Have you ever had a friend roleplay a character that was terrifying. I mean deeply, sickeningly evil to the point where you had to laugh? I have.
The character’s name was John Wayne Howell, and he was played by my sweet, kindly friend Melissa. He was a horrible monster.
And it was awesome.
The game was Frontier – my own, homemade hard-scifi game wherein the players portray corporate ‘contractors’ sent to the edges of known space to do things too dangerous or illegal for actual corporate employees. The basic deal is that the corporation takes society’s undesirables off the hands of prison officials, the judicial system, or poor houses and gives them a shot at citizenship. On the character sheet, just below the legalese of the contract itself, is a space for the character’s name and for their crime (the thing that got them kicked out of Hubspace and all the way out to Who Knows Where). There were a variety of con artists, theives, forgers, violent offenders, sexual deviants, and so on in the party for this particular campain.
Beneath JW Howell’s name was written “Crimes Against Humanity.”
See, Howell had been a brigade commander during World War Four (or Interplanetary War Two, depending on how you count). He fought for the US against China and Russia, and committed terrible, terrible acts of brutality upon civilian populations, prisoners of war, and, of course, enemy combatants. He was an unabashed racist, a fascist fanatic, and cruel beyond words. He was also a pitiless, efficient killer with decades of combat experience. He only evaded the Rio War Crime Trials by hopping a slow-ship to distant worlds and spending most of the last century (!) in various forms of hibernation. Nobody knows how XF Inc acquired his contract, but they did, and here he was sharing chow with two-bit thugs and wide-eyed rookies, telling stories about that time he wore a Chinaman’s head like a hat. Melissa based him off of Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino, but with all elements of humanity and goodness stripped from him.
Howell was a terrifying character in the basic sense – he was a villain, a reprehensible monster. The thing that made him work, though, was that Melissa played him to the hilt. She didn’t shy away from how ugly he was. She left other PCs to die rather than risk the mission. She shot *through* allies to hit the enemy (in this instance through a character played by her husband). She tortured adolescent prisoners. She went back on her word and killed people she had promised to save. It was both horrifying and incredible to watch. We all could scarcely believe such terrible things would ever come out of Melissa’s mouth (believe me, she’s a really sweet, kind person with no kind of evil in her soul at all).
Between Russ Carmady and JW Howell, the tone of the Frontier game was set. We orbited between two poles – Catch 22 absurdity and Platoon-esque horror. When the two of them were playing (and, given that the two players are married, this happened a lot), the game sort of glowed with a kind of unique, gritty pathos. It was really awesome, and it wouldn’t have been possible if Melissa shyed away from playing the monster that she had created.
An acquaintance of mine, author Rich Steeves (check him out here), drew my attention on facebook to this post by comic writer Jim Shooter regarding violence, killing, and heroes. His overall thesis, in brief, is this:
My feeling is that each heroic character should be true to his core concept. Some few will not kill. Period. Most, I think, will kill in extremis. Some, of the new bad-boy “hero” ilk will kill when it is “fair” enough, but not really unavoidable. Some kill seemingly callously or carelessly. “It’s okay, they’re bad guys.”
Whether the characters at any particular level on the killing scale are “heroes,” I suppose, is up to the beholder. To me, the latter two categories might be protagonists, but aren’t heroes or heroic in my book. Doesn’t mean they aren’t legit protagonists, or can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done. Do them well, I say. True to their core concepts.
But be conscious of consequences.
I think this is both very true and something to keep in mind anytime we are writing about violence, heroic or otherwise, or even playing violent characters in RPGs. Killing–murder, by any other word – is a heavy and significant thing for a human being to undertake. It has weight – moral, psychological, perhaps even physical – and that weight ought to be taken into account.
If you’ve got a character who can blithely kill and then go about their business with no repurcussions, you are either dealing with a sociopath or someone who, through a variety of factors and psychological defenses, has somehow inured him or herself to the act. That’s a big deal from a characterization point of view. There are, of course, lots and lots of ways to interpret it, but I think forgetting about it or glossing it over is a bad idea. In the first place it portrays killing people as ‘no big deal’ – this isn’t true at all in the real world and, provided we are writing about worlds that are close parallels to the real thing, it should be the same in our own fantastic and speculative realms. In the second place, it’s lazy characterization. You mean your 18 year old protagonist just shot some gangsters with her father’s shotgun, and she’s not thinking about it afterwards? Really? It doesn’t have an effect on how she talks to people? How she feels about guns? How she feels about gangsters? Come on!
I very much agree with Shooter’s assertion that we must be aware of our characters’ ‘core concepts’. These kinds of things are easily violated or changed – the fundemental moral makeup of who you are isn’t under as much of your own control as you think. Yeah, Conan doesn’t give a damn how many fools he kills in bloody fashion – it doesn’t phase him. Do you know why? He has lived a life of constant hardship and pain and been forced to adapt. He is a damaged person, fundamentally. That doesn’t necessarily make him an evil man, or even perhaps keep him from being a hero (depending on your definition of heroism, naturally), but it is an aspect of his character we need to understand and appreciate. If we are portraying characters killing people, it’s something we, as writers, actors, players, or whatever else, really need to give some thought. If you ever want to see how it’s done, just look no further than Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven.
We all have it coming. Think about that.