through a desire for power), and it showed the complexities of that need very well via the main character, played by the excellent Kevin Spacey.
During the second series, however, my attention began to wane. Something was disconnecting me from both the storyline and protagonist. It took me a while to figure it out, but after a number of weeks I realized that Spacey’s character was being depicted as wholly evil. Gone was the sliver of humanity that I had seen in the first series; his evil practices—murder, betrayal, violence, pathological lies—were now his full identity. The conflict between good and evil was gone; he was now one hundred percent evil. And I could no longer connect to his character because he wasn’t believable to me.
The problem is that no villain is purely evil. Unless driven by severe mental illness, we ALL struggle with the dichotomy of good versus evil. I often explain this to the students in my writing classes because they regularly make the mistake of depicting the bad guy as ALL bad. But the truth is, when people are driven to do harmful (and sometimes monstrous) things to others, there is still something human inside of them. No one is one hundred percent evil.
When we write about people and relationships, it’s important to show the human side of your villain to allow the reader to connect to that character. And in real life, it’s important for all of us to see the humanity in the “villains” who have hurt us.
To make the bad guy believable in our stories we need to understand his or her motivation. As writers we know to do this; why then do we fail to do it when considering our personal stories?
Whether we’re writing fantasy or memoir, the antagonist in our story always has a reason for behaving a certain way. And that reason is never “because he’s just a bad guy.”
I fear that when it comes to the stories we write, and the stories we create in our heads about life and relationship, we label people as bad…mean…cruel…heartless…when in actual fact those people are hurt people who, in turn, end up hurting others.
When you consider the villain in your story, and the villains who have affected who you are today, how often do you consider their motivations? What brought them to that place of pain and fear that enabled them to behave in a way that hurts others?
In the eyes of innocence
A story isn’t a story without a bad guy. And life isn’t life without the evils of humanity. We ALL have the capacity to hurt others—it’s our life circumstance that will determine whether we do or we don’t. And those who think they never would or could are naive.
When I’m struggling with forgiveness and persist in writing someone off as an all round bad egg, I force myself to do what I call “the baby visualization.” That is, I picture that person as a baby. Humour me a little and try it with me now; think of someone who has hurt you and see them as a baby. Picture their eyes looking up at you in innocence; imagine holding them in your arms, smelling their sweet baby scalp and feeling that soft layer of hair on their head.
Next, imagine the journey they may have taken through life. What do you know about them? What could have motivated them to behave the way they have behaved? Where are the holes in their journey?
We need to be able to see these holes to forgive a person and to write about the villain in our story. When you write memoir you will write a far more remarkable and empathetic story if you can sit with your antagonist for a while and see them from all perspectives. That doesn’t mean you excuse them for their behaviour, but to understand it not only connects you to their humanity and story, it helps you to be able to reach a place of forgiveness.
No one is born a jerk and we all have the capacity to be one (tweet that!) Right now you may be on the receiving end of hurt, but at some point you have been, or will be, the perpetrator. How do I know this? Because we are all human and none of us is exempt from wrongdoing. The struggle between good and evil is the story that has chased us through the history of humanity (tweet that!)
I’m not saying that villains have no control over their behaviour, and nor am I saying that bad behaviour should just be dismissed; there are always consequences when we hurt others. But the more we can see behind the behaviour and stop the black and white thinking that a person is simply good or bad, the easier it becomes to live as a compassionate and empathetic human being who doesn’t hold onto past hurts.
The villain in your story
Who is the villain in your story? Whether you are writing about someone who has wronged you, or are holding onto anger towards a person or situation, consider what it will take for you to let go. If letting go seems like an uphill struggle right now, can you begin with looking at that person through a different lens?
Share your thoughts! What do you think about the villains in our stories? In your eyes, can a person be ALL evil?
Image credit: David Lanham