p. m. terrell @pmterrell
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” - John Dalberg-Acton, 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton
There are several ways in which authors can incorporate power-hungry characters in their books. One way is to use them as protagonists. We can take our hero from the depths of despair or harsh physical conditions to the height of power and watch them transform in the process. The influence they attain can either move them closer to the light and benevolence or into the darkness and malevolence.
Perhaps one of the most compelling stories about power and corruption is found in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. While the main character experiments with every sin he can imagine, his picture and not his body reflect the evil changes to his soul.
Another famous and compelling portrait of power and corruption is Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, about the psychological damage of untethered political ambition.
The book can be written in first-person as well, as Anthony Burgess did in A Clockwork Orange. The narrator, Alex DeLarge, is a sociopath, and we experience the world through his eyes as he uses physical power to assault his victims.
In each of these examples, it is the hero’s power that destroys himself and the people around him.
There are many real-life examples of power and corruption, or evil springing from an individual in a dominant position. Perhaps one of the most well-recognized is Vlad the Impaler, a ruler in Romania said to be the inspiration of Dracula by Bram Stoker.
Tammany Hall was founded as a benevolent organization to help New York City’s poor and immigrant communities. Under William M. Tweed, better known as Boss Tweed, it became so steeped in corruption that it became extinct in 1966. Both the man and the organization have inspired many stories, showing that an antagonist does not necessarily need to be an individual.
A powerful and corrupt antagonist is another means of placing such a compelling character into a book. The more formidable the protagonist is, the more dangerous the antagonist must be to create suspense. Some antagonists have so seared into our minds that their names are synonymous with greed or evil. They include Simon Legree in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs. Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s Psycho was inspired by a psychotic killer named Ed Gein, who led a dual life.
p.m.terrell is the award-winning, internationally acclaimed author of more than 24 books ranging from historical to suspense. One example of taking a character to greater heights is found in her latest release, A Struggle for Independence, in which Lady Independence Mather must find courage and purpose in the 1916 Irish Easter Rising, which led to the Irish War for Independence.