The Good, the Bad – and Me

“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” 

Oscar WildeLady Windermere’s Fan

Two or three reviewers of my novel Martin thought that there were no characters whom they actually liked. I wouldn’t dream of wanting to ‘correct’ them, or dissuade them from their point of view. When you send your work out into the world, you no longer have any say how it will be received. My reviewers have been most generous and I am not going to affront them by saying they are wrong.


Robert Reith, the anti-hero of the novel, is a dangerous sociopath, after all. He is a proxy murderer. He is responsible for the ruin of at least three people and rarely exhibits even the palest flicker of empathy for anyone around him.

It is true that there are traumatic elements in his childhood but nothing that might explain what he becomes or redeem what he does. In fact, he shows signs of objectifying other people from early on.

A Certain Sympathy

And yet, I have a certain sympathy for my monster. He is ruthlessly honest with himself, admits that he is in love with a phantasm, and realises that he is destroying himself as well as his victims. He is also clever and funny. I think he might be amusing to be with, although I wouldn’t want to get to get too close. Perhaps, if Jung was right, I was probing my own hidden nature in creating him; or if Freud was right, I was revealing my own turbulent id.

The Literary Zone

Well, perhaps. He shows classic signs of arrested development, certainly, and I wanted him to be psychologically coherent and convincing. However, I’m more interested in the literary zone of Reith’s existence. What I mean is that it is quite common for readers or viewers to be fascinated by a villain. Think Macbeth, think Richard III, think Fagin, Nosferatu, the Phantom of the Opera or Hannibal Lecter. We would recoil in horror and disgust if we were to meet these manifestations of evil in reality. Nonetheless, we are intrigued. And then there is the primal bad boy himself, Old Nick. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, there is only ever any fun and excitement when Satan is on the scene; God and Jesus are priggish and boring. It is not enough that God is omniscient, but he has to act like the most wearisome know-all. Now, I could adduce plenty of evidence to show that this was not how Milton intended it to be read. But there it is: Satan seems glamorous.

And the other characters?

And the other characters in Martin? I feel sorry for poor Pavel and for Sir Philip, though I’m not sure I like them. Cecily is perfectly delightful – until, that is, her nasty puritanism is revealed. Martin, himself, I do like. In a previous existence, as a schoolmaster, I often found myself liking the mischievous boys. There is also a very sad little story half-concealed in Martin’s abysmal French exercise.

I think we relate to characters in literature rather differently from characters in real life and I think that underlines Wilde’s teasing apothegm at the top of this piece. I would hope that Reith is charming rather than tedious but I’m afraid, Oscar, that there is no escaping the fact that he is bad. I just rather hoped that readers might be intrigued with how very bad he is.

Please feel free to comment in the box below. I will be happy to enter into discussion about any aspect of this blog.

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ICT unleashes many thoughts here, reaching from the fascination of evil and the attraction of bad boys, to why we want to identify with characters in books (films, TV shows, etc.) and when there is no one whose persona we feel we can put on, we become frustrated, irritated or stop reading (watching).
The classical aims “to teach and delight” have, over time, morphed into escapism and now to gritty reality. This final twist is why mindless, pointless comedies and soaps top the charts, while good drama so closely resembles daily reality that we can’t bear to watch it.
So many great novels have ineffectual/self-effacing narrators: The Great Gatsby; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Woman in White; A Dance to the Music of Time, even Rebecca. They let the Percival Glydes, Robert Lovelaces, Anatole Kuragins, Robert Reiths, etc., impose their menacing presences on the rest of the characters. In the shadow of such malevolence, readers want/need the security of someone who, however imperfectly, opposes them in a way they would like to think they would.
ICT rightly notes Macbeth, Richard III and other iconic villains, but in each of those cases, it is clear that there are no virtuous vices or innocent adulteries, and there is a powerful hand that restores order so we believe we can sleep safely.

Mostly agreed. I would say though, that one of the most fascinating things about Macbeth is his powerful moral imagination. It will not let him sleep. Evil has become an addiction with him. His most insufferable act is the massacre of Macduff’s family and yet, often, we see that he is exquisitely conscious that he is damning himself for all eternity. I don’t think that there is anything metaphorical about damnation in Shakespeare.
Reith is also conscious of what he is doing, but he is only malevolent towards Philip where he believes (delusionally) that he is an instrument of justice. With others, his besetting sin is a lofty heedlessness, an ingrained inability to imagine the interior lives of others. That might be just as bad. I can’t resist giving him some credit when he claims that he is not a hypocrite. His personal damnation is not theological. At the end, he is aware only of an ontological emptiness.
Thanks for replying. I did want Reith to be a seriously contentious character.

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