Complex Characterization vs. Victimization (Or How to Write Complex Characters without Becoming an Apologist for Heinous Things)

The other day, I saw a quote about how inside every villain was a victim. Responses ranged from celebratory to scandalized, with the latter making the (valid, imho) point that responding to an awful act by trying to find how the perpetrator was somehow made a victim comes awfully close to becoming an apologist for those actions. Yet admittedly, we all want to write complex characters and simply slapping on a label of “villain” isn’t very helpful either.

This is an argument that surfaces periodically in the Silmarillion fandom, where the tendency is–and always has been, in my experience–for many fans to want to align themselves as anti-Fëanorian or Fëanorian apologists, at opposite, dualist extremes. The former argue that fundamental flaws in Fëanor himself led to his deeds: He was too proud, too rash, and inherently violent. There is really no redemption for him; it’s simply the way that he is. The latter group, in response, tries to shift blame elsewhere: to the Valar, to Fingolfin, to Indis, to Finwë, to the Teleri, to Míriel, to Nerdanel. They emphasize how Fëanor was a victim: If the Valar hadn’t meddled and let Finwë remarry, if Finwë had been content with one child, if the Teleri hadn’t pushed the Noldor in the sea … the story would have turned out differently. Bad things were done to him, and in the process of defending himself or responding, he committed crimes, but ultimate blame for those crimes lies on those who provoked him in the first place.

I think both are overly simplistic. Anyone who has read my fannish work knows that I write quite a bit about the House of Fëanor but also that I don’t fall into either camp. Fëanor and his family fascinate me more than any other characters in Tolkien’s writings and not because they’re villains or victims but because writing about them causes me to ask the question that captivates and torments me as a writer: What causes a person to commit a truly awful act?

There seems to be a misconception, in my experience, that turning a villain into a victim by combing the canon for an excuse or just straight-up inventing one (because Indis certainly doesn’t do anything in the texts to justify the role as the evil stepmother that she is frequently assigned in fandom) leads to complex characterization. It doesn’t. It simply shifts the same good-evil dualism elsewhere: Now the villain is a Good GuyTM and someone else is a Bad GuyTM who caused all the Epic Bad to happen but still leaves the larger question of why people do bad things unanswered. It doesn’t reveal the knot of emotions, the interplay between the character’s personality and his or her environment, the cultural and familial and other factors that made that action seem, even for the briefest moment, to be the correct thing to do.

The question, I think, should be, How can I restore this character as a Good GuyTM? but rather, What goes on in this character’s mind that lets him commit this action and still look at himself in the mirror the next morning?

Because we all do wrong-headed things at times and yet do them anyway and live with ourselves. For example, we know that Maedhros was bitterly opposed to the third kinslaying, yet he went ahead with it anyway. Why? What went through his mind as he rode out that morning? He survived for a good bit of time after the kinslaying, still acting with enough deliberation that we cannot claim that he was broken by his guilt and shame. How did he manage that? What went on in his head when he couldn’t sleep at night, or when he woke in the morning and had to make the first steps into a new day?

A key idea to keep in mind when writing a character who has done bad deeds, in my opinion, is to keep in mind that most people will go to great lengths to preserve their self-concepts and, in particular, their perceptions of themselves as good people. I see this in my work with students who come from some truly horrible circumstances and who have often done their share of bad things. There is more than a shuffling of blame–although there is that–but some pretty intricate psychological gymnastics that allow the young adults I work with to emerge from the other side of a crisis psychologically whole. A young man steals a car at gunpoint, for example, and yet returns to school with his self-concept intact. He doesn’t view himself as a bad person, although most people would apply that label without thinking. His ability to maintain his sense of himself as a good person doesn’t happen through a simple matter of shifting the blame elsewhere and making someone else the bad guy, although that can be part of it. It is a complex interaction of rationalizating, making excuses, projecting, lying and distorting the truth, minimizalizing the severity of the act, claiming transformation into a “new man,” deflecting responsibility, blaming others, seeking atonement, experiencing anger and guilt, acknowledging the crime, accepting punishment, witnessing to others, and pouring energy into positive pursuits, the end result of which is a person who can face himself at the start of each new day. It is in that psychoemotional stew leading to that point where the most interesting stories of our fictional “bad guys” lie.

(And, for the record, most of my students who meet the description above will re-offend.)

I’ve realized through the years that most of my writing is motivated by attempting to uncover why people are cruel to each other and why violence and hatred is so often the seemingly inevitable result of conflict. Granted, I am an oversensitive soul in some regards. The other day, a fruit fly flew into my wineglass, and in the attempt to chase it out, it divebombed into the wine. As I fished it out, I said, “You’re lucky I want to drink that wine or I might have let you drown yourself for being so stupid!” But even as I said it, I knew I was wrong and said as much: “Yeah right, I couldn’t sit here and watch a living thing drown.” My husband used to tease me when we were teenagers by cutting up gummy bears while pretending to make them plead for their lives. I’d put my hands over my ears and sing loudly. He stopped the time I cried over it and he realized it actually did upset me.

So yes, there is a certain fascination for the woman who literally cannot hurt a fly to consider how others surely just as human as I am hurt and kill and still manage to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning. That fascination derives from the uncomfortable fact that, if they can do it, then somewhere within me, perhaps I can do it as well. And so I have made my fannish “career” writing the Fëanorians as sympathetic characters, despite the fact that I do not and cannot approve of their actions. Why?

The Fëanorians were born in Valinor, a land meant to represent a life as close to perfection as possible on Arda Marred. While we can talk till we’re blue in the face about why Valinor may not have been ideal for everyone for a variety of reasons–and why Fëanor’s experience was obviously exceptional in that regard–the fact remains that he was given the equivalent of a privileged upbringing, and he himself was considered a paragon of the Eldar. How did he fall so far? That his story resonates for so many people speaks, I think, to the fact that we recognize that people who are not only not evil but truly exceptional humans can nonetheless do horrible things. Where does that leave the rest of us mere mortals?

Good characterization, I think, hints at the answers to this question. In good characterization, we see people who, even if not at all like ourselves, nonetheless possess believable emotions, motives, and responses to what happens around them. I am not an Elf, a male, the father of seven sons, or the greatest craftsperson to ever walk the earth, but in stories where Fëanor is effectively characterized, I can relate to him nonetheless on the basis of our shared humanity. (This is why I am generally opposed to writing the Elves as incomprehensible to humans; at least in stories where Elves are central characters, this all but ensures that your readers will not connect with some of your major characters. But that’s a discussion for another time.)

The Fëanorians always have and probably always will be among the most popular characters in the Silmarillion fandom, and writing them well, to do them justice, is something a lot of people aspire to do, myself included. I would argue that attempting to establish them as innocent or as victims does very little to advance meaningful discussion about them or to create excellent stories about them, and it also doesn’t do much to answer one of the most fascinating and relevant questions that their story begs us to answer. Tolkien himself wrote, “There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall,” and while his statement has certain religious overtones to it, even as one who doesn’t ascribe or wish to advance his spiritual beliefs, there seems truth in that statement nonetheless (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, “Letter 131 to Milton Waldman”). When our reality consists of a twenty-four-hour news cycle delivering constant news of war and genocide and shootings and terrorism and torture, and our everyday lives are punctuated by the smaller hurts and injustices we subject each other to, we are compelled to ask how we can be so routinely awful to each other and maintain our humanity. I don’t want to excuse any of that; I do wish to understand it.

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11 Responses to “Complex Characterization vs. Victimization (Or How to Write Complex Characters without Becoming an Apologist for Heinous Things)”

  1. Independence1776 says:

    (Forgive me; this is long. Also possibly not coherent, but this is applicable to most of the characters I write fanfic about.)

    Like you, I’m in the middle of the two camps, though I lean toward Fëanor’s side. Was everything solely his fault? No. But does he hold the blame and guilt for his own actions? Yes. But I’m more interested in the “what happens after” and how people have to learn to live with what they’ve done rather than what leads up to the events themselves. (Hence the endless Maglor-wandering stories.)

    It doesn’t reveal the knot of emotions, the interplay between the character’s personality and his or her environment, the cultural and familial and other factors that made that action seem, even for the briefest moment, to be the correct thing to do.

    Yes. Cultural factors and the like give us a context for the event (such as Fëanor pulling a sword on Fingolfin), but they don’t excuse or justify it. They can’t.

    The question, I think, should be, How can I restore this character as a Good Guy TM ?but rather, What goes on in this character’s mind that lets him commit this action and still look at himself in the mirror the next morning?

    And sometimes, the rather fun answer is they can’t. (But I’m rather fond of redemption fics, and it’s a starting point for them.)

    A key idea to keep in mind when writing a character who has done bad deeds, in my opinion, is to keep in mind that most people will go to great lengths to preserve their self-concepts and, in particular, their perceptions of themselves as good people. […] It is in that psychoemotional stew leading to that point where the most interesting stories of our fictional “bad guys” lie.

    Yes. It’s the “why” I find interesting. The “what happened” isn’t nearly so much.

    Good characterization, I think, hints at the answers to this question. In good characterization, we see people who, even if not at all like ourselves, nonetheless possess believable emotions, motives, and responses to what happens around them.

    Yes, this. It doesn’t matter what POV the story is written from. It’s also why I think something that can also separate a good story from the merely decent is if the writer puts thought into why the villains act as they do (ofic or fanfic). Because without that thought, without thinking that villains have their own reasons and backstory, they become two-dimensional. It doesn’t have to come on-page, but it brings in a depth that’s otherwise missing. (Look at Sauron. There are enough hints that he has his own reasons for his actions in LotR, but they’re overlooked and he’s turned simplistic more often than not.)

    To bring in another fandom (Avengers movieverse): I find it very difficult to be a Loki fan, because it seems people fall into two camps– they hate him or they apologize for him. And I’m in the middle: he’s a wonderful, complex, sympathetic villain– and he did horrible things. The sad thing is I really do mean apologize, because I was flamed for my novel-length Loki redemption fic where I stated and dealt with the canonical fact that Loki committed genocide. (One of the basic premises of my story was that there are some things that can’t be forgiven or forgotten, no matter how badly the person wishes they’d never have done it.) The flamer said it wasn’t genocide, that Loki was just bombing Jotunnheim, and literally blamed everyone else for what he did. I quoted both canon and the definition of genocide in my response. The person never responded to that. (I later saw another comment by the person where s/he said Loki tried to obliterate Jotunnheim, but still blamed everyone else.)

    The thing about apologists in general that I don’t understand is why they do it. Is it because they’re uncomfortable with liking a character who has done those things when they’d hate people like them in the real world? Is it to make the characters more palatable to them? Because I can understand not liking characters who did and do bad things.

    Basically, I like complex characters. Having that complexity means understanding why they did something, good or bad. And liking a character doesn’t mean I have to approve of everything he or she did.

  2. Brooke says:

    Great post Dawn!

    My primary thought when that comes up is why the Fëanorions are any different from the others in the books that hunt or kill other people – the Sindar did with Petty-dwarves. It’s implied the Rohirrim did with the Drúedain. Turgon killed Eöl…and yet, Eöl and the Fëanorions are the only bad ones?

    And of course, to me, I can’t bring myself to apply our standards to them. *shrug* Which might be wrong, but I can’t. I know why people have hunted, killed, sacrificed other people throughout history. I don’t have to like or agree with it, but I can’t consider the leaders wrong or bad for it. I can understand why various groups practiced human sacrifice and not consider them bad people for it, even if I’m not installing a sacrificial stone in the backyard, for a real world example. I wouldn’t consider that so much apologist as a recognition that however much we want it to be, this isn’t our modern Western World and our standards might not apply (hence why Turgon can execute people by himself, without it apparently being a bad thing). It’s not even just British sensibilities of the early 20th century, though it has more in common with those.

    Of course, I do consider Fëanor and his sons good. They’re also, to varying degrees, horribly prejudiced, prideful, hate their relatives, etc, etc. But then again, so are people like Faramir, who does seem to consider the people of Gondor becoming more like the Rohirrim to be a bad thing (whether he is right or not is not the main thing) . The fun is in showing them as possibly good in spite of that, not erasing. Hell, Celegorm and Curufin refer to Eöl as “the beast” a few times in my stories. They also run off to spoil Celebrimbor, rescue small children from holes, and other various things. I’d like to say that when I write serious fic, almost everyone is a bad guy and almost everyone is a good guy, but that I’m not sure I always succeed at that.

    I’m not sure where I’m going with all that, other than that I’m very hesitant to apply my own moral standards to fictional characters – otherwise, I have to start disapproving of Celeborn and Galadriel! (And the many people around the world who do marry second or first cousins and are happy).

    Going along the vein with your students, it does give me a few more thoughts. Yes, they’re criminals. But in addition to the fact that they try to relabel themselves as good people, there’s also the fact that society does label them as criminal. But I’d suspect that they’re largely from the socioeconomic categories that research has shown are more likely to be labeled a trouble maker or criminal for the same exact thing that someone else wouldn’t. And I suspect that’s what at least partially went on with the Fëanorions – authority says they’re bad. Authority doesn’t say that the Sindar or Rohirrim are bad. Therefore, for the exact same thing, one is bad and the other isn’t. For me, that then leads into rationalizing and writing fic about how that would have affected each person, because there is support for the theory that once you know you’re already labeled something, you’re more likely to continue doing it. Once the Fëanorions are labeled kinslayers and doomed – well, I wonder why they didn’t do all the other lesser things they could have.

    The Fëanorions, after their first kinslaying, know that they’ve been labeled. They know they’re going to be thought badly of, regardless of what else they do (or they’re idiots). For me, the fascination lies in why they didn’t do far worse than they did. Love for their remaining family? Strategical considerations? Because they were good people doing bad things? It’s not that they hoped that if they didn’t do it again, they wouldn’t be identified or that they could escape being identified even if they kept doing it. It wasn’t that they were offered a plea deal to go here, do this, and we’ll let you off lighter. If they don’t get the Silmarils back, they’re doomed by their oath in addition to being labeled…

  3. Croclock says:

    What a good post!

    When it comes to the feanorians and the noldor, I always have a hard time with the issue of responsability. It really seems there are two polar oppositioning opinions in the fandom regarding them. It happens, to be fair, in all aspects of life: sometimes people forget everyone has a human side or motivations for their evil deeds; but that motivation doesn’t make the deed hurt any less, or takes any of the responsability for the choices a person makes?

    It was great reading this because it seems we have the same opinions, but you were able to put them down with eloquence and reasoning far beyond than what I am capable :) I’m just happy to know other people also have these concerns. Thanks for writing this!

  4. Dawn says:

    Indy: ‘Tis the place to come to be long-winded! I’m rather inclined to this myself. 😉

    Look at Sauron. There are enough hints that he has his own reasons for his actions in LotR

    This is one of the things I love about JRRT. Although his work became more dualist as he grew older, his older stuff especially is wonderfully ambiguous, and the hints of that persist even into LotR (which is much more dualist than the Silm). I remember in my early days in the fandom, writing something on the SWG group along the lines of, “I can find a way to relate to anyone in the book but Melkor,” and Rhapsody swooping in to write a lovely post that made me see even his PoV. It’s really possible to write from any character’s PoV and get a complicated look at the world.

    I think it’s sad when his works get reduced to black-and-white by fans with an ideological ax to grind; I feel like they are missing so much of the complexity that makes the books relatable (like your example of Sauron).

    I’ve seen hints of the Loki fandom, especially on my Tumblr. I’m going to sound really condescending right now (hey, I was once nominated as the Most Smug Person in Silm Fandom! 😉 ), but I feel like the inability to countenance a character you like doing bad things is a mark of immaturity. It reminds me of when I was in grade school and couldn’t imagine a boy I liked doing something that I didn’t. For example, in my mind, all cute boys were vegetarians. 😉 Now I care less about whether a character is someone I can imagine liking or hanging out with in RL and more about whether the person feels real to me.

    Brooke: Thank you. :) You make many good points in your comment. The double-standard is very much in effect, yes, with Turgon being one of the primary examples of that. I’ve explained this not so much as a difference in moral standards–although whether Elves would have approved of the death penalty or when they found violence an appropriate response is a fascinating question–as one of historical bias. All of the characters that you mention–the Sindar, Turgon, the Rohirrim, Faramir–are on the right side of history. They are either writing the texts or good friends with those who are. (For example, Pengolodh is attested as the source of much of the Silm, and he is one of Turgon’s lords.) The Feanorians don’t have much of a voice when it comes to the authorized version of events, although it is interesting to note that those who get the fairest treatment in the books–Maedhros and Maglor–are those who do have a connection to someone who was very influential in producing this authorized version: Elrond.

    I don’t know if Tolkien did this on purpose or not, but he certainly took pains to add historiographical information about the authorship and transmission of texts, so I’d think it was on his mind. Actually, if I could access that kickass Ouija board that I always accuse canatics of having, I’d probably ask him if his portrayal of various characters was intentional. But I digress. :)

    I also think of the Feanorians as Good PeopleTM who got caught up in various bad things. The questions you pose about how labels impact people, to me, are really fascinating.

  5. Dawn says:

    Thank you, Croclock! I think that part of what makes the Feanorians so fascinating is indeed our own response to them. Brooke and I, for example, were talking about some of the historiographical issues that might make the Feanorians appear worse in the book (or other characters appear better). We wrangle with the same issues in RL too, where a group’s authorized version of an historical event skews the truth (as might well be the case in the Silm and LotR). Or how we view morally complex people like the Feanorians who commit actions we don’t approve of but are otherwise relatable. These are the same questions we argue about in fandom! But with Elves, which makes it more awesome. 😉

  6. Ithilwen says:

    The Feanorians are as interesting as they are precisely because they change over time (and not all of them to the same degree). People who want to stick them into a simple “Good” or “Evil” box don’t seem to grasp that.

  7. Dawn says:

    Yes! Good point. To use English-teacher speak, they are dynamic characters. That process, to me as well, is a good part of why they are so enjoyable to write. (What caused them to change? I expect I could spend a lifetime answering that question! :^)

  8. Meisiluosi says:

    An excellent article.

    I myself am a die-hard Fëanorian camp follower and always will be. However, I’ve never been very fond of fics that turn these guys (especially Maedhros and Maglor) into mere victims. They were a lot more interesting than that.

    Anyway.
    If I might speculate a little – one of the reasons why so many people tend to identify with Fëanor and his cause at least partly is, I think, his defiance against the Valar and his disillusionment. He’s anti-establishment. That moment of revolt and that sheer lack of respect for the Powers must resonate with something that many people experience these days. Crisis of values, lack of trust in people who rule our world, getting fed up with the establishment and the system – and the sometimes rather overwhelming urge to *do SOMETHING* (and the frustration stemming from the fact that most of us can’t really do anything – or at least not much).
    And people tend to be apologetic of their favourite revolutionaries, don’t they…:-)

  9. Dawn says:

    Meisiluosi, I totally, totally agree with you. That is part of the appeal of Feanor for me, and I know it is for many of my friends who write him as well. And it does complicate things because to see shreds of “evil” in a character who supports a cause one would support might be difficult for people, as you note.

  10. maeglin says:

    Hi, Dawn. Again I’m happily reading these many great posts of yours, and am not sure whether it makes sense to comment on them because they’re so old (more than 2 years since the last comment :( ). But here goes anyway…

    Maybe things have changed since you wrote this post, but how do you think those who don’t attempt to [i]apologize[/i] for Feanor, but simply proceed from the premise that he was mostly right, fit into this picture? There are more than a few of us now. For example, among the more popular writers, Ziggy and Oshun come to mind for writing a Feanorian Erestor who is not the least bit apologetic. Regretful, perhaps, but that’s not the same thing. If I had been a Beleriandic Noldo I would absolutely have followed Feanor and his sons. Not so much because they were “Good” (no one’s saying they were capital-G Good), but because they were RIGHT (imo). I truly believe that the battles in which Doriath and Sirion were destroyed would have never happened had the lords of those lands displayed even an inkling of common sense. Perhaps Morgoth would have destroyed them anyway, but that truly is “another story”, as it were :).

    Thingol, Dior and Elwing had not the barest shadow of a right to a Silmaril imo. Luthien and Beren, perhaps … but never the others. Thingol, Dior, and Elwing chose to sacrifice their own people to obtain or retain something which was not theirs. And so on, and so forth.

    I think the main reason for the fact that Feanor fans/haters/what-have you fall into the condemning-vs-apologizing camp is that – for whatever reason – Tolkien fans hold Elves to a higher standard than they hold Men, Dwarves, and Hobbits. Or Ainur for that matter! Hardly anyone condemns (or feels much need to apologize for) Men killing each other in all the different wars. How are they any less Kinslayers?

    I don’t understand how people can do this AFTER reading the Silm multiple times and giving it serious thought, but apparently they do. Of course JRRT himself initiated all this, but we all know that going against JRRT’s way of looking at things is super-common in fanfic and probably one of the main reasons for its existence. And it seems fewer folks are willing to violate his “moral” standards on this issue than many others. (personally I find most of his moral standards ridiculous, but you know what I mean.) Perhaps it’s because Elves are canonically so physically attractive, and fans buy into the good-looking==supposed-to-be-good idea, even if unaware they’re doing so? I really dunno. I’m sure you have some interesting opinions on this :).

    • Dawn says:

      I get emails of new comments, so comments on posts old and new (lol on the latter … in May once I’m done my MA I promise … :D) are always welcome.

      Maybe things have changed since you wrote this post, but how do you think those who don’t attempt to apologize for Feanor, but simply proceed from the premise that he was mostly right, fit into this picture?

      That would be me too. I have no doubt that I would have followed the Fëanorians. (I like to think that I would not have participated in the kinslaying at Alqualondë, but social pyschological research suggests I would have!) I am not content to use my creativity or intellect solely to embellish an already beautiful world but want to use my skills to make that world better for those who rightfully don’t see it as beautiful. I think the Valar didn’t get that about Fëanor and the Noldor. They had their subcreative act in the building of Arda and were content to see their vision of Arda manifested in Valinor. Their lack of concern for the Eruhini in Middle-earth has always seemed criminal to me. It is as though, with their perfect world in place in Valinor (or as perfect as one can expect in Arda Marred), they were content to forget about anyone beyond those borders. The Noldor, on the other hand, didn’t have the chance in Valinor to really realize their subcreative potential, and I’ve always connected to their feelings of discontent as a result.

      People who hold this mindset are writing the stories I want to read. 😉 And not only because they are reflecting my own views but because I think this gets to an important question for those of us privileged enough to have been born in relatively safe and affluent lives: What do we owe our fellow humans who weren’t as lucky? What is meaningful work in a society that largely measures that work in dollars and cents (or pounds or Euros or …). I think it gets into issues of complicity and rebellion and the difficult ethical decisions that have to be made in the course of pursuing one’s idea of “right.”

      Thingol, Dior and Elwing had not the barest shadow of a right to a Silmaril imo. Luthien and Beren, perhaps …

      I don’t think any of them did. If your Bugatti was stolen and I venture on my own volition into the perilous realm of car thieves and chop shops to retrieve it, that doesn’t give me a right to it. It is still yours, and I should return it to you. I wouldn’t be wrong to expect a reward, but even if you prove tightfisted on that account, it doesn’t give me the right to keep it!

      The idea that the Fëanorians somehow relinquished their rights through the kinslaying makes no sense and has always smacked to me of the worst kind of excuse-making. Nor does the influence of the Valar invalidate their rights, imo. Yavanna made the Two Trees who provided the Light that went into the Silmarils … by that line of thinking, if you own a beachfront property (I am making you very prosperous in this comment! ;)) and I make a work of art using a seashell that originated in “your” part of the ocean, then you have a right to my artwork? No, the whole business of trying to find reasons to reclaim the Silmarils has always reeked to me of opportunism by people who wanted to possess the Silmarils for their own selfish purposes.

      Hardly anyone condemns (or feels much need to apologize for) Men killing each other in all the different wars. How are they any less Kinslayers?

      But the mortals are usually placed into categories of Good and Evil, so we are led to believe that, say, the Edain killing the Easterlings is okay (while the Easterlings killing the Edain is a symptom of said evil). I think your point about the Elves being held to a higher standard is on point: We are led to believe that the victims in all of the kinslayings are innocent in a way that certain mortals are not. This certainly gets into why Tolkien’s depiction of the Easterlings and interactions between Easterlings and other groups disturbs me …

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