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.