Thursday, March 18, 2010

Writing Evil.

I was thinking a lot about the characters in my book and how I portray them. All of them, even the background characters. In other projects the bad guys are not such a concern for me, but when I'm writing FATED, my WWII historical, I need to be a little more cautious. In the first draft, I made the Germans out to be these horrible, horrible monsters. My MC, a Jewish teen girl, saw them with black eyes and jagged teeth. Shadowy gray monsters that hide in plain sight, ready to jump out and snatch everything away from her. And in many ways, this is true to the story. But it also raises a problem for me. I don't want to demonize an entire group of people. Not even Nazi Germany.

So how do you create characters that do these horrible, sadistic, psychotic things without demonizing them? They're demons in your character's eyes, so do you write them as such?

I realize I may be over-thinking this, but it is something that has bothered me for quite some time. I never considered how difficult it would be to write a Historical novel. Writing anything is hard work, but when it comes to something as sensitive and serious as WWII, it becomes a whole different game.

I found this great podcast/interview from the united States Holocaust Memorial Museum website and it really hit home for me. First of all, I LOVE Ralph Fiennes. He is amazing in every film I've seen him in. And one of my favorite films is Schindler's List. I am writing a WWII novel, so I have watched a good number of movies, read books and memoirs and did ample amounts of online research on the time. Makes a very depressing "hobby" by the way.

In this interview, Ralph talks about playing the role of SS officer Amon Goeth in Schindler's List. I will post a link to the full interview as well as the audio, but the one part that really stuck out to me, was Ralph's reply when he was asked what he learned about evil while playing that role.

Well, that it’s every day. Evil is cumulative. It happens. People believe that they’ve got to do a job, they’ve got to take on an ideology, that they’ve got a life to lead; they’ve got to survive, a job to do, it’s every day inch by inch, little compromises, little ways of telling yourself this is how you should lead your life and suddenly then these things can happen. I mean, I could make a judgment myself privately, this is a terrible, evil, horrific man. But the job was to portray the man, the human being. There’s a sort of banality, that everydayness, that I think was important. And it was in the screenplay. In fact, one of the first scenes with Oskar Schindler, with Liam Neeson, was a scene where I’m saying “You don’t understand how hard it is, I have to order so many-so many meters of barbed wire and so many fencing posts and I have to get so many people from A to B.” And, you know, he’s sort of letting off steam about the difficulties of the job. And so I suppose you can step back and that is where the evil is, when you can step back and look at it.

I don't want my Nazi soldiers to be static. I don't want them to be purely evil. I want them to be people. But I also want to remain true to the time. I want the reader to see them as my protagonist sees them. I want the reader, to hate them. To fear them. But I don't want the reader to feel as though I have demonized all of Germany because that is not my intention. I think the only way to do that, is what Ralph Fiennes said above: step back and look at it.

In the scene he mentioned where his character is speaking with Liam Neeson's character, he is giving us a glimpse into the mind of Amon Goeth, the man. Not the demon. Another one that comes to mind is a scene from INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (I know, not the best choice for WWII reference). There is a scene when the "basterds" have captured some young German soldiers. They ask one soldier what he plans to do with his uniform when he returns home. The boy says he's going to burn it. This is another look at the "evil" characters as humans. This kid din't want to murder people. He didn't want to be a part of the genocide that came along with that war, but he did it because it was his duty. He became evil inch by inch.

Even for minor characters, I think it is important to know them. To know why they do the things they do. My book is a first person narrative, so my MC may not understand the soldiers. She may still see them with black eyes and jagged teeth, but it is my responsibility as the author to be sure that they are more than that.

Now, if I can just figure out how to do that.


  1. Yeah, I think it's important to make the 'bad guy' dimensional rather than a flat character. Mine is definitely what most people would call evil (being a serial killer and all), but I want his motivation to come across to the reader as he doesn't consider himself evil -- just misunderstood. :)

  2. Yes! That's basically what I was getting at. I think this one is a little harder for me, because I'm so worried I'm going to offend someone. >_<

  3. Yes, I'm Jewish so it is a hard subject for me. I think I understand what you mean though, people do these things for a reason. It's psychology. Take a look at the Milgram Experiments. They showed what no one wanted to believe - that "normal" people like you and I have a tendency to bow to authority no matter what the cost. Scary stuff. I think it's easier to ignore or even yes, give in to evil than to fight it.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Lisa. I want them to be portrayed as what they were, but at the same time I don't believe that every single German soldier wanted to be where he was. I think I've fixed the problem. I added one small scene with my MC and one soldier. He doesn't say anything, but by his action and his facial expressions, you feel that he knows what he is doing is wrong, but he feels powerless to stop it. The rest of them are psychotic and I write them as such.

    Part of what you said plays a role in my book. That it is easier to bow down to evil than to fight it.

    Thanks again for commenting!
    Happy Pesach!


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