The Pain of Being Misunderstood (and Also Knives)

If you ask Colleen McCullough what Caesar was like she would probably tell you he was brilliant, misunderstood, beaten down at every turn and still arose on top (until that time he, yanno, didn’t). Ask Mike Duncan, creator of the History of Rome podcast (recommended), and he’ll tell you about a conniving trickster who only pretended to have Rome’s interests at heart but really only wanted power for himself.

Listening to the podcast while reading the last two McCullough books proved interesting…. And confusing.

It also got me thinking about other divisive characters in history, more and more of them the further back you go. The mixture of extremely different cultural attitudes and diminishing records tends to do that. Depending on who you ask, Alexander the Great was a monster or a benevolent ruler. Judas was a traitor or doing god’s work.

I will defend both of these movies until the day I die

Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese went the kinder gentler route for each, respectively. Hmm, interesting.

This isn’t necessarily a historical problem though. How well do we know anyone’s intentions, motivations, and desires? How well do we even know our own? I wanted a chalupa for dinner last night and now I don’t know why. (Urf.)

From a writer’s standpoint, I think the more ambiguous, the more interesting the character. There’s a fine line, their actions can’t be totally random (see, The Infinities by John Banville, about a family who had long-standing relationships that he never bothered to explain). I’m going to repeat myself and idolize a Harry Potter character but I think Severus Snape is written beautifully. By the end he is given motivations that tend to drive him but he also acts impulsively or has to make decisions quickly. And his nature is still unclear. Yeah he’s cast as a hero by the end but a strong argument could be made that he was a dick about it, selfish and immature throughout. He took pleasure in tormenting an 11 year old because he wanted to bone his mom.

Snape was my first thought but who else, in literature, history, or both? Which characters/people are fascinating enigmas? And which characters do you get into fights with your friends over who’s a bastard and who’s just cuddly and misunderstood?

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4 thoughts on “The Pain of Being Misunderstood (and Also Knives)

  1. Yeah, crap, Snape is a good example. He has the advantage of having 7 books worth of development. Trying to think of others.

    Lando in Empire is a little to cool and suave to be dark and mysterious, but he is enigmatic for a good chunk of the film. It isn’t until Han is frozen that we realized that Vader is screwing him over, and in the end, Lando does the right thing. -cape swirl-

    • Good pick.

      I think a big factor (just occurring to me) is the continuation of doubt, even after the movie/book is over. It gives a sense of a continued life and existence beyond the reel/pages.

  2. There’s also the tendency to go in different routes with fictional depictions of historical characters just to keep things interesting. We’ve all got these sorts of prevailing shared cultural images of people like Caesar or Napoleon based on the general consensus, so for someone making a new thing containing such a character nowadays the writers and filmmakers are tempted to go in some new direction – darker & edgier, kinder & gentler, what have you – just to keep from being more of the same and get people talking about your version of person X.

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