Monday, July 02, 2007

Wrapping the Mind Around Horrors

I’ve been really wrapped up in my story the past few days. I love that intense zone I get into, at the beginning of a story.

I’m a firm believer in getting into the minds of my characters. I tell myself that I must not only understand them, but feel them, feel why what they do seems like the right thing to them. Even if it’s not the right thing to do.

But some things are a struggle.

I’m toying with a villain who touches on a fear of mine: senseless, sadistic violence that is torture for pleasure’s sake. I’ve been reaching out into history to the things so terrible they make me gasp.

Long sleeves and short sleeves (made by machetes hacking off arms in appropriate places), pockets (cut in the obvious place, with hands shoved inside). Concentration camps, gas chambers, genocide ... the list goes on.

What makes it so horrifying, aside from the horror of it? Is it the everyday label applied to something so frightening? The everyday people involved?

I study those things, not because I want to use them as is in my fiction (been done before, I’m sure), but because I want to understand how ’normal’ people can do those things.

And yes, I firmly believe they are normal people. Sure, there are psychopaths and sociopaths, but I’m talking about normal people who grow to do these things. I believe that if they have that switch in them, then so do I.

So I’m searching inside myself. I’m trying to put myself in those shoes. I once had a very nice, loving, and brave German woman try to explain the holocaust to me, from the ’wrong’ standpoint.

There is pure evil out there, but I believe it’s rare. The cases above were
embraced by large groups of people, not a single being of pure evil. The cases
above are proof, I believe, of the worst humanity is capable of.

I wonder if, in addition to studying and remembering atrocities, we shouldn’t study how a normal human mind can come to think of certain horrors as the right thing to do. If we understand where and how to activate that switch, then we can be in control. We can choose not to ever flip that switch, and make sure it’s not ever flipped for us.

I don’t know. This post is just begging to be misinterpreted, isn’t it? I’m struggling to wrap my head around these thoughts. What do you think?

4 bonus scribbles:

The Dark Scribe 7/02/2007 11:02:00 PM's pretty freaky stuff. I think what's so terrifying is exactly what you hit on--that anyone is probably capable of those horrors, given the right (or wrong, depending on how you look at it) set of circumstances. It's a scary world out there, and sometimes it's not just the Hitlers and bin Ladens we have to watch out for--sometimes it's our neighbors, or, God forbid, our friends.

Still, I think you're doing the right thing by putting yourself in your villain's head (as disgusting as it might be). Because the scariest villains are the ones who seem "normal," or who have characteristics we can all identify with.

Bernita 7/03/2007 07:35:00 AM  

One way such actions are justified is by de-humanizing the victims.

spyscribbler 7/03/2007 08:52:00 AM  

You're right, DarkScribe. And not just our friends, but ourselves. That's the scariest part, to me.

Very true, Bernita. Scary stuff.

Therese 7/03/2007 02:46:00 PM  

Scary, but also fascinating.

The problem is when the sociopaths gain control over "normal" folks and deliberately activate the switch.

Getting familiar with that mindset is important for writing such a character convincingly. Just make sure to always come back!