Who are my favorite characters, real and fictitious? To a writer, there’s little difference. All vivid characters are flesh and blood. And the real ones I name have been written about galore.
Here are a few: The Vicomte de Valmont (Liaisons Dangereuses); Isabelle, the She-Wolf of France (the most intriguing “agonist” in The Accursed Kings, by André Maurois); Cesare Borgia (the subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince); Julien Sorel of The Red and the Black; Richard III, so well portrayed by Shakespeare; Thomas Cromwell of the Hilary Mantel series; Hannibal Lecter; Lady MacBeth; Scarlett; Anne Boleyn; Carole in Henri Troyat’s Les Eygletière… And Milton’s Satan.
These charmers are marked by high intelligence and sociopathy. Why do I keep rooting for them to win? All are attractive, ruthless, utterly brilliant, manipulative and abusers of the innocent. They take what they want and care nothing about the lives they wreck. Some, in fact, enjoy their sense of power at wreaking havoc.
What does this say about me? Evil, if clothed in genius, is very sexy.
And yet, in real life, I choose friends who are whole, good, nurturing, generous. I choose them to enrich my life with genuine love and sharing. And if someone is cold or mean, I want no part of congress with him or her at my dinner table. Be rude to someone else. Gossip, plot all you want, but not if it involves my friends or family.
I wouldn’t be friends with Cesare or the Vicomte, but if they chose me as their next lover, I would relinquish all good sense and open wide my arms.
Is 2016 the year that I’ll choose King Arthur over Lancelot, Miss Melanie over Scarlett, the Présidente de Tourvel over the Marquise de Merteuil? I sincerely doubt it. Years ago, my late husband used to call me his “Miss Melanie.” Far from being touched, I was a bit insulted. He viewed himself as Lancelot, the flawed knight, and as the roué Nick in The Thin Man. But I, his Nora? He saved that compliment for a very naughty female friend whose charms he could never resist. I would look at this woman and cringe at her wiles, at her dishonesty, at her slinky sexiness, and I was both disgusted and jealous. There was no honor to her, which made her interesting. She was more Anne Boleyn than Nora, who, after all, was deeply devoted to Nick. And though she often ended up with her head on the block, men loved to watch her destroy the Katherines of Aragon who crossed her path.
Not all sociopathy is attractive. Hitler and Pol Pot had no sexiness to them. They used no trickery or subterfuge, clever lies or manipulation. They used blunt force. Therefore: boh-ring.
No. Sexiness has to be evil clothed in charm, deviousness, and ingenuity. No wonder Lady MacBeth is so much more appealing than Hamlet’s uncle. For that matter, Hamlet isn’t sexy at all. Poor Ophelia just didn’t get it.
A flawed creature with a score to settle is so enticing. John Lackland was so much more rootable than silly, wasteful, self-indulgent Richard, whose heart had nothing whatsoever to do with lions. Ivanhoe chose the wrong horse to bet on.
And my own characters? Elena is more of a page-turner than Lesley or Jamie, and isn’t Charles a rogue we hate but also stick around for? Would you pick Kirill or Yakov? Ask Zica. Lily picked Prince Mikhail, and Natalia picked Boris.
So would you. And so would I.
And Robert in my novel-in-progress? We find him much more fascinating when he’s not such a good boy.
In the end, we want the hero redeemed. We want the sociopath put away. But at night, whom do we dream of? The twisted, sexy narcissist, the borderline, the enticer. We just can’t resist him. Or her!
Happy New Year, my beloved readers!