By now, probably all of you have heard that white supremacist Christopher Cantwell, who talked very tough about Charlottesville, broke down in tears on video when he learned the cops might be looking to arrest him. And along with thoughts about politics, that got me thinking about writing characters who are not what they appear to be. Jekyll and Hyde, though not in the sense of good/evil (Cantwell’s evil in either mode)
In his first video interviews, Cantwell came off like the baddest of bad asses. When the heat was on, he crumbled. It’s a very old trope, of course, the tough guy, the successful guy who turns out to have a yellow streak a mile wide. But it’s still striking to see such a thing in real life. If I were writing an alt.right character, I’m not sure I’d even try it. I’d probably find it too cliched, particularly since Cantwell’s not facing the death penalty or a lynch mob — just an arrest warrant. The advantage of real life, as Lawrence Block once put it, is that you don’t have to justify what your characters do because they did it, whether it makes sense or not.
If I were writing from Cantwell’s point of view, I could write him as someone who knows from the first that he’s bluffing, and nowhere near as confident as he sounds. Or maybe someone who sees himself putting on an act to intimidate his adversaries. Or possibly in denial — he doesn’t realize his tough shell is a bluff until he gets into trouble. Any of these could work, depending on what sort of character I needed the fictional the white supremacist to be. But I think I’d have to deal with what he imagined the consequences would be. Did he really believe no bad would come his way? Was that sheer arrogance or just delusional thinking? Again it depends on what I need for the story.
Writing from another POV, I suppose the reaction to the change could be shock (his best friend had no idea he wasn’t a genuine badass), or relief (the big bad man-monster isn’t so tough) or wry amusement. Or maybe my POV character is the kind of brilliant detective who sizes him up from the start and tells the other characters they’re going to see him break.
Come to think of it I do have a character like that. An arrogant, rich Southerner who enjoys screwing people over (it’s not enough for him to win, somebody’s got to fail). At the climax, when he realizes he’s completely lost everything, including his life, he cracks. Trouble is I don’t have a story to fit him into. Yet.
Hopefully when I write it the story will be good enough nobody will tell me the character shift is unbelievable.