Tom Hiddleston, my darling Loki in the Avengers Movies, explained his mindset when playing the bad guy as follows: Every villain is a hero in his own mind. In a similar vein, Sir Winston Churchill noted how society determines who is right and wrong: History is written by the victors. If Richard III had gotten that horse for which he offered his kingdom, we would remember him less as a man deformed in body and soul, and more as a triumphant protector of his country.
I started writing when I was in elementary school, though (luckily for my friends and family) I never let anyone read those early efforts. One of my favorite books as a child and beginning writer was The Worst Room in the School by Lois Baker Muehl. It told the story of some misfit kids and how they came to be friends — standard middle grades fiction. But the thing that stuck with me about TWRITS was that Ms. Muehl shifted the narrator’s point of view; each chapter was told by a different student in the class.
This was amazing to my 9-year-old self. There wasn’t a good guy or a bad guy — every one of the characters was just trying to do the best he or she could under the circumstances, and their actions made sense when you knew their motivations. As I remember it, an early chapter was told by a teachers’ pet, who made it clear that the class bully was evil incarnate. But then the bully had a chapter, and when I realized why he was acting the way he did, it was far more sad than evil.
As an avid reader and a sometimes writer, I’ve been fascinated by the way a few changed words, a couple of omitted details, can change your understanding of the good guy and bad guy. Certainly, in my career as a trial lawyer, I learned how to shade my word choice and choose the right details to stress, so I could convince a jury that the defendant was or was not guilty of various charges. In fact, as a young showboat moot court member, I once did a demonstration where I argued against myself — playing both prosecutor and defense attorney — and did a damn fine job for both sides!
I recently had a demonstration of this in my own life, where the omission of a few details and the emphasis put on various aspects of a situation changed its tenor completely. I don’t like to hang my private life out on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, so I’ll just say that, when I heard the story, I couldn’t believe it was the same incident I’d seen. What I’d understood to be an unfortunate change of plans because of an unforeseeable family problem was presented as a terrible personal attack on a friend. If I had perceived it the way it was told, I’d hate the “villain” too.
That’s not to say that the person who related the story was wrong in his/her perception of the event. Absolutely not. That person’s emotions, motivations, and perceptions are also real. Feelings were hurt, and for that, I’m terribly, terribly sorry. But there are, in fact, two sides (or more) sides to most stories, and lashing out in public is rarely constructive. It only raises the feeling of victimization on both sides, and makes real communication impossible.
Of course, in fiction (as in real life), POV characters rarely change their minds. The way they perceive events, the way they remember them, is generally set in stone. They say a person who is absolutely convinced in their own mind about a fact can pass a lie detector with flying colors, even if he or she is absolutely, demonstrably wrong about that fact.
I guess as I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to internalize the lesson my 9-year-old self learned from Ms. Muehl’s little book — except for the odd Pol Pot or Ted Bundy, there are no good guys and bad guys, there are just people doing the best they can for reasons that make sense to them. If I can incorporate that into my characters, I won’t end up with flat cardboard “heroes” and “villains,” but with three-dimensional characters my readers can believe in.