People are selfish. They are shitbags. They are selfless. They are honorable. People are all things and are nothing.
Dichotomies? Absolutely. And that’s the point. I love stories that have great characters. When I say “great,” I mean they act and move around their world like real people. Not only that, but they heave reasons for doing what they do. Those reasons, the way they justify their actions, are what make them human.
The modus operandi of characters doesn’t just pertain to criminals. Every character has habits, reasons for doing what they do, and letting readers in on that is half the fun of writing.
One of my biggest pet peeves in reading a book, or watching a film or play, is when the author feels their villain has to have some long-assed diatribe telling the protagonists why they’re doing what they’re doing. I like to call it “The Bond Villain Dialogue.”
If you’ve ever watched a bunch of Bond movies together, you’ll notice that the bad guys have these ridiculous reasons for doing the bad things they do. Either the uber-rich want to become uber-richer, the powerful want to become more so, or they’re trying to affect unrealistic world change. And they just can’t wait to tell Bond all about it.
I hate when that happens. It rips me right out of the story which is ultimately about wooden people with one-dimensional motives. I guess maybe I’m more interested in the little people and their small-scale desires. They are much more real to me because I mingle with them every day.
That’s not to say they have to be sane. I’ve written plenty of stories about serial killers whose M.O. is wrapped in their understanding of religion, their hatred for the government, their strange relationships with their parents, and etc. When these characters reveal their reasoning through conversations with themselves or with their victims, I hope my readers get more than chills. I hope their rationalizations are logical, because that’s what makes them so terrifying.
At the same time, I like to play with normal people and put them in situations that are anything but normal. A blue collar truck driver who discovers an invasion of killer mimes, for instance. Or how about a reporter chasing down a killer only to become hunted himself? Or a software developer who discovers a human monster?
These are, by and large, not extraordinary heroes. The villains themselves are extraordinary in their rationalizations or their upbringing or their mental illness, but they are merely trying to control the small portion of the world around them. They aren’t master villains attempting to take over the world and therefore their motivations are real and identifiable.
This is not to say I don’t enjoy reading about larger than life characters who are power-hungry or focused on some world-changing goal. I do, but only so long as they act like real people and their motivations fall into line because of logical rationalizations.
So, writers, remember that a character always has motivations for what they do. They may be the voices in their heads, or their need to alter their lives. They can be whatever you want them to be. After all–they’re your characters. But try and make them human in their motives, because as humans ourselves, we can’t really identify with much else.