Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Creating Civilized Characters

By Mark W. Danielson

Civilized is such an interesting word. It describes many things, but rarely does it describe wildlife. My Denver neighborhood is home to hawks, eagles, foxes, and coyotes because of its abundance of prairie dogs. Similarly, deer roaming Boulder neighborhoods attract cougars, New York City rats attract birds of prey, and sometimes, Florida pets attract alligators. I’ve seen owls nesting inside a Lowe’s store, bald eagles nest in a tree surrounded by busy streets, and mallard ducklings paddle in hotel fountains. Wherever you look, you will see wildlife coexisting with us. So, why is it so hard for us civilized humans to get along with each other?

Not long ago, the Memphis Zoo had a “free day”. With perfect weather, twenty-five thousand people showed up to take advantage of this special event. Kids held balloons and ate candy, and then skirmishes broke out. Rival gang members had sent text messages to each other to meet there, and when the gunshots rang out, the police were called, and the zoo was evacuated, ruining the day. Amazingly, no one was killed.

The premeditated actions of a few thugs were vileness. Everyone who saw this story felt nothing but contempt for those responsible. Taking a fight to a place of joy filled with young children goes beyond explanation. These people had no sense of civility.

By definition, civilized means having a highly developed society and culture. It infers refinement in taste and manners. It shows evidence of moral and intellectual advancement; humane, ethical, and reasonable behavior. Civilized people are cultured, polite. But this photo also shows that animals can lovingly interact with other species. This particular polar bear returned every day for a week to hug this chained sled dog. Wildlife kill for food or protection; not for sport. This is a key point when developing evil characters.

My reason for comparing animals to people is to ensure authors develop characters that readers will care about. Thugs who kill without explanation have no place in mystery novels. We all know such people exist, but that doesn’t mean we want to read about them. If I can’t empathize with a story’s characters, I will close the book and toss it. Conversely, if I have a sense that the character’s past led him or her to commit dreadful acts, then I’m far more inclined to read on.
There is a fine line between civilized and wild, just as there is between murderer and tortured victims. We have seen plenty of belittled people who have lashed out, in which case they were both murderers and tortured victims. Every writer has the opportunity to create complex characters. Have fun with them, and most importantly, make us care.


Jean Henry Mead said...

You're so right, Mark. No one is all bad and it's a humbling experience to explore the mind of a killer. Some writers are so good at it that the reader emphathizes with the murderer.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Jean, Butch Cassidy, Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, even OJ Simpson, all drew sympathy because people empathized with their position at the time. That is the difference between pure evil characters and those who have been driven to perform evil deeds through difficult circumstances. One of the best representations of this is Heath Ledger's final role as The Joker character in The Dark Knight. Complex characters can be really fun to create and read.

Anonymous said...

"even O.J. Simpson"?

No hate mail please, but I may be the only person on the planet who thinks O.J. was innocent. Unfortunately, Nicole's vocal sister fell under the spell of a notorious So. Cal. woman lawyer who never met a microphone she didn't like.

Same with Scott Peterson. Nothing -- especially the lack of evidence -- convinced me that he is guilty. Unfortunately again, his so-called mistress fell under the spell of that notorious So. Cal. woman lawyer.

Now we have 2 adulterous males. Everyone is dumping on Tiger Woods, at least one of whose conquests has fallen under the spell of that same notorious lawyer --

And then there's Gov. Sanford of S. Carolina who, to this day, is still seeing his soul mate from South America, and is still the governor of S.Carolina. Go figure.
Could it be because the soul mate from S. America has kept her mouth shut while everyone else dribbled on?

For my money, the complex character who should be dissected in a novel is that notorious woman lawyer in So. Cal. ---

Just chiming in --

Pat Browning

Mark W. Danielson said...

Funny thing about OJ -- pick your court battle and it evens out: win one, lose one. (Well, lose two, if you count his Las Vegas incident.)