A Shadow on the Mind, A Blemish on the Soul

(Note: I first wrote this several weeks ago as part of a blog hop I participated in. It appears for the first time here.)

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”

That classic line from the 1930’s serialized radio program, The Shadow, functions as something of a theme for much of my writing. This is particularly true of my novel, Forgive Me, Alex. It also guides a fair portion of what I read.

For me, great literature has always been about great characters, and if I’m going to dig really deep into a character, the author needs to take me… well, really deep inside that character. I want to know what’s in that character’s mind, his heart, his soul. I want to know what scares him, what makes him nervous, what excites him, what motivates him.

Now, to be clear, this requires a level of authenticity that will bring the character to life in a realistic way. However, it needn’t be all puppy dogs and daisies. Let’s face it: there are some real sickos out there. But what makes them sick?

If you heard that a neighborhood kid was stealing people’s pets and first torturing them, then dismembering them, how would you react? Would you say he’s sick? Would you wonder how anyone could even think to do such a thing? Would you fear letting your dog out? Would you call that kid… evil? Yes, I used the E-word. So many today seem to want to hide from the possibility that true evil exists, to explain it away as something else, to make it not a cause, but a mere symptom. Why?

People fascinate me. Specifically, the inner workings of the human brain fascinate me. After all, as human beings, our brains are what separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. That brain is complex, mystifying, and still largely misunderstood. Indeed, in the medical sciences, the brain is truly the final frontier. For all the extraordinary things they’ve learned about how the brain works in recent years, they’ve still barely scratched the surface.

Human emotions and psychology are particularly difficult to understand. How many times have you scratched your head at another person’s actions, wondering what in the world they must have been thinking, or feeling? Now, imagine a person who has no feelings. Would he be easier to understand? Perhaps. Would he also scare the bejesus out of you? Probably. As well he should.

Let’s return to that kid above who likes to torture and kill the beloved Fido and Mittens. The mere thought of such acts might bring you to tears, turn your stomach, and make you want to grab a baseball bat and pay that kid a visit. For that kid, however, ripping Mittens limb from limb is merely a… curiosity. As a psychopath, he doesn’t process emotions the way you and I do. (Please tell me you’re not curious what it would be like to tear Fido limb from limb.)

Why doesn’t he feel in the same way we do? The cause could be physical, environmental, or… nothing at all. Dare I say it? Some people are just evil.

It’s hard to understand, and it draws us in, perhaps out of our own sick curiosity, natural though it may be. Why is the TV show Criminal Minds, which brings us a weekly parade of some of the worst sickos in our midst, so popular? Setting aside the obvious—great cast, solid acting, exceptional writing—might it be because we’re all, at some level, fascinated by how a human being can do what we ourselves couldn’t even imagine doing, at least not without puking our guts out and collapsing into a weeping mess?

And might that sicko—that twisted, despicable, unrepentant psychopath—make a great character? Oh yeah, baby! Come on… tell the truth: you love reading about that kid who’s sharpening his knife right now, even as he’s eyeing Fido in the neighbor’s yard. At least, you love hating reading about that kid. Or is it hate loving?

Well… let me introduce you to Mitchell Norton, the devil. http://bit.ly/EPbhFMA

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