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?