Bad characters make for good stories, but fallen angels make for great stories. Bad, of course, is a subjective term—one person’s bad is another person’s good. When we look at a few of literature’s fated females— the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the narrator in Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary—we see enticing reasons to write about bad. All three heroines are corrupt in their own intriguing ways.
O’Connor’s self-involved grandmother leads her family to their death, Hempel’s fearful narrator abandons her dying friend in the hospital, and Flaubert’s bored Emma Bovary lives beyond her means and commits adultery. Each of them forces us to look at our dark side and willfully experience doing things that we would never do because someone else might be watching. In fact, if done properly, the tale of a bad woman can teach a reader much more about life than the tale of a good woman.
People want to read about a character who does things they might never do, while still feeling they can relate to this person. The best way to create evil women who aren’t flat or a stereotype is to imbue them with humanity. In other words, give them dark and light sides. It is helpful to remember that a bad character doesn’t think she’s bad, (and to her mother, she’s probably not).Willful behavior is rooted in something. There are reasons and excuses for acting out.
When crafting emotionally and psychologically complex characters, writers will want to consider a wide palette of options having characters make precise observations, giving them a purpose, making them physical on the page, and giving them inner contradiction. Let’s not forget the use of humor to help demonstrate their humanity.
John Gardner states, “In the work of this highest class of novelists . . . is the writer’s gift for rendering the precise observations and feelings of a wide variety of characters (30). O’Connor precisely observes the grandmother “craftily, not telling the truth, but wishing that she were” (1,110) before convincing her son to take the fateful dirt road. She just wants to recall the good old days when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day’s journey. But after driving for a while and not finding the good old days, she has a horrible thought: “The house she had remembered so vividly was not in Georgia but in Tennessee” (1,111). She is shocked over her delusion and we are shocked with her.
In Hempel’s story, prior to the narrator’s decision to abandon her dying friend, she has fallen asleep and has a dream during which her friend has decorated a mirrored room and invites the narrator inside. The narrator wakes and says, “I have to go home” (663). In some cultures, people believe mirrors capture a person's soul. Alice in Wonderland entered another world through a looking glass. The narrator’s subconscious seems to be telling her to get out while you still can. In the parking lot, she feels “weak and small and failed/Also exhilarated” (663). The precise observations show the complexity of her feelings.
Observations help readers understand what might be behind Emma Bovary’s desperate behavior as she tries to escape impending destitution. When she asks Rodolphe, the lover who’d previously shuns her for 3,000 francs and he cannot give her the money because he too is broke, her thoughts do not linger on blaming him or condemning herself for coming on to him like a prostitute. Instead, she convinces herself that “she was suffering purely for love, and in remembering [Rodolphe], felt her soul slip from her, just as injured men, in their agony, feel life sweeping away, through their bleeding wounds” (293). Her thoughts are of purity. Emma thinks she is being good. This insight, though it does not excuse her behavior, does rationalize it.
To closely observe the contemporary bitch in the house, we might look inside her purse and read the labels in her medicine cabinet. We might scroll through her palm pilot to see who has been calling, and read her blog and text messages. We might find out her hairdresser, her masseuse, and her pedicurist. These are all good ways to get access to the woman behind the bitch façade.
In addition to observations, O’Connor, Hempel, and Flaubert give each female lead a purpose. It’s interesting how evil women justify their existence in a world that judges them harshly. Consider the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” O’Connor provokes readers into identifying with her by revealing in the first two lines: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee” (1,106). O’Connor shows why the grandmother needs to see friends so badly. The grandmother’s son and daughter-in-law ignore her and the grandchildren are disrespectful. The grandson John Wesley says, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” (1,106).
Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction takes the concept of purpose one step further. In literature, she says, “[Characters] should exhibit a range of possibility so that a shift of power in the plot can also produce a shift of purpose or morality. That is, they need to be capable of change” (124). The grandmother’s family dies as a consequence of her selfish, thoughtless actions, and the purpose changes to salvation.
In Hempel’s story, the narrator’s initial purpose in going to see her friend in the hospital is consolation. In the first two lines of the story, the friend’s request, “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting. Make it useless stuff or skip it” (658), is honored by the narrator. She doesn’t ask, What you do mean by useless? She entertains her friend by making her laugh. As it becomes more apparent that her friend is dying, the narrator’s fear takes precedence over any sense of altruism. Consider this narrative: “There was a second bed in the room when I got back to it! For two beats I didn’t get it. Then it hit me like an open coffin. She wants every minute … She wants my life” (661). It’s that fear that creates tension and makes the narrator’s losing struggle to be the good friend even more compelling.
Madame Bovary’s initial purpose is to overcome boredom. Flaubert reveals it’s always been about ennui, even when Emma was 13 and her father placed her in a convent: “[During] confession, she made up little sins so as to stay there longer” (33). Flaubert shows us that although Emma gets bored, she is not a boring person; she is passionate, “[discarding] as useless anything that did not lend itself to her heart’s immediate satisfaction” (34). In the 1850s, there’s not much that’s passionate about being middleclass. Women are wives and mothers, and if one’s husband is a dullard, what’s to be done? It’s not long into her marriage that Emma asks, “Oh why dear God, did I marry him?” (41). When she was single, at least she had the option of returning to the convent; however, “this [married] life of hers was as cold as an attic that looks north” (42). Attending an upper-class ball causes a pivotal change: “…as [Emma] entered the room, [she] felt herself immersed in warmth” (45). For the rest of the novel, she continually compares herself to the upper class and doesn’t see why she shouldn’t have what they have. She buys on credit to her eventual ruin. If Flaubert were here to defend his character, I believe he would argue that in Emma’s mind, she accomplished what she set out to do: “She sought to find out exactly what was meant in real life by the words felicity, passion and rapture, which had seemed so fine on the pages of the books” (33).
To attract the reader into feeling physically closer, and maybe even emotionally closer, the authors give vivid details of characters’ actions and appearance. O’Connor takes great care in showing the sights and sounds that convey the grandmother’s desire to go to Tennessee to gain readers’ sympathy for what otherwise might be construed as annoying, selfish behavior. For example, her “rattling the newspaper at [her son’s] bald head” and reminding him that “The Misfit is aloose” and “[the children] never have been to east Tennessee” (1,106) reveal her determination. When she is outvoted and the family leaves for Florida, she records the beginning mileage, 55890, and the time they start out, eight forty-five, because these factoids might interest her family and help sway them to go to Tennessee (1,107). These details help communicate to the reader just how passionately the grandmother wishes to go in the other direction. While we might not agree with the grandmother, or like her, we can connect with her sense of wanting something no one else wants and trying to fight for it.
O’Connor further attracts the reader to the annoying grandmother by physically creating her for us, showing us in microscopic details what the grandmother is wearing: “a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. … at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet” (1,107). Giving such a close read of a character’s appearance is one way to shrink the psychic distance between the reader and character and create empathy.
Flaubert takes great care in showing the things Emma buys and what she wears to appear upper class. On page 56, he writes, “Round her waist she had a cord with big tassels, and her little wine-red slippers had large knots of ribbon, spreading down over the in-step.” There’s a lot of counting of flounces, three at the beginning, by the end, she has four. Those things, the sensuality that tempts Emma to fall, are examined closely. In Victorian times, sexy was the glimpse of a gloved wrist or the outline of a woman’s foot in her shoe. The first time future-lover Monsieur Dupuis sees her, he observes, “With the tips of her fingers, she took hold of her dress at the knee, and, lifting it just to her ankle, held out to the fire, above the leg of mutton on the spit, a foot clad in a small black boot” (74). These details suggest not only attraction but compassion for Emma on Flaubert’s part.
Hempel is an expert at implying detail. In an interview with The Paris Review, she defines a character “from outside, through the action of another” (176). As a counterpoint to the narrator’s fear, Hempel highlights her dying friend’s bravery: “She flew with me once. That time she flew with me she ate macadamia nuts while the wings bounced . . . She trusts the laws of aerodynamics” (661). Hempel implies the friend is so brave that we should be more worried for the narrator. We feel her guilt over bowing to her fear and abandoning her friend in the hospital, and this guilt makes her seem good.
Revealing characters’ contradictions engages readers even more. We begin to see how someone might lead their family down the wrong path. The guilt of the grandmother’s “horrible thought” (1,111) after she knocks over the cat’s basket, causing an accident, may leave some readers thinking it’s too late for her redemption. We are horrified and feel her dizziness as she sinks into a ditch. But then there’s the contradiction that “her head cleared for an instant,” and she says to the Misfit, “Why you’re one of my babies” (1,116) as she reaches to touch his shoulder. It may take a few reads to grasp O’Connor’s intention of an “action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul” but it’s there—compassion and salvation for the grandmother.
Hempel reflects her character’s contradictions by showing outwardly she is doing things to console, however afraid she is. On the outside, she is calm and acting the good friend. She lists useless stuff at her friend’s request such as “Did she know that Tammy Wynette had changed her tune? Really. That now she sings, ‘Stand By Your Friends’?” (658). She wears a surgical mask, eats Good Humor ice cream bars, picks toasted almonds out of her friend’s gauze, and naps in the hospital bed next to her (662). But her thoughts belie increasing worry. For example: “I see fear in her now, and am not going to try to talk her out of it. She is right to be afraid” (661). The narrator’s scared thoughts eventually surface in speech when her friend asks, “What am I missing?” and the narrator blurts, “It’s earthquake weather” (662). Backstory reveals that when they were college roommates they thought they might die in the 1972 earthquake. The dream the narrator has while they nap pushes her to leave. She does not want to reach the other side of the looking glass.
Contradiction helps make characters complex and more real. For example, Emma Bovary makes the observation after being married “as the intimacy of their daily life began to bind them closer, so there grew an upward detachment which freed her from [her husband]” (38). An important aspect of contradiction is seeing a character do one thing, while thinking another.
Flaubert conjures up contradiction with humor:
- A doctor from Yvetot, with whom [Charles] had recently happened to confer, had humiliated him somewhat, right at the patient’s bedside, in front of the assembled relatives. When Charles told her, that evening, about the incident, Emma raged loud and long against his colleague. Charles was touched at this. He kissed her forehead with a tear in his eye. But she was boiling with shame, she wanted to hit him, she went out to the passage to open the window, and breathe in the fresh air herself to calm herself. ‘What a pathetic man! What a pathetic man!’ She said in a whisper, biting her lip. (57)
The use of humor further seduces readers into getting close to these bad women. Finding them funny, we are disarmed and begin to feel what they are feeling and trying to understand their impulses. How can we not pity the poor grandmother who carries a black valise that resembles the head of a hippopotamus? And who brings along her cat, Pitty Sing, that will later cause the accident: “He would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of the gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself” (1,106-7). The alliteration lends humor and laughter implicates us in the grandmother’s death.
Hempel’s story relies on a shield of humor to assuage the narrator’s guilt. One example is the anecdote about the chimp: “When they first taught it to talk, it lied? That when they asked her who did it on the desk, she signed back Max, the janitor” (658). At the end of the story, the chimp, we learn, has a baby that dies, and through sign language, the chimps says, “Baby, come hug” repeatedly in the “language of grief” (664). Through the anecdote, we realize the narrator’s regret. In all three stories, the authors shine a light through humor on the darker aspects of our personality that we might not be willing to confront otherwise.
Based on actions alone, these bad women would read unsympathetically. But their authors take great care in rendering them, and the thoughtful reader will see their humanness, find compelling reasons for their behavior, widen what they know of human experience, and walk a mile in their stilettos…for a while, anyway.
Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 6th ed. New York: Longman, 2003. Print.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. London: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.
Gardner, John. On Becoming a Novelist. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1999. Print.
Hempel, Amy. “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Ed. Ann Charters. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 658-664. Print.
Hempel, Amy. “The Art of Fiction No. 176” Interview by Paul Winner. The Paris Review. Summer 2003. No. 166. Web. 6 Oct. 2012.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Ed. Ann Charters. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 1106=1117. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable.” The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Ed. Ann Charters. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 1621-1623. Print.
Wendi E. Berry teaches college writing at the University of Richmond for the School of Professional and Continuing Studies and at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. Earning her MFA from Queens University in 2008, she presented a craft seminar on “Writing Evil Women” that January. She’s currently revising a 400-page novel set in Richmond, Va., where she was born and raised, and after being away for 30 years, has returned to in time for her thirty-fifth high school reunion.