One thing that often comes up in discussion about Harris’s HANNIBAL novels is whether or not characters like Hannibal Lector should be ‘explained’…the idea is that, by explaining him, you explain away his power…you somehow tame or domesticate him, you make him less scary.
I’ve been thinking about this — because I’ve been thinking that I don’t necessarily agree with it.
Sometimes you do want to maintain a certain distance between the reader and a character, because distance equals mystery, and mystery equals fear (or awe or intrigue or fascination or whatever else you might be attempting to invoke). This always makes me think of two characters in particular — Sherlock Holmes and Jay Gatsby — who stay larger-than-life partly because they’re presented to the reader through the first-person perspective of a different character, one who essentially has to guess and analyze motives and ways and means as much as the reader does, and thus acts as a kind of narrative barrier holding back the reader.
I did this myself, at least to some extent, in my novel BLOODANGEL — a novel that never, despite its multiple perspectives, goes inside the head of my Big Bad, but perceives her through other characters, including other baddies. And I did this because, yes, I wanted that villian to remain frightening and in some essential way alien, unknowable.
But does that mean the writer always has to make a choice? You can either investigate a character’s psychology (one of the supposed hallmarks, by the way, that separates literary fiction from genre/popular fiction) — or keep him/her frightening and mysterious? You can’t do both? (And does this mean literary fiction can’t offer up any truly frightening characters, any true villians?)
Is it true that by explaining something we automatically make it less frightening? We certainly try. It’s basic human nature to tell stories in order to make sense of things, to find at least enough order and pattern to live by; we invent mythologies. But often that just shifts our fear from one thing to another. Instead of fearing tidal waves, for example, people fear the ocean god who creates the tidal waves (although I suppose the point is that a god, at least, can be appeased and cajoled and bribed).
When I was in high school I went through a fascination of sorts with a real-life boogeyman — Ted Bundy. I read books about him. Saw that miniseries starring Mark Harmon. Followed Bundy’s last-ditch attempts to prolong his life through his manipulative promises of ‘confession’, turning himself into a dark, real-life take on the Scheherazade character, holding off execution through the power of storytelling. Sat in my school cafeteria on the day of that execution debating the death penalty with friends (I was and remain against the death penalty in general, yet couldn’t deny some relief that Bundy was no more).
Bundy has been explained about as well as others can explain him –at the end he was even attempting to explain himself (although since sociopaths are intensely manipulative, pathological liars, and lack true self-awareness, they’re hardly the best sources of insight on anything, including themselves) — and yet, if I was ever to meet him in person (and leaving aside the fact that I’d be encountering a dead man), the knowledge and ‘understanding’ I possess of him would probably make me more frightened of him — not less.
So why is this not supposedly true of Hannibal Lector? Because he’s a fictional character and fiction allows us the pretense of being able to explain absolutely everything, even evil?
Does fiction truly explain evil? Can even the sorcery of fiction explain why two brothers grow up in the exact same abusive, nightmarish environment — and one brother becomes a monster while the other brother lives a deeply compassionate and moral life?
Does understanding something or someone truly lessen our ability to fear it? Put Luke Skywalker’s father back in that mask in full-on Vader mode and is he not still a frightening son of a bitch?
We fear things a lot less when we understand them…but is that because most things just aren’t worth that depth of terror in the first place…even in fiction? Most things…but, perhaps, not all?
Strip away the mysterious, larger-than-life boogeyman and find an all-too-human evil in its place…is that really, in the end, so much easier for us to explain away, to understand?
Is it really less terrifying?