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Marginal Notes

Learning to Love your Fanatic


“The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” C. S. Lewis.

Fanatics make terrific villains, whether it’s an animal activist destroying labs where lifesaving drugs are developed, the mother who ruins her children’s lives in order to save their souls, or a terrorist blowing up civilians to trigger the holy war. Because fanatics are obsessed with a single idea, they’re impossible to reason with. They’ll cling to their idea regardless of evidence or argument. They’re often blind to the damage they cause as well, continuing to destroy the lives around them with impunity because, as Lewis says, their hearts are pure.

Yet this sincerity makes them easy to humanize. Psychopaths, by contrast, don’t feel that the people they hurt are really people, which makes them less than human themselves. It can be frightening to watch a character fall into the hands of a serial killer, say, but in some ways it’s no more emotionally engaging than if the character attacked by a wolf. Fanatics, though, are generally working for what they see as the greater good. And the ends they’re fighting for aren’t necessarily bad things. Animal testing is often cruel. Everyone wants the best for their children. And as John LeCarre proved in The Little Drummer Girl, readers can even be brought to understand a terrorist’s aims.

Giving your readers a sympathetic heavy draws them more firmly into your story. Both sides of your conflict become human. And while readers may still want your main character to win, they’ll feel pity for your villain, giving the conflict a new emotional level. Javert, who dogs Jean Valjean out of a fanatical devotion to the rule of law, is in the end more tragic than evil. Readers feel sorry for him when he throws himself into the Seine.

But Fanatics are easy to get wrong. I recently had a client whose antagonist venerates a guru who was trying to return her followers to a simpler life. He is so adamant that machines are destroying people’s lives that he plans to sabotage some equipment keeping critically ill people alive. But he persists in his plans even when his guru tries to stop him. This inconsistency in his character keeps him from becoming real. I still can’t imagine myself into his state of mind.

The best way around this problem, and the one I suggested to my client, is to learn to love your fanatic. Your readers will never be able to put themselves into your fanatic’s head unless you can go there yourself. Not that this is easy -- it means sympathizing with someone you violently disagree with.

The best approach is to focus on the good things the fanatic is trying to achieve. You need to make your readers see the shining beauty of whatever idea drives them or the collapse of all that is good and holy that they’re fighting to avoid.

Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mystery, The Heretic’s Apprentice, involves a young man being tried for heresy by a Canon Gerbert, a travelling inquisitor. Cadfael and the other monks at the monastery like the young heretic and see Gerbert as close-minded and self-righteous. But mid-trial, Cadfael has a sudden vision into Gerbert’s world.

For the man really had, somewhere in Europe, glimpsed yawning chaos and been afraid, seen the subtleties of the devil working through the mouths of men, and the fragmentation of Christendom in the eruption of loud-voiced prophets, bursting out of limbo like bubbles in the scum of a boiling pot . . . There was nothing false in the horror with which Gerbert looked upon the threat of heresy.

And from that point on, Gerbert is a human being, to Cadfael and to readers.