Love The Contradiction (2): Can Killers Be Softies?
The aloe vera tale in Part One is a classic case of a contradiction that we can all learn from. Two extreme, contradictory claims are made. On closer examination, we find that both claims, in watered-down form, contain elements of truth. Too often, we underestimate the ability of good and bad to co-exist.
In detective novels, interrogators are quick to pounce on contradictions. If a suspect says one day that he was playing cards with a friend, but days later claims he was in the pub that night, he’s in trouble. A writer may choose to make the contradiction obvious or plant contradictory statements far apart in the book, leaving the reader to pick them up. In either case, the contradiction is an important authorial device, but this is plot-based and involves simple contradictions of fact. The fascinating co-existence of good and bad is usually absent.
Contradictions in character are usually more multi-layered and more interesting. Most of us like to think of ourselves as rational and consistent, but we are not; we are mines of inconsistency. Pause for a second to consider a few of your friends. How many of them exhibit self-contradictory behaviour? Do you know a conscientious vegetarian who wears leather shoes? A businessman who spends £5000 on a holiday but won’t spend £20 on a new table lamp? A churchgoer who is a habitual liar? If you do, do the contradictions strike you as odd or do you accept them as normal, unsurprising human behaviour? Do you, perhaps, refuse to accept them as contradictions? If so, why?
Some of the most contradictory behaviour is found in serial killers. Many are known to have paved the way for their murders by torturing and killing animals. As a result, fictional serial killers are often portrayed as being devoid of empathy. Reality, however, is less clear cut. Serial killer Dennis Nielsen doted on his dog, Bleep, who was alive even after Nielsen’s twelfth victim had been dispatched. Moors murderer Myra Hindley was besotted by her collie, Puppet, and her partner, Ian Brady, looked after three rabbits and two dogs as a youngster. Others who have been distraught at losing dogs include Jeffrey Dahmer, Harold Shipman, and Adolf Hitler.
Skilful authors have used their insight into this paradoxical aspect of human nature, exploiting it to good effect. One of the best examples occurs in Harold Pinter’s play, The Dumb Waiter. Ben reads a newspaper article and deduces that a boy of ten has killed a cat and blamed it on his little sister of eight. Ben is outraged. Later, we learn that Ben, like his companion, Gus, is a professional killer. Pinter leaves it to the audience to spot this double morality, which is completely lost on the two protagonists.
We are sometimes told to guard against contradictory traits when portraying fictional characters, but this advice is simplistic and short-sighted. I say, “Love the contradiction.” More than 160 years ago, in “Song of Myself”, Walt Whitman wrote:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
He was right.