White supremacy and characterization (#SFWApro)

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.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “White supremacy and characterization (#SFWApro)

  1. Pingback: Every villain is a hero in his own story? Not really | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Some political links for your perusal | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  3. Zosimus the Heathen

    Having read quite a bit about the actual, historical Nazis, it seems a lot of them fit this trope themselves once the war was over. To give just three examples:

    Arthur Greiser – One of the governors of German-occupied Poland, this individual oversaw the running of one of the Jewish ghettoes in that country, and was apparently a hard and pitiless master of his domain. Found guilty of various crimes by a Polish court after the war’s end and sentenced to hang, he apparently mounted the gallows mumbling prayers and whining about how horribly unfair his punishment was.

    Ernst Kaltenbrunner – One of the defendants at Nuremberg, this individual (who bore a most ironic resemblance to the talented but notoriously racist HP Lovecraft) had the great misfortune to be the highest-ranking member of the SS alive and in Allied custody at the time the famous trial in the above city began. Called to account for his crimes, he denied everything he was charged with (despite mountains of evidence to the contrary) in a manner that seemed not unlike that of a child crying, “Wah! I didn’t doooooo it!” when caught redhanded engaging in some bit of mischief.

    Josef Mengele – the infamous “Angel of Death” of Auschwitz, this last individual apparently spent the final decades of his life (hiding out in various locations in Brazil) wallowing in self-pity and regaling all who would listen with tales of how horribly hard done by he was.

    After reading about the above and similar Third Reich figures, I found myself feeling strangely… depressed, for want of a better word. I think it’s because these people’s crimes ended up giving them such an awesome and terrible mystique (particularly in the case of Mengele – hey, people called him the freaking Angel of Death!) that I found it actually quite disheartening to learn that, deep down, they were actually kind of pathetic (this also applies to any other evildoer who I’ve discovered wasn’t quite as “tough” as they portrayed themselves as). I don’t know – to give a silly analogy, I suppose it’d be like gaining the ability to read the mind of a great white shark (an animal with a well-established reputation for being a remorseless killing machine) and discovering the creature spent most of its time concocting feeble rationalizations for living the way it does (eg “Given the way it was swimming, that fish/seal/human I just devoured clearly *wanted* me to eat it!” or “I’m the real victim here!” or “God told me to eat that fish/seal/human I just tore to pieces so shut up!”).

  4. I know what you mean. In a sense it’s another version of the “banality of evil”

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