Writing Tips

Grounding Anarchical Characters

Some characters can only be described as anarchy incarnate. They are know for caring about nothing, possessing no morals, and having no qualms about doing violent and immoral actions. These characters are fun to write, and often are very popular among audiences. These characters are most often villains, such as Loki, the Joker, Grant Ward, and Moriarty. But occasionally, this type of character can be found as a “good guy” (such as Grantaire) or even a protagonist (such as Shakespeare’s Prince Hal.)

Even with these characters’ unpredictableness and general lack of motivation, each of them has a characteristic which grounds the character and become a central motivation of (most) of their irresponsible and immoral actions. They all have a single– often hidden– motivation that gives these characters meaning. This motivation can be found by asking the single question: Why does this character live? Loki lives to prove himself equal to Thor. Moriarty lives to have his genius recognized and experience the challenge of Sherlock’s genius. Prince Hal lives to make the best king. Now, note that these motivations are often hidden (such as Prince Hal’s or Loki’s), but they are driving the character nevertheless.

The rule with having inconsistent characters is simple: give them one consistency.

What makes Loki, Grant Ward, Moriarty, Prince Hal, or Grantaire such great characters? And how do we as writers succeed in writing anarchical characters?

Let’s look at two examples in more depth: one from Les Miserables and one from the TV show Agents of Shield.

This image is not mine– it is from tumblr, but I could not discover where.

Grantaire: Grantaire belongs to the society of the friends of the ABC (aka he is one of the “barricade boys” who rebels against the French government.) Grantaire is a useless drunk, libertine, and believes in nothing– not even the revolution which he (sort of) participates in. Truly, Grantaire cares about nothing.

Yet, Victor Hugo grounded the character with one foundational motivation: “Still this sceptic [Grantaire] had a fanaticism. This fanaticism was neither an idea, nor a dogma, nor an art, nor a science; it was a man: Enjolras [the leader of the group]…. To whom did this anarchical doubter ally himself in this phalanx of absolute minds? To the most absolute.” While the reader wonders if Grantaire will actually fight at the barricade or drink until he passes out, Grantaire’s actions are tied with his devotion to Enjolras and that alone is Grantaire’s motivation. (I would highly recommend reading the full description of Grantaire for a full understanding of his character and an awe-inspiring literary experience. Here is a link to the chapter, and you can skip to the final six paragraphs of the chapter to read about this sceptic. And, if you are up for it, all of the characters’ descriptions are fantastic, especially Enjolras’ and Combeferre’s.)

Picture from ABC

Grant Ward: (Spoilers) Ward is the muscle power behind Coulson team on Agents of Shield, and when he turns out to be Hydra and attempts to kill two of the team, it appears that the Ward that the viewers watched for most of the first season was a fake. However, Ward remained devoted to the character Skye– even as a villain. Eventually, he goes rogue, abandoning Hydra, to “help” Skye (in his twisted opinion.) When he is captured by SHIELD, he tells Skye blatantly, “I don’t hope for me. I hope for you.” Ward’s evil, immoral actions prove this as he tries to fulfill Skye’s hopes and dreams. Ward is a crazy villain who can be very inconsistent, and the viewer never quite know what Ward is going to do next, but Ward is grounded by one motivation: Skye.

Now, I know that the two examples I am elaborating on both rely on their loyalty to another character as their single consistency. This is a frequently used motivation for an anarchical character, but it is not the only motivation possible. As mentioned above, Prince Hal (in Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 1 and 2) acts in a rebellious manner, associates with the basest of society, and participates in petty crimes with the single motivation that when he redeems himself, he will be a better king because of his past “life” as a rebel. So be creative; you don’t have to use loyalty to another character as the only means of grounding your anarchical rebel.

At the very end of your anarchical character’s arc, it is really powerful to break this single consistency. However, I personally think that if you choose to break this central trait of an inconsistent character, you need to either end the book or kill the character directly afterwards. (Spoilers) Both Les Miserables and Agents of Shield broke their inconsistent character’s single consistency.

(Spoilers) However, the TV show let their anarchical character live on without his motivation. Ward rescues Skye in the second season mid-finale and goes to make sure that the coast is clear. When he returns, Skye shoots him multiple times, saying, “Never turn your back on the enemy. You taught me that.” The scene defined epic, and if Ward had died here, the character arc would have been amazing. However, the writers decided to let him live, and now he is a boring villain with no true motivation (in my opinion.)

(Spoilers) In Les Miserables, Grantaire, waking up from an alcohol induced sleep, sees that all of his friends have died at the barricade, and Enjolras is about to be executed by a firing squad. Crying out “Vive la Rebelution! I belong to it!” Grantaire finally allies himself with a cause and is executed next to Enjolras even though he could have easily escaped alive.

So what do you think about anarchical characters? Do you personally like them in fiction? Who is your favorite, and can you identify their one consistency/motivation?

God bless,

Gabrielle

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5 thoughts on “Grounding Anarchical Characters”

  1. In the first paragraph after Ward’s picture, you say “but it is the only motivation possible” when you meant to say “but it is NOT the only motivation possible.”

    Like

    1. Thanks, Gemma! I have three unpredictable characters (I think….) One is a villain. These character are fun to write!
      Thanks! I will hopefully get to that by Thursday… Maybe. It depends on a few factors….

      Like

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