Monday, September 12, 2011
Are Characters Born Wicked?
"Are people born wicked or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?"
That's a line from a popular Broadway musical called, Wicked. It tells the story of Elphaba, later known as the Wicked Witch of the West, and Galinda, aka, the Good Witch of the North. The musical chronicles their unlikely friendship and explains how the Elphaba comes to be known as the most wicked creature around. It's a fun story, and you'll never look at the Wizard of Oz the same way again!
I like the question the best. Are people born wicked? Or is it their particular circumstance that causes their actions? I guess I like to think that no one is born wicked, that we are all victims of our opportunities in life. However, do the same rules apply when creating characters?
I think so. Most readers want to know why a character does the things he or she does. They need a reason to understand that person's actions--whether they are good or bad. And yet, some characters are so truly evil that the reader becomes fascinated and doesn't need their back story. For instance, take eveyone's favorite cannibal, Hannibal Lector. Hmmm...what exactly did his momma do to him in childhood that turned him into such a connoisseur of human flesh? Author Thomas Harris chooses not to go into details about that, and it's really not important to the story, but still, it does make you wonder...
Did Mr. Harris have that background information when he began writing the character of Hannibal Lector? Was it something he used as a tool to craft and mold this larger than life person who evokes such terror in readers and even movie goers? (Thank you, Anthony Hopkins.) Or was Hannibal just born wicked?
As a writer who dabbles in urban fantasy, I often ask myself that question about any new evil character I'm creating. I like to know what it is that drives a person to do the their bad deeds. Sometimes I include that info in a story and sometimes, I just hint at it. This is all part of knowing when and how much of the back story to include--a tricky thing for writers. Too much of it and your audience tunes out. Too little and they get frustrated enough to stop reading.
When writing your short story submission for our All Things Dark and Dastardly competition, remember that we like characters who are wicked, but not so wicked that we can't identify with them at all. The characters that seem to get under our skin are the complex ones, the ones who are more than what they seem.
Don't forget you have until Oct. 1 to submit your dark story to firstname.lastname@example.org. Winners win a free copy of All Things Dark and Dastardly and are published on All Things Writing. See our story submission link to get more details.