There’s a quote by the Roman comic playwright Terrence that I like to keep in front of me while I’m writing. He said, “I am human. I consider nothing human alien to me.”
I first heard this quote in a video with Maya Angelou where she further broke that quote down, saying: “If you can internalize even a portion of that, you will never be able to say of a criminal act that I could never do that, no matter how heinous the act. If a human being did it, you have to say I have in me all the same components that are in her or in him.”
That’s a pretty powerful shift of view, especially in regards to the idea of evil. If every human being has the same capabilities of committing evil acts as even the worst of murderers and criminals, then even the opposite is true: that the worst of murderers and criminals have within them the same components to do good, to have a measure of light within them. Whether or not they choose to act on that goodness and light is another question all together.
Kind of hard to swallow, isn’t it? It was for me, too. I’ve known some real pricks in my life, one of which could legitimately give Hannibal Lecter a run for his money in terms of psychopathy. For the longest time I regarded him as a total monster wrapped in human skin, separate from humanity, a Thing, because that was easier. Easier to see him as inhuman and believe myself to be far more superior in my humanity.
And yet I struggled with that. I couldn’t accept the moral righteousness I so wanted to feel because I knew, given the right set of circumstances, I could commit monstrous acts as well. So I wrote. I poured all my confusion and energy and anger into stories to explore the concept of evil and the question of what constitutes a monster.
Then one day I came across that video and there was a click inside my brain. Oh. That’s what I’d been writing about all along, I just never condensed it down into such precise words. Applying that to my situation, I then had to do the hardest thing a person can do.
I changed the way I saw someone who hurt me and the people I loved.
Then, the second round of realizations came in. If everyone has the same components for good and bad within them, from the highest highs to the lowest lows, then there is no outside alien force to blame for the bad we do. It’s all on us. It’s our responsibility to recognize those seeds and to act in better ways, both in regards to ourselves and to others. After this realization, I can’t honestly look at someone else and say, I’d never do that. Because I could, given the right circumstances; we both have that seed within us, and, unless we’ve been specifically trained or conditioned to act in certain ways under pressure, we never know exactly how we’ll act in a given abnormal situation. The fear factor comes into play, as well as survival instinct, and every other emotional state on the spectrum.
You’d be surprised at the lengths to which you’ll go when your life is threatened, or something else you hold dear.
I didn’t forgive him. I probably never will, but I began peeling away the layers of Monster and Evil I’d shrouded him in until I got down to the center of it all. And the fact of the matter is, he was a sick, deceptive, and dangerous human being. Key word human being. But he’d done good for others in his life as well. He did help people, protect them. Those seeds were there, he just chose not to grow them as much as he did the other ones.
Writing him off as simply an evil monster may have given me a false sense of security for a while, but it also built him up to be more than he really was. It painted him as being more powerful. A boogeyman. Half real, half myth. He was none of those things, and by stripping those ideas away it reduced him back to ground level. I could see him for what he was, finally.
Just a man.
So, how does this relate to writing?
For one, I think applying this to fiction opens up a lot of wonderful doors for characters, the good, the bad, and the in between. It requires some work, for sure. I had to dig deep inside myself and face some terrifying ideas and truths, but afterward I created characters that leapt off the page. They stood up and walked around and made readers feel things.
Because they could relate to the characters I wrote, even the worst ones of all.
Over the next few days I’m going to add posts on certain aspects of character development that use this piece as a jumping off point to show you how I use this knowledge to create rounded, solid characters that are interesting, engaging, progressive, and thoroughly layered, both for your heroes and your villains. In the mean time, let me know what you think down in the comments.