This is a prickly subject, if ever there was one.
That’s right—this installment of the Hooked on a Feeling miniseries deals with evoking hate in the reader. But before you whip out your torches and pitchforks, lets have a look at the facts.
A Brief History of Hate
As an emotion, it’s always been seen as powerful and dangerous. In past epochs, it was regarded as something of a loaded gun left lying around: as likely to kill the hater and his loved ones as much as the hater’s actual target. We see this in classical literature, where it was the root of many of the famous tragedies.
Consider Romeo and Juliet.
Yes, I suppose this version will suffice, if you absolutely must.
The mutual hate of the Montague and Capulet families leads to the death of their children. It was sad. It was heartbreaking. But their hate was not portrayed as an apocalyptic or malevolent force. Instead, the families’ feud was more like a simple hearth’s fire that had spiraled out of control until it burned down the house. And it was ultimately not a roadblock to their redemption, since, with their children dead, both families understood how reckless their feud had become and decided to put an end to it.
Such a moral would not fly in today’s world.
The 20th Century Rears its Ugly Head
The entire history of hate has been completely rewritten in the last hundred years. I’m not even close to joking.
Where it was once seen as an unwieldy and hazardous weapon, too dangerous for mere mortals, hate is, in today’s philosophy, the wellspring of all evil. Cancerous and malignant beyond words, it lies at the heart of darkness. It is the devil. It is the Dark Side. It is irredeemable.
“9 out of 10 Sith Lords agree.”
And the reason for this is simple. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the power of hate was involved in the death of a lot of people in the 20th century.
Like, more than a few millions.
Now, the political philosophies that actually culminated all this killing were just that: philosophies. By themselves, they were neither loving nor hateful—just apathetic toward the value of human life. But, in order for these political philosophies to gain traction, they took advantage of the local hatreds and prejudices of the populace, giving justification to a lot of deep-seated feelings and providing an appealing (though totally boneheaded) excuse for so much killing.
And the human race, seeing so much death wrought by the hand of hatred, came to the natural (if unprecedented) conclusion that hate was more special than previous generations had given it credit for, and that hate was the only emotion capable of wreaking so much death.
Now this may actually be right (I’m not going to argue that hate was not responsible for the most atrocious acts of the 20th century). Or it may be wrong (a lot of emotions can cause death and destruction: greed, pride, paranoia, and even love, in some cases). But because of these events, hate became something untouchable. Modern parents teach their children that it is wrong even to feel it. And if we discover anyone in our communities harboring any kind of hatred, well, we disavow them, and do whatever we can to make them lose their employment, their freedom, and even their life because ANYONE WHO HATES ANYONE SHOULD BE CARVED OPEN AND SET ON FIRE!!!
(A lot of intelligent people are surprised when they first discover that more hatred exists in the present century than in the last one. Fewer figure out that this hatred is as much their own fault as anyone else’s. Even fewer are intelligent enough to realize that the current levels of hatred don’t have to result in atrocities, if we don’t want them to.)
So Why would any Writer Want to Evoke Hatred?
If hatred is the world killer—the little death that brings total obliteration—then isn’t it a horror and a sin when any book evokes such feelings in its readers?
Well, let’s look at the historical record.
The immortal bard was not unfamiliar with hatred, nor was he ignorant of the effect it could have upon an audience. Whether it is the dastardly Iago, the cruel Lady Macbeth, or the treacherous Richard III, Shakespeare intentionally gave his audience someone to hate. And he didn’t just plant the seed and be done with it. No, he stoked the audience’s hatred, keeping it at full all the way through the end.
Was this a flaw in Shakespeare’s writing? Or was it an intoxicating advantage?
Who can forget the poisonous Miss Havisham? Who can forgive the lying Uriah Heep? Who harbors any good feeling towards Wackford Squeers?
Is it possible to finish a Dickens book without hating someone? Would it be a Dickens book if such lingering feelings were not present? So many of his works are so deeply cherished. Could it be some kind of coincidence that they all evoke such hatred in the reader? Surely his works are celebrated despite the fact that hate plays such a dominant role, not because of it.
The Curious Case of Dolores Umbridge
Alright, fine. Great authors of ages past conjured feelings of hatred in their readers, for whatever reason. But that is only because they lived in an unenlightened age, before the horrors of the 20th century opened our eyes to the incorrigible nature of that feeling. Surely no author of any reputation who lived after that time could ever possibly even consider…
Consider the case of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
In case it isn’t clear to any reader of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy series, I should point out that one of the overarching themes is the fight against hatred and prejudice. The primary villain, Lord Voldemort, is primarily inspired by these feelings. Harry’s answer to the villain is a denouncement and a rebuttal of those philosophies—philosophies that, it turns out, mirror a lot of that awfulness that we saw in the 20th century.
And yet, despite that the apparent thesis of the series being that hate is universally bad, we are introduced, in the fifth volume, to someone we can wholeheartedly despise.
Dolores Umbridge may be the most hated character in fiction at the time of this writing. The reader is meant to hate her, apparently forever, since she never redeems herself, even at the very end of the series. And there is no lesson here, no correction in the reader’s outlook. Dolores not only makes no move towards forgiveness, she doesn’t even ask for it. And the reader is not punished for withholding it from her.
Why does this apparent paradox exist? I cannot say. But I can say that it was no accident that so many classics opt to stir the reader’s hate. Inspector Javert from Les Miserables, Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby, Bob Ewell from To Kill a Mockingbird—all are present in society’s most cherished stories, and all are hated to the core.
The Value of Hate (as far as Writing is Concerned)
In my last Hooked on a Feeling post, I made a point about the emotions I had covered so far:
- Inspiration is the feeling that will be most personally transformative for your reader.
- Fear is the feeling that will most reinforce the illusion you are weaving around your reader.
Today, I will add a third point:
- Hate is what will make your works immortal, and will provide a conduit to all generations of future readers.
This is a hard pill to swallow, I know, so let me provide context.
A lot of good writing advice is centered on the idea of giving the reader a character to root for—someone for them to absolutely love.
The problem with this idea is that people fall out of love all the time and all too easily. If the reader loves a character today, there is no guarantee that the reader will still love them tomorrow, because it only takes one mistake, on the character’s part, to spoil that feeling. Or, on the other hand, the reader may simply outgrow that character, and move on to other interests.
But if you give your reader someone to hate—that one person they can’t stand in the story—they will never stop hating that person. Because that just doesn’t happen. Because people don’t fall out of hate. Not really. And it is no coincidence that the immortalized writers who lived long ago were the ones who evoked hatred in their readers. Rather, it is something of a prerequisite: your stories will not last through the centuries unless they feature someone the audience can feel free to despise.
Don’t fight it. In the words of Darth Vader:
How to Use It
So now that we see the value of hate (in writing, not in life), the question arises: how do we properly bring it out in the reader.
Keeping in mind that there are no hard and fast rules, here are things to consider:
- Hatred against a person is going to be much stronger than hatred against a place or an inanimate object.
- A hated person is usually the villain or antagonist (though you occasionally see some Richard IIIs out there).
- The most hated person is someone who consistently triumphs over those characters your reader actually likes.
- For maximum effect, these triumphs should be large enough to have real consequences on the story.
- For unthinkably maximum effect, these triumphs should hurt people that the reader cares about in permanent ways.
- For stupendously unthinkably maximum effect, the hated person should show no remorse or mercy while executing these actions. They may even be glad, or, if more appropriate, stonily unaffected.
To put a little perspective on it, here is a quote by Margaret Atwood:
Create a flawless character and you create an insufferable one.
Now, when she said this, she was instructing writers not to make their heroes perfect, since nobody wants to root for the character who has no potential for growth.
But, whether she knew it or not, she was also giving great advice on how to make your villains insufferable. The ideal target of your reader’s hatred is someone who always has the upper hand, and whose defenses are so perfect that they always slide easily out of whatever trouble your hero makes for them. For maximum effect, they should be smart, and beautiful, and fearless, and untouchable, and, more often than not, impeccably clean (some characters, such as Monsieur Thernadier from Les Miserables can be hated while being filthy and stupid, but that hate will be somewhat diminished by the reader’s pity).
After employing all these things, the only thing left is to determine the hated one’s fate. Here, you can take several paths:
- The hated one is destroyed (think of Pap Finn from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). This method provides closure, but is perhaps the least successful method for securing an immortal legacy.
- The hated one is humiliated (think of Cruella DeVil from 101 Dalmatians or Biff Tannen from the Back to the Future trilogy). Similar to death, but perhaps a bit more satisfying, especially if this leads to a “the tables have turned” style of ending.
- The hated one is redeemed (think of Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol). This can be very hard to do, depending on how vile the person was to begin with. Furthermore, this kind of ending undercuts the feelings of hatred you worked so hard to inspire, though that will leave the reader with the feeling of inspiration, as covered in a previous post.
- The hated one gets away unharmed. And this is the most powerful ending you can strive for. It deliberately cuts the reader off from complete closure, making him unable to fully extricate from the book, even if he finished it years ago. This is what causes the book to live, from one century to the next, as more and more readers stare, astounded, at the audacity of the escape. Or, as Alfred Hitchcock once said,
Good examples of this last category are Dolores Umbridge (as I mentioned above) and Mr. and Miss Murdstone from David Copperfield.
The Achilles Heel
The greatest weakness of this emotion is, paradoxically, just how strong it is. Consider the following:
After reading this article, there is going to be someone, somewhere, who objects to some of my earlier remarks.
“You’re conflating two different issues,” they say. “You point to the hatred that did so much damage in the 20th century and compare it to the hatred a reader can have for a character in a book. But one of those is group hatred and the other one is individual hatred. There is a world of difference between those two things. They can’t really be called the same feeling.”
To that person, I say, you are right: there is a world of difference between these two things, just like there is a world of difference between the blossom on the tree and the fruit that comes after. But there is a shared thread connecting hatred for an individual and hatred for a group who share an ethnicity, heritage, or creed. And, in at least one instance, hatred of a certain character has bled over into hatred of a real group.
Sadly, Shakespeare’s works have, on occasion, been used to aggravate or inflame group hatred. One of his most hated characters is a Jewish creditor named Shylock.
Now, some have tried to interpret Shylock’s role in The Merchant of Venice as being a plea for tolerance, but all too often, this character has been appropriated by those who would wish to make him an archetype—the broad brush with which to paint all creditors, or all Jews, or whatever else he may or may not be, in the same color and shade.
I would assert as my opinion that group hatred springs from individual hatred. When a person is slighted by another, he may project his enemy’s failings onto all those who look the same way, dress the same way, or pray the same way.
Now, are you going to contribute to a genocide by including a hateable character in your book? Probably not. And, on the whole, I tend to see hatred through a pre-20th century viewpoint: not as the universal sin, but certainly as a loose cannon, needing extra attention and care before its use can even be considered.
Hate is a powerful emotion, and power is often unwieldy. And, as with all writing, mistakes are going to be made. Whenever possible, try to confine these mistakes to your pea shooters, rather than your big guns.
Hate exists. It exists in fiction as well as in life. Many people oppose it (and for good reason), but some of those same people realize its usefulness in fiction, and use it to fantastic effect.
You do not have to like it.
You do not have to agree with anything I have said.
You are probably right and I am probably dead wrong.
But you will have hate, at one point or another, in your human experience. If fiction is truly going to capture the human experience, then it must allow for the experience of hate, in the company of other, better feelings.
I would ask you to at least consider what I have said here. I would hope you would receive what I have said in the spirit it was written. I also hope you see the irony in attacking someone because you believe them to be hateful. But I cannot deny you that choice, if that is how you truly feel.
Thank you for reading all the way to the end, and thank you for keeping an open mind.
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…gently (I hope).”]