I’d like to be a literature major…

So I have a new idea for the story I’m working on. Here will follow a long section of literary terms and comments on characters you know nothing about. Deal with it.

I noticed something about two authors I’ve read recently, Ayn Rand and Barbara Kingsolver. No one will probably argue that these are both highly intelligent women and gifted writers. They both write fiction more to make a point than to tell a story, which I’m okay with if you do it well. And they do. But they both also use a literary trick of making their opposition seems disgusting, laugable, stupid, or some combination of the three. This does make their point, but it doesn’t make it very well. And I was thinking back to my old faithful, favorite author, Victor Hugo, and his antagonist Dom Claude. Dom Claude is an abusive father, a priest consumed with lust who would rather execute the woman he burns for than to let her reject him. Nobody likes Dom Claude. But, Hugo doesn’t write him as an entirely black hat. He was a good father to his younger brother that he raised, and most of his motivation (outside of the lust thing) has to do with trying to atone for his brother’s sins so he can be sure that his brother will go to heaven. Out of this motivation, he adopts a hideously deformed child who’s been left to die on the church steps. That is to say, nobody likes Dom Claude, but you can’t entirely hate him either. Hugo starts the story out with a great deal of identifying for Dom Claude, then slowly moves him into the realm of the despicable. It’s frightening and powerful because when he first starts drifting, you feel youself drifting with him too. This is a much better way to make a point, not to mention a much better way to tell a story.

I’m writing this story about two sisters, that moves chronologically backwards. The theory behind the story is that in the beginning, one sister is the villain and the other the victim, and by the end of the story their roles have flipped. Since it moves backwards, what I had done is made one sister evil, but you don’t realize it until the end. However, I think it would make a much more interesting story, and a better point about assumptions, if their roles were true. So at the end of the story they could both be condemned and they could both be redeemed. This does an interesting thing to my reader, which I always like to try, in that I won’t tell the reader who is the worse evil, who was more greatly wronged, or who was more rightous. The reader has to decide, or decide not to decide.

So here’s the rub. There’s a rapist in my story, a rapist who turns into a murderer by the end. It is still hard for me to accept, but believe it or not, rapist and murderers are humans also. Is it possible, is it worthwhile, and would it be right, to make an attempt at some amount of identification with that character? I have a way in mind to do it, but the last two questions remain. I don’t want to encourage people to identify with rapists and murderers, but the story hinges on this idea of compassion and judgement, wouldn’t it be self-defeating to judge and condemn one of my characters? I’m not exactly looking for answers, but if you have thoughts, and you made it through all that, I’d be interested.

6 thoughts on “I’d like to be a literature major…”

  1. If you could pull it off I think it would become a very, very interesting read. It also could shoot you in the foot as some kinds of people reading it may toss it over their shoulder when they realize you’re trying to redeem someone they “think” they’re supposed to hate. They would see it as marginializing his (or perhaps her?) crime.

    If you don’t give a damn what those kinds of people think (and I don’t you should), then go ahead and write it like you want. I think it would be a very interesting read as I said before and it would allow people a chance to see your depth as a writer. As you said before, we are all human. I think doing this would be a good challenge for you as a writer.

  2. It would be somewhat self-defeating, especially for those intelligent readers who would wonder why you accept some, but not others if your message was indeed one of redemption. Do it if you can pull it off effectively. Some of us need to be reminded of our duty to love all, regardless of vile actions.

  3. well, of course, you should try writing it out and see if you can pull it off in a way that still accomplishes all your goals. Then you should let some other people read it and see what they think (I say, oh so nonchalantly).

    Now, as for what I actually think of the idea, I’m always up for trying new things and taking your reader to a place they didn’t expect to be going. It takes a great deal of courage as a writer to go where your story needs to go and not just stay with what’s comfortable. Whether its killing off important characters or trying to identify with a murderer/rapist. The key in this situation is probably to show us (the readers) the person as different from the crime. It is easy to define people by what they do, but no one action fully defines a person over their lifetime. Not as an excuse, but presumably this character is not defined by these two heinous acts, same with Dom Claude.

    Well, that may be more than you wanted, but it’s what I thought.

  4. I’ve met a few people who have molested others before. And given my history, it would be easy to condemn them. But somehow, when I’ve met these folks, I’ve had nothing but compassion for them.

    They have this massive unforgiveness they harbor against themselves, typically. I usually end up crying for them.

    That said, the best villains always have something human about them. All villainy is inherently tragic, unless it is monstrous. But again, monstrous villainy ceases to be human. Why create a cardboard character when you could build something real?

  5. speaking of Hugo… Kyle and I went to see Les Miz last night. It was AWESOME!!!! And it’s the same thing- Javert is kind of the bad guy, but he’s working within the law trying to bring justice and even his death is tragic. And the only truely unlikable characters are funny, so you like them too. oh good times.

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