I recently watched a forensic psychiatrist blame mass shootings on the entertainment industry for creating relatable bad guys like Tony Soprano and Walter White. I turned off the TV as soon as I could free my hands because I was rankled before he laid blame to fictional characters. Experts and society like to blame music, video games, and TV/movies on horrific events such as mass shootings. We want something to point our finger at instead of focusing on the criminal and holding him/her accountable. No matter how grisly the act, the real bad guy is rarely as sinister as we want him to be.
We would like the world to work in black and white; to have these little boxes that everyone fits into quite neatly. This is not a fairy tale where the Wicked Queen is inherently evil with no redeeming qualities or a small shred of humanity. Snow White and Prince Charming do not possess pristine integrity. We live in the grey with layer upon layer of complexity. One choice we make leads to another, which leads to a multitude of potential choices. We live in Storybrooke where Regina is wicked because her heart was broken; adopting a son was helping to mend it. We live in Albuquerque where honest chemistry teacher Walter White decides to use his expertise to cook meth in order to leave his family with a nest egg once cancer claims his life. Then he gets caught up in the power and adrenaline it brought him and keeps cooking for selfish reasons.
Our bad guys in real life have a story. You cannot pick them out of a crowd. They are like the rest of us except for the multitude of decisions they made that led to them to commit crimes. Some of them are smarter than us. Some of them dress better than us. Some of them are our next door neighbors. Some of them are family. It is easy to make judgments when we see someone’s mug shot on the news when we have no connection to them. They are not all anti-social criminals who lack a sliver of empathy that we would like them to be. We want to think the worst of these people because how else do we explain people who become serial killers, mass murders, or terrorists?
When I was still in the midst of my career in mental health working with teens, a former client shot a police officer then shot and killed himself. All kinds of things said about the young man in the media by people who never met him. What he did was wrong and took the officer from his family and himself away from his own family. One of the news anchors said something like, “I hate to see when young people go down this road.” I know she was trying to show some empathy for the situation but all it did was enrage me. She did not watch him go down that road. She saw him at the end of the road. She did not see the many ways the system failed him long before he reached the end of that road. Another former client was shot and killed when he and another young man tried to break in and rob an elderly couple. Commenters on the news article online were not kind. They immediately blamed the family. I knew this young man well. I spent a lot of time with him and his family. He was sweet, engaging, and fun. I never imagined him committing such a crime or being killed in the process of committing any crime.
Writers have to develop characters with layers of complexity like Regina and Walter White. We create protagonists with flaws because none of us is perfect. We create antagonists like the people we encounter in life to remind us that everyone is human no matter what they do. We create antiheros who skate the line of right and wrong because they are the most realistic of all. We can relate to the hero who overindulges in a vice or a bad guy who knows what he is doing is wrong and wants to do better. We empathize with Bruce Wayne whose parents were killed in front of him as a child. We grow up calling him a hero, but is he not really just a vigilante with fancy toys like Oliver Queen? We are like these multifaceted characters we create, we read, or we watch. A one-dimensional character holds no interest because no one can relate to them and no one likes them. When you have a character who does nothing but whine about how his parents love one of his brothers more than him, all you want to do is beat him with something big and heavy.
Our art imitates life in the grey. A painter only coats a canvas in one color as a base and adds other colors on top of it in many layers because that is how life works. Layer upon layer.
Even Christian Grey had fifty shades.