Aggressive characters real and fictional

I was thinking of blustering Bounderby today, the industrialist character from Dickens’ Hard Times, always lecturing, always talking loudly, always right. I was also thinking of two other people, George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, the innocent idealist and her fraught relationship with Casaubon, the collator of facts, the inhabitant of dark libraries, the person obsessed with not just doing things but doing things right. Rather quieter than Bounderby, Casaubon is not just obsessed with facts but is always driven by a desire to control them– to collate, to classify, to categorize. His obsession with control translates in real life to squishing Dorothea’s world, the idealist who has not armed or protected herself against the facts and aggressive logic of Casaubon’s ordered universe.

Engraving of a 1863 edition of Hard Times (Dic...
Engraving of a 1863 edition of Hard Times (Dickens) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fictional characters are just that–fictional. Yet, if you’ve been around them, that is to say, read and thought about fictional people for a while, whether to create some or to analyze them, you suddenly get an insight into real people in a very personal way. If you’ve studied literature, it helps to understand real people and your own reactions to them. It helps to create distance if you encounter such people in your immediate vicinity, analyze people better and to place them in a larger pattern of personalities and understand where they’re coming from and perhaps how to handle them.

That kind of knowledge is power. Besides, you can have exploratory conversations with imaginary people when real people are too sure of their facts and logic.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this issue of form vs. content a lot as it relates to human personality. Not morality, not intelligence, not intent of action as it relates to a person but simply the way a person comes across to other people while engaging in argumentation and the effect aggressive logic has on people surrounding them.

What would you do, for example, if you encountered an honest Bounderby or a less self-centered Casaubon in real life but still equally aggressive? In fiction, unpleasant characters often turn out fake or dishonest or its opposite, extremely good people (so only seemingly unpleasant, not really so)  and thereby the issue of form vs. content is resolved by a simple inversion or undermining of appearance.

Sadly, real life has more grey characters. In real life, an unpleasant person might be somewhat genuine, or partly honest, or have a little good intention. But when content is privileged over form, and only the intent is assessed and not the way it is presented, the doers neglect to nurture the nicer, non-aggressive sides of their personalities as qualities of value and create themselves to suit aggressive ideals which focus on end goals and not on the process of argumentation, an aspect which becomes part of their character.

Male elephant seals fighting
Male elephant seals fighting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take the issue of aggression in intellectual argumentation for example.

All arguments attempt to make a point. But there are those who make a point aggressively well, following a certain thread of logic with an end goal in view, keeping an eye on the end at all times, crushing other points of view around like a bulldozer. It appears that they argue to win although they claim they are willing to accept feedback given hard evidence. But the evidence has to be of the nature that can stop the bulldozer. Nothing finer or more nebulous will do.

Yet, imagine the same point delivered in a nicer, more exploratory way allowing for gaps for the listener to provide input. To leave points open ended. To include threads that can be completed by the listener while helping the listener see the larger point of view. In this case one develops a more open ended form of exploratory argumentation where giving space is not seen as a weakness, niceness is not seen as an avenue of attack, and politeness and soft spokenness is considered a virtue.

In other words, a pleasing personality arguing a point is a far better and less frustrating experience for the listener and often better at achieving results.

Form is as important as content.

Yet, in some cultures (not necessarily ethnic but professional or personal or group), content is given precedence over form. If you are genuine or make a point well or know a lot, it does not matter how loud you are or how aggressive. In fact, you’re encouraged not to finesse your personality. Perhaps it works in such cultures to be aggressive. 

After all, bulldozers are mostly good at conversing with other bulldozers. Everyone else needs to develop form.

We think of art as something simply confined to the ivory tower but it isn’t. The art of fiction talks about the formation of characters because characters can be created and developed even amongst real people. Personalities can be finessed and made pleasing.

Form is equally, in some cases, more important than substance. Sometimes a lack of form of delivery can cause more unhappiness around than mediocre content but fortunately form is also something that can be worked on.

In Middlemarch, Casaubon is eliminated and the free spirited artist Ladislaw, the opposite of the controlling Casaubon moves into the plot and into Dorothea’s life. In real life, the plot cannot be as easily tampered with. So it helps to work on personality, not just character.


17 thoughts on “Aggressive characters real and fictional”

  1. Hi, There.
    This post reminds me that our characters might appear flat or one-dimensional if we are not careful, going over-the-top with villains and good guys (or gals) does not seem believable to readers. Even the saintly-types should have a wart or two – and as well so should the aggressive and disagreeable character exhibit a soft spot somewhere.


  2. I’ve met bulldozers in my work environment who expected me to drop everything to do what they needed. These people brought out the worst in me. I wanted nothing more than to be a big boulder in their way. On the other hand, when asked nicely and treated with respect, I’m happy to handle a ‘rush’ job.

    In fiction, aggressive characters are gold because they create conflict and tension (just as they do in real life :))


  3. Very interesting. I dislike aggression so much that I struggle to create such characters in my writing. I am well acquainted with bullies having had a work role in dealing with harassment, so I ought to be able to depict them, even to see their point of view. You also make the excellent point that failure to make a point clearly can also lead to unhappiness.


  4. Excellent post. I watch PBS News every night and they always invite folks with opposite points of view to answer questions about current subjects. To me, it often appears the opposing views are not really so far apart, if only a third party could enter the discussion to make them aware, first, of the areas in which they agree, and go from there. Generally, they are so focused on bulldozing through their own agendas that they don’t really listen to the other person.


  5. I enjoyed Middlemarch as well and I really appreciated this post. When someone comes at me in an overbearing way, I stop listening. When someone invites discussion, even if they’re espousing a particular viewpoint (and aren’t driven by ego), I listen.


  6. I have found it wise to carefully gauge the content of each presentation of information–regardless of the form–though soft wording is usually preferable. In the name of form—also known as manipulation—much faulty information is taken as truth. Likewise, much manipulation has come through force. This reminds me of the words of Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.”


  7. Your post made me squirm with self-recognition. I still wonder why some people don’t respond well to things I say that I know to be eminently right. I see myself differently from the way others see me—corrective lenses very much in order. Love reading–love Middlemarch–and yet fail to apply those literary insights to myself.
    And yes, “bulldozers converse well with other bulldozers.” I can have a terrific conversation with a fellow-motormouth in which we each talk louder and louder, elevating mutual interruption to an art form. I blame this mode of conversation on culture—subcontinentals all tend to talk at once—but my son says that’s a terrible excuse and I need to take responsibility for the behavior.


  8. Interesting idea presented. I think, as others have said, that finding these people in real life would be ignored, but in fiction, we have a vested interest to see how they impact our main character. Or, if they are our main character, what they end up doing to themselves in the end. We don’t look at life situations as chapters in a story that we are either living, or watching, but I wonder if we did see it that way, if we’d stick with the real-life Casaubon just to see what happens to them.

    Hope that makes sense. It did in my head 🙂


  9. Yes, I was a history major and am finally reading the classics that I didn’t need for my career, which was psychology. Middle March was this past summer with them all. And y
    et she gets her own life. They can not make her less than a person.


  10. I think it’s a tricky thing. We need these characters in our fiction, those who say the things we wish we could say, or wish we had thought of, or to justify responses/reactions of others. In real life, though, I stop listening to these types. No matter how great or true their message might be, delivery counts for a lot.


  11. I read middlemarch almost a decade back, so my remembrances are a bit rusty. Still I remember being cautioned by the character Edward Casaubon to a great extent, for I, then a fifteen year old, saw the prospect of emergent Casaubon inside of me. I felt compassion as well as reprehension towards him as he ended up being a great negative teacher for me.
    Years later now, your post reminded me of the man who I was not to be


  12. liked this post a lot, I see the bulldozer in me at times, at times the finesse and honey, I was once the chief steward in a union not because I was liked by my co workers, in fact most co workers disliked me, I was elected because I was very effective in bulldozing my opponents and at the same time also knew how quietly making an off hand remark meant only for one persons ears could light the fuse to set them off in front of a crowd to the discredit of their argument. It is an art form, but not a pretty one. For the record…I never lost a grievance… but I’ve put those days behind me…


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