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Characters and Viewpoint

September 23, 2009

I’ve been reading a book on craft by Orson Scott Card lately* where he suggests, to make readers hate the villain, to make the villain really, really smart.

This isn’t true in every culture, but certainly the American audience resents any character who is smarter and better educated than other people. … We’re afraid of and resent people who know more than we do, and when they act as if they think it makes them superior to us, we hate them.

That’s sad. Card is probably right, and probably the technique works, but is it right to do it? Tapping into the worst part of people’s natures to make them feel something about a character? He also suggests making bad guys insane to make us hate them.

These are a couple of prejudices that it’s more or less still socially acceptable to have – I certainly couldn’t get away with having a scheming Shylock as my antagonist. But it’s not just that. I also take issue with his lukewarm acceptance of sympathetic, morally ambiguous villains.

When you separate sympathy from moral decisions – exactly what a judge and jury must try to do in a trial – you can’t be sure that your audience will reach the ‘right’ conclusions; you can’t be sure that they’ll agree with you.

What, am I going to hurt my readers’ brains?

Maybe this is why I didn’t like Seventh Son much.

I’d be interested to see what other amateur writers think. How do you build character? Do you add attributes to characters just to make them more evil/heroic, and does it work for you?

* Characters and Viewpoint, in the Elements of Fiction Writing series.

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