Ambivalence

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A white heron on the bank of Uji River in Uji City, Japan

 

My last blog, sometime ago, was a short discussion of ambiguity as a literary device that brings depth to a work be it poem, story, or novel. With this post, I’d like to turn our attention to a related concept: ambivalence—contrasting attitudes or feelings occurring simultaneously. What are some examples? The housewife who loves her family but feels trapped. The student who loves school but hates to study. The young girl who desires a wedding but loathes her fiancé.

This contradictory and very human trait serves us writers well. Ambivalence is dramatic. This phenomenon can go a long way in one’s creation of character. We receive the advice, and good advice it is, to give our protagonist a flaw. Miss Goody Two-Shoes needs to have a dark side or at least a doubtful side, therein lies the heart of a story. We all get tired of the “she-never-makes-a-mistake” character. Perfection is boring.

But what about the flip side? The antagonist? Should that character be thoroughly evil, totally cruel, stunningly bad? Well, sure, why not? There’s plenty of role models in fiction and real life. We have Rome’s Caligula; Shakespeare’s Iago; Russia’s Rasputin; Milton’s Satan; Germany’s Hitler; C.S. Lewis’ The White Witch of Narnia; J.K. Rowling’s Lord Voldemort. The list goes on and on. All of the above are bad folk—what good there might have been is erased by their wicked ways.

Isn’t it interesting? We writers are warned against creating “pure” good characters, but urged to create “pure” evil ones. Well, that’s something we can discuss later!

So, what about a villain whose villainy is mitigated via ambivalence. The non-pure villain is, for me at least, much more interesting than the villain shot through with hatred. I would argue that to invest your villain with a deeper presence, then show him or her in a moment of doubt, a moment of uncertainty, a moment of tenderness. The problem is that you can’t go over the line of evil. If you make your villain too endearing then he’s no longer a villain. But give that bad boy or mean girl a moment of hesitation, a qualm, and you may deepen the reader’s experience. The human condition is seldom easy to define. We’re messy. We make wrong decisions. We make right decisions then do the wrong thing. We’re a bundle of wonderful errors. Reality is a tangle of emotions that refuses to be trapped in a good/bad construct.

So what are your thoughts? Have you used ambivalence as a character-building trait? Do you shy away from it? What are the problems?

19 thoughts on “Ambivalence

  1. Deepika

    I always think that a villain cannot be 100% evil there has to be something that makes him/her tick, that makes him/her human, that makes us, readers love the character for one second before continuing to despise him

    Liked by 6 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      Very good point! I think you are quite correct that “something makes him/her tick.” It’s that “tick” that intrigues us. :-).

      Thank you for reading and replying.

      Liked by 2 people

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  2. Karina Pinella

    It might serve a purpose for some stories to have extreme characterizations with a character being an epitome of evil to serve as a way to show if the protagonist, who has a good and dark side will overcome his or her dark side and have his or her good side win through. The classic good vs. evil kind of story.

    Liked by 4 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      How right you are!
      The protagonist’s ambivalence becomes a character flaw–even to the point that the opposition against which the hero struggles is within himself.
      Very good point. Thanks for sharing, Karina. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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  3. Cynthia Guenther Richardson

    Interesting piece. I sometimes find that “bad” character may become redeemable, that they have that tiny spark of possibility for change, and that journey can be a rich tale. On the other hand, it is a given that people are woven of positive/ healthy and not so positive/unhealthy characteristics, but their defects can also bring them to illuminating experiences, while the good in them is always subject to being marred. I guess my characters tend to be overall decent people who can be quite surprised they still have much to learn or be open to so they might become fuller, more caring human beings. But one of my passions as a writer and human is to pursue the spirtual ralities of indiviauls as well as emotional or intellectual… Hmmm, your post gave rise to some thought provoking rumination….Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      And thank you for your great insights, Cynthia. Your remarks made me realize that genre plays an important role in character development. Fantasy and Sci Fi are prone to having larger than life villians who represent the Dark side of existence, a la Rowling and her Voldemort.

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      1. Paul Post author

        Dang I hit the send button by mistake! Whoops. In my own writing, the struggle of my protagonists tend to be against a vague and indistinct institutional agents: e.g., HMOs or an educational system, or strict religious beliefs. These things may or may not be pure evil but produce in their own way barriers against which the character has to struggle in an effort to define herself to become as you so rightly put it a “fuller, more caring” human being.

        Thank you so much for reading and the great response.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. calmkate

    great post and appreciate your thoughts … I am often known to say but even the evil ones must have someone who loves them eg mother, brain-washed followers. But you are so right we are not black and white just many shades of grey, so to illustrate that gives characters more depth. Makes them more real and interesting.

    Liked by 3 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      You know, not so long ago I actually got into an argument–a religious argument–that hit on your point. A good friend who lives down the road from us invited me one afternoon to sit down and have a beer. We started chatting and I vaguely remember saying something like: “Hitler wasn’t born evil.” And he was totally shocked. “How can you say that?” he asked. and I went in to the ideas you mention above. His early life molded him. He must have been doted on by someone! but unfortunately…so forth and so on…. I always want to know: What happened to that person early on to make him so wrong, so evil?
      Thanks for that insight, Kate! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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      1. calmkate

        For him it was all about power .. some are actually psychopaths, their brain is wired quite differently to most in that they have no moral compass at all. Hence no guilt, shame or regret and can perpetrate very sadistic torture before killing … they are well represented on the murder shows!

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Tina Williams

    I think at the very least a reader should understand why the antagonist is the way he/she is. An antagonist is simply someone your protagonist comes up against, someone who prevents them from achieving their goal. In genre fiction, the antagonist is often an “evil” villain, but I still think it’s important for the reader to get a sense of who that person is, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Perhaps not redeemable, but understandable.

    Liked by 3 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      I totally agree. The motivation factor is the ultimate guiding principle for character building. I think a shift in thinking works best when it reinforces the character’s desires be they good or evil. Good point, Tina.
      Thank you so much for reading and replying!

      Liked by 2 people

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  6. Idle Muser

    This article had been pretty insightful, Paul. Thanks for sharing it.🙂
    As for a character (antagonist or not) to be purely evil works only in rare cases. Nobody is born evil; one’s surroundings play a substantial role in altering his/her persona. It’s to know that alteration element that intrigues me more than anything.
    In the end, we shouldn’t forget, evils are humans too (provided the character of the story is really a human). And we, humans, are never black or white; there always is a grayish tone to us.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Paul Post author

      Well said. We’re definitely on the same page. I’m still astounded when I hear people, usually fundamentalists talk about the devil moving about us and causing us to do evil…which since we’re depraved already–makes it easy. Sigh. “Nobody is born evil.” So so so, true.

      Thank you for reading and the great insights.

      Liked by 1 person

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  7. jim-

    Most pure evil lurks underneath a pious shell. Pretending to be good, or normal is how they operate under the radar. Pure, sole evil would be hard to pull off for me, because that really sits outside my reality. Fortunately or unfortunately, half my life was around people with the shell, but their secrets were weeping out into the open as guile can rarely be contained completely.

    Liked by 2 people

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