Very Bad Men

Receptionist: "How do you write women so well?"
Melvin: "I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability."
                                                           --As Good as it Gets (1997)

When inventing a character of my own sex, I find I have limitless amounts of inspiration. As a woman, I can draw qualities from myself or from my sisters and close friends. I can reflect on other female fictional characters with whom I have felt a connection. But when it comes to creating men, I have found it involves a good deal more work. Because ultimately, they are a strange species whom I do not understand.

Creating male characters who are good guys is somewhat of a challenge, but it's the bad guys—those terrible men who make life hell for my (mostly) female protagonists that are the hardest to create. It's so easy to create that one-dimensional misogynist who gets off on causing pain and is bad just because he's always been that way. You'd be amazed (or maybe you wouldn't) how often I would hear some young lady in my undergrad literature classes calmly explaining that the male antagonist acts that way because "men are just like that."

But they're not. They're complicated, even the ones who say they are not. So how do you go about creating a male villain? First and foremost, understand that your villain, does not think he is a villain. He is a reasonable person who wants reasonable things, and its not his fault that the protagonist is getting in his way. For me, all of my primary protagonists will be women, so deciding how my male antagonist feels about women is of primary importance, as it will dictate how he interacts with my protagonist. Above all things, your villain knows that he is absolutely right. Not about everything, just about the issue that puts him at odds with your protagonist. And like it or not, when dealing with heterosexuals of the opposite sex, gender relations will come into it. Men don't treat men the same way they treat women. Ever. And women don't react to men the way they react to women. Ever. So let's look at an some example.

The video below is a segment from Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. He is an atheist scientist who went to Jerusalem and interviewed various people from Christianity, Judaism and Islam. He does not bring up gender at all, nor cultural differences between east and west. He is there to discuss the effect of religion and why it is necessary. His interview subject knows this. But listen to his words and how quickly he jumps to the subject of women. Listen to the venom. Who is this American man and how did he become this way? Do you think when he describes himself, he says "I'm a virulent misogynist who seeks to control women above all other pursuits?" Of course he does not. Why did he choose Islam, rather than Buddhism or the Judaism he was raised with? Specifically, why did he choose radical Islam? One can imagine it was appealing to him because of the sense of superiority it gave him as a man.

This is an extreme case, of course, and I have never written about a male character like this. For a perfectly crafted example of such a character, see William Hamleigh in Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. I find these men to be too easy to figure out, too easy to manipulate. Its easy to see what they want. Its easy to twist them. Flattery and submission are way past being interesting for me. So my characters are never such blatant misogynists, nor are they sadists, because in my experience, people like that are much rarer than Hollywood would have you believe.

When I created Alfredo, I decided on the qualities I had seen too many times from my former fellow Marines. He is dangerous without being psychotic. He has a God complex but is not delusional. He firmly believes in the Biblical superiority of men, but is not a misogynist. There is an order to things and in all of his actions, he genuinely believes he is working toward God's goals, which (as coincidence would have it) also happen to be his goals. My hope in creating his character was not only to allow my reader to feel what it would be like to be Alfredo, but towards the end in his scenes with Shannan, I want the reader to experience what it would be like to be at Alfredo's mercy.



Comments

  1. My brother would probably say there are only two things you need to know to understand men: sex and beer. :)

    Thanks for an insightful post, Christine. It's often been charged that men don't know how to write female characters. Your post shows its sometimes difficult to bridge the gender divide from the other side, as well.

    One of the great benefits of writings is that it encourages us to explore experiences outside of our own and to see the world through someone else's eyes, something "bad" men (and women) are usually unwilling to do.

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