Monday, April 27, 2015

From Sayid to Snape: Dangerous Characters

There is no denying it—most readers love dangerous characters in books. You can fall in love with a hero or heroine but there's something just so alluring about a dangerous character. I started thinking about this because, though I have not had cable TV in over 30 years, when I am doing a lot of knitting I tend to binge watch TV shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Recently, I got hooked on the ABC series Lost which ran from 2004 to 2010. Three episodes in I wasn't sure if I liked the program but I sure liked one of the characters, Sayid Jarrah, as played by actor Naveen Andrews. There's just one teeny problem—the character is a former Iraqui soldier, a former Republican Guard, and a torturer. But there's just something about him.

I mentioned my fascination on Facebook and was astonished by the number of women who agreed with me. There's just something about him... Of course the muscles, and the copper skin, and the dreamy eyes, and the accent don't hurt, but there are lots of muscles, and good looks, and sexy accents (Desmond the Scot!) so what makes Sayid so mesmerizing?

Most of the dangerous characters I've loved have been in books. Julian Cash in Alice Hoffman's Turtle Moon immediately comes to mind. Anne Rice's Lestat is another. And there are dangerous characters that, though I didn't love them, I found myself spending a lot of time thinking about—Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men haunted me for weeks. Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist and Captain Ahab and Severus Snape. Some of them are evil, some are not, but all are very, very deadly. And all of them have a core of vulnerability inside that dangerousness.

As a writer I've created a few dangerous characters of my own—including two female characters. One is a sweet, beautiful woman who bakes delicious treats but just happened to kill her husband. And then there is my emotionally fragile but physically lethal Vivienne Lang in the Crazy Old Lady books. What makes these characters so incredibly fascinating is wondering how did they get this way?

One of the things art is supposed to do is make us think. For that reason alone Sayid Jarrah is a fascinating and important character. The character came into American homes when our country was at war in Iraq and when scandals about torture were everywhere. If you say “this character is an Iraqui soldier who tortured people” the first reaction would be negative—what a loathsome individual! But as we get to know Sayid we come to understand how he became what he did—and how he wants to leave that part of his life behind but cannot. We feel bad for him. We want him to find happiness. Dear readers, this is important stuff! We are coming dangerously close to feeling empathy and compassion for someone we should be horrified by—and that is the triumph of really good art.

I imagine a lot has been written about that character over the years and I am coming late to the party but I am glad I met him. I'm glad so many people loved him on Lost. I read somewhere that when the actor, Naveen Andrews (who is British/Indian), was asked how he felt about playing an Iraqui torturer said, “I felt it was a great responsibility.” That is what we writers should feel when we create these characters, too. Great responsibility to the person inside the danger.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Oh, Sayid... sigh. I do miss watching him! He was my absolute favorite on that show. Just something about him. I know he was in The English Patient but never saw that but wondered if his appeal came through in that movie. I loved watching Lost and still miss it.

  2. Cindy, I think you would like his character in The English Patient--I did. He is a Sikh demolitions expert who falls in love with Juliette Binoche (one of my favorite actresses) and I thought the role was rather Sayid-like. He has a dangerous job but a sweet and tender heart. He also is one of the few characters in the story who winds up okay at the end. Plus he has really long hair that is quite beautiful.


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