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 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.


  1. I agree motivation makes a wicked character more three dimensional and interesting. But, I also like the Bad Seed idea, aka Cathy from East of Eden. She was born missing something normal people have, and she was one of the most interesting characters in Steinbeck's book.


  2. Danger! Get too much into motivation and background on your character, and you'll end up where I am. Years ago I started a fantasy with a teen MC. She needed an enemy. I cut one out of cardboard and stuck it in. And quickly realized the MC faded into 'who cares' because the villain was a shadow without substance.

    So I worked on my villain. Even though she was defeated by the MC in that first ms, my villain disposed of the MC to star in the second.

    What made this villain come to life was that I know her back history. She's real to me. I don't think she'd be so real, if I felt her pyschopathy was not in some measure a result of her life experiences. Not that I don't feel she was born with the gift for evil.

  3. Good comments! I think I really like knowing as a writer what the back story is for my bad character. However, choosing how much of it to share is always difficult for me!