Some people believe that all stories were basically written by Greek times. Some truly original plot elements are added every century or so. A vampire, a private detective, a space alien, a dystopian future, a nuclear apocalypse, selective amnesia, or virtual reality are all very original plot elements that had been added to our literary lexicon over the centuries.
Just as Bram Stoker can be credited for popularizing the vampire as an element of fiction, Vladimir Nabokov can be credited for introducing the predatory pedophile into the public consciousness. Other forms of psychotic criminals were eventually introduced into literature, thanks to which we are now very familiar with people who do bad things, not because they have a rational motive, but because they have something very wrong with their minds. Before the introduction of psychotic villains, almost all villains in literature had rational motives. They wanted revenge, or money, or power, or sexual conquest, or just wanted to bolster their ego. Psychotic villains do bad things because they are sick in the head.
Little attention has been paid, however, to the characters in between. Not everybody is always rational. Not every irrational person is psychotic. They are basically normal human beings in almost every way, but act in ways counter to their own interests or desires. I think Poe should be credited with introducing perversity as a cause for evil deeds. It is an intriguing concept. People who kill what they most dearly love, push away what they most desire, and act hatefully when they want to show affection, can ring true when told well, but is difficult to navigate into a satisfying resolution of a story. It is much easier to describe somebody who kills out of jealousy or vengeance, or from pure psychosis.
In real life, we see perversity in people all the time. In a social experiment a high school girl filmed her school mates responding to being called beautiful. Most students responded with a shy smile and honest appreciation. One girl responded by saying “I’ll cut you in the face!” (1:40). It was an unexpected, but a raw and honest response. People become defensive when they have trouble responding with an expression of pleasure. Sometimes they lash out. They are everywhere in real life. But even in real life, these days, we rationalize it by attributing these behaviors to rational reasons like “She was having a bad day”.
In recent fiction, perversity rarely takes center stage. It is a minor condiment to spice up some scenes, not the main meat of the story. It is not the monster in the soul that turn characters into villains. It is the facet of human nature that is the most neglected in modern fiction. It was not always this way. Camus’s The Stranger was centered around an inexplicable murder motivated, according to the main character, by the sun. We do not see many of those any more.
What does that tell us about the stories we tell today? There is more material out there teaching writers how to write than ever before. I can find more advice on how to formulate a story in a few hours on the internet than I could in all my bookshop hopping and library scrounging of all my teenage years. But they mostly teach you to be clear about the motivations and explicit about what the protagonist wants. They tell you to “show don’t tell” thereby implying that the emotions should be those that can be shown. How do you show the emotions of the girl who responds “I’ll cut you in the face!” when told that she is beautiful? All you can show is a teenage girl who will react with threats of violence at a simple compliment. But those are the people who make good fiction. They need to be told not shown.
Here is Poe’s account of the killing of the black cat:
Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart — one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself — to offer violence to its own nature — to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only — that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree; — hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; — hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; — hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin — a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it — if such a thing were possible — even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.
Almost all telling and little showing, this would be unconventional writing today. But, all the same, this is great story telling. We may be missing out on a very important element of fiction as well as overlooking a major ingredient of human nature. Perhaps we need more perversity in our fiction.