“Crazy” is Lazy

In The Crane Girl, I have a character called the Empress. And she’s crazy.

Basically, this means she’s a typical supervillain – megalomaniacal, power-hungry, cruel, manipulative, uninterested in anybody’s needs but her own. She schemes against the heroes, puts them in danger, moves the plot along.

And she’s boring.

One of my tasks in revision is to make her interesting, which means making her real, humanizing her (though she isn’t, technically, human). And that means moving past the “crazy” label. Because calling a character “crazy,” and stopping there, is just as lazy and shallow as calling a character “evil.” It might be true, for some definition of the word, but it’s not very insightful. It’s a reaction, not a description.

“Crazy,” you see, doesn’t tell you what somebody is. It tells you what somebody isn’t – they aren’t mentally healthy. (As if “mentally healthy” weren’t vague enough on its own.)

Describing a character as “crazy” is like describing a car as “not a Corolla.” It’s just a negation, and not a very helpful one. That’s what I mean by saying it’s lazy. It sidesteps the real work of developing the character, turning them into a genuine person.

Having had mental illness myself, I can tell you that it comes in a million different flavors, and even two people of the same “flavor” – depression, schizophrenia, whatever – will never be alike, aside from sharing certain symptoms.

Moreover, the actions of the mentally ill make just as much sense as the actions of the mentally healthy, in the context of their skewed internal parameters. Staying in bed all day, every day, makes sense if you’re exhausted and nothing you do brings satisfaction. Cutting yourself makes sense if it’s the only way you know to break through a universal numbness. Killing yourself makes sense if every second of your life is torture. These aren’t healthy or wise behaviors, and if you’re tempted, you have to fight that temptation with all your strength. But they are understandable behaviors.

As I mentioned above, “evil” characters often fall into the same boat. Authors slap an “evil” label on their villain, and he’s good to go. Except, nobody’s evil for the sake of evilness. They may do evil things, but there’s always a reason, no matter how irrational or selfish. What’s more, nobody is just evil. Murderers may cry over sunsets and church music. Wife beaters may work sixty-hour weeks to take care of their kids. This doesn’t excuse their terrible crimes, but it hints at the truth: nobody’s all light or all shadow.

We’re all people, with all the sanity and craziness and complexity that implies, and well-written characters are people too. Darth Vader is a cruel mass murderer, but he’s protective of his wife and loves his son and saves the galaxy. The Borg Queen really believes she’s elevating the beings she assimilates. Even Satan is a fallen angel.

So a big part of my revision is about examining my villains, and asking myself: if I know who they aren’t, then who are they?

Come to think of it, that’s pretty good advice for heroes, too.

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2 responses to ““Crazy” is Lazy

  1. It can definitely be lazy — probably mostly is — but I think the Darth Vader example goes in a diffferent direction, since he was totally cool and compelling in the first movie, when you knew very little about him. But that’s because movies are not an exact analogy for prose fiction in this area.

    Darth Vader had that costume and that helmet and that voice. Writers don’t have all that — they (we) don’t have actors to fill things out — so we have to fill in more ourselves. Iago, who has no motivation for his malignancy, works because actors make him work. As Orson Welles pointed out, though, modern directors sometimes try to supply him with more motivation — but Shakespeare knew that wasn’t necessary. In a novel, though, it would have been different.

    But the main point, I think, isn’t necessarily backstory — it’s shape. As you point out, everybody’s “crazy” (or “evil”) is shaped differently. That should be clear to the reader. I have two characters who are, by pretty much any definition, crazy, and I’ve never given any indication of why (in one case I know why; in the other I have no idea). I’ve been writing about them for a quarter of a century, and nobody has ever complained — probably because exactly how they’re crazy is very clear, even if I don’t say anything about why.

  2. That’s a good point about Darth Vader – he was compelling in Episode IV despite being, in some ways, a generic villain. I’ll have to think more about the distinction you’re making with books vs. movies and theater. I might agree with you, but I’m not sure yet.

    It’s worth mentioning that even in Episode IV, Vader did have some clear, consistent, and believable characterization. He didn’t seem especially selfish, or even power-hungry per se. He seemed like a warrior, devoted to the cause of the Empire. He was outranked by Grand Moff Tarkin, and had internal struggles to deal with. And he was connected to this mysterious “Force” thing, just like Luke. So all that gave him some depth.

    I strongly agree, though, that shape matters more than backstory. The Joker is a perfect example. Occasionally a backstory is invented for him, but it never really matters. The Joker is the Joker – he’s a force of nature. Everything else is window dressing.

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