Note to writers: This letter contains spoilers of the film Fatal Attraction. Be forewarned!
Back when I was single, I accidentally scared off a few dates by mentioning that I sympathized with the character of Alex in the film Fatal Attraction.
Hear me out.
You may recall — Alex (played by Glenn Close) has a weekend fling with her married co-worker, Dan (Michael Douglas), and when Dan spurns her for his wife, Alex loses it. She tries to win Dan back (one appeal involves a suicide attempt), and when she realizes he’s gone for good, she destroys his car, kidnaps his daughter, and in the movie’s most iconic scene, boils the family’s pet bunny.
And I find her sympathetic how, exactly?
Look — it’s not like I’m rooting for Alex and against the bunny. It’s that, before she’s the villain, she’s a woman, and a wounded one, at that.
After their breakup, there’s a haunting scene when she sits alone in her apartment, turning her lamp on and off, on and off, while listening to Madam Butterfly, the ultimate story of betrayal and abandonment.
Later, Alex watches from a distance as Dan gives his daughter the doomed bunny as a gift. For father and daughter, it’s a sweet and tender moment, but for Alex, it’s torture, so much so that she turns and throws up into a bush.
I’ve been thinking about Alex ever since I heard writer and editor Ali Shaw speak about villains at the HippoCamp Conference on Creative Nonfiction. Shaw said that sometimes in trying to create “sympathy for the devil,” writers think our villains must be likeable, or forgivable. Shaw says no. We just need to make them three-dimensional.
One way Shaw does that is to look for what Carl Jung called “the shadow self:”
“For one reason or another, we all have parts of ourselves that we don’t like—or that we think
society won’t like—so we push those parts down into our unconscious psyches. It is this collection of repressed aspects of our identity that Jung referred to as our shadow.”
— Jack E. Othon
“Those shadow selves can come from insecurity, grief, chemical imbalances, trauma after trauma, dysfunctional learned behavior, and more,” Shaw said. “They have a way of leaking out sideways, so the question you want to ask yourself is, what are the villain’s habits that show the hurt underneath?”
That’s what the scene with Alex and the bushes (and the bunny) exposes: Alex’s pain is so deep, so intolerable, she cannot physically contain it.
While it’s easy—even cathartic fun—to show your villains at their vitriol-spewing, vengeance-seeking worst, remember those moments are at their most heart-stopping when the person holding the knife is just that—a person.