This is about character studies, babe.
I’ve talked before about how I hate when cruelty is short hand for identifying the bad guy, and how trust is one of the most compelling things to read about. In short, showing is almost always more effective than telling for me, and I spend a lot of time thinking about what that looks like in my writing.
Comforting people is a very good indicator of who the comfort-giver is and their relationship to the comfort-seeker. A mother wraps her child in an embrace. Lovers hold each other or perform acts of service. Best friends raise you up or punch the person who hurt you. An acquaintance says “well, you survived, so that’s good.” More than declarations of love, grand gestures in times of happiness, or giddy responses to witty conversation, who the characters pick to confide in, and the response of on-lookers says so much.
When I was talking about this with my spouse, he brought up Captain America, and how Steve’s solid belief in people, his empathy, willingness to be vulnerable and to play back up even though he outranks the others makes him so much more human. He’s super strong, super fast, great at tactics, and is probably the world’s best hugger. He doesn’t need to say anything to Bucky or to his friends about Bucky. He’s already proven what fraternal love is to him, and we love him for it.
Think of the difference in these two scenes:
“My dog died today,” she whispered.
“Aw, I’m sorry. He’s in a better place now,” Alex replied with a sympathetic smile and a pat on the shoulder.
“My dog died today,” she whispered.
“Oh, sweetness,” Alex replied, pulling her into an embrace as tears welled in both their eyes.
Both are attempts to comfort, but look how much we can surmise about these two characters from just that response. We don’t need to assert how close Alex and the girl are in the second one–it’s evident that there is a bond of some sort, and that they care very much for each other. There is the sense of history without having to recount it. The first one, however, adds distance. We feel the characters are separated by circumstance–perhaps they are strangers or co-workers or classmates who don’t talk out of class. Or, Alex is cold and uncomfortable. Either way, without having to catalog them like shipped goods, we can list a whole host of attributes to Alex now.
Ditto with toxicity and bad people.
Yes, kicking puppies and slaying maidens makes it clear this bad guy is a serial killer, but consider Draco Malfoy, Dolores Umbridge, and Joffrey, three of the most hated bad guys in history. Okay, maybe Joffrey was pretty damn close to a serial killer, but in the books at least he never quite got around to it. He was, however, extremely manipulative, did not accept boundaries, and knew how to rig the system in his favor. Same with Malfoy and Umbridge. They did nothing heinous–never even laid hands on people. But their cruelty was in their words and their petty tyranny–their belief that they were more important than others, and that people who opposed them deserved to be punished.
This is way more compelling because fewer of us have triggers around this behavior, but most of us have experienced it, and we feel the same conflicts around snitch culture, respecting authority, the unassailable fortress of power, and the fickle nature of notoriety. We can identify and attach our own frustrations to these characters without shutting down like we tend to do with violence that’s over the top.
As Stalin said, “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” There’s so much more feeling in the intimate crime, in the attack of one person. Someone who’s cruel constantly to all people, who does atrocious amounts of harm, becomes too big to resonate with us–we can’t see anything in them that resembles ourselves, which makes them alien, and therefore emotionally detached from us.
Consider, Darth Vader blowing up Alderaan and Darth Vader killing Obi Wan. Or Thanos killing half the people in the universe versus Loki killing Agent Colson.
I don’t think we need to have all bad guys be Kingpin and Vader and Thanos. The toxic form of humanity is plenty egregious for us to rebel against.
And I don’t think telling us how close someone is will ever convey the full depth of love between two characters quite the same as how they treat each other when one is shattered.
What other examples of unspoken love or villainy can you think of?