How to Create Sympathetic Fictional Characters Who Are Right-wing Extremists

A sub-theme of my novel, Climbing the Coliseum, explores the recent resurgence of the extremist  anti-government and racist right wing in our society.

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When I was writing the book, I wanted the action to show, from inside the movement, the kind of hate-filled thinking that drives this it. At the same time, I wanted to avoid demonizing anyone and to portray the characters involved with some sympathy. In this sub-plot, Climbing the Coliseum portrays an anti-tax, anti-government conspiracy modeled on the real-life Posse Comitatus, more on whom later.

If I couldn’t write the characters with genuinely mixed good-and-bad traits, I knew that my readers would be unable to feel a human connection with them, and that would sink the story. This problem absorbed a lot of my energy in the early going. In a moment, I’ll share with you the solution that evolved. First, let me give you some back-story on the Posse Comitatus, which is the model for my conspiracy.

Posse C

In the novel, as in real life, the Posse Comitatus is an ugly, hate-filled, and (if they weren’t so violent) ludicrous group of human beings. If you want an in-depth look at what the Posse is about, you can check out Rachel Maddow’s deep-historical overview here. It’s long – twenty-one minutes – but she’s very thorough. She traces the roots of the Posse to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which effectively ended Reconstruction and opened the door to Jim Crow. (If you’d prefer a shorter explanation, check Dana Milbank’s article here.)

At root, the Posse is an outgrowth of two earlier (but still active) extremist movements: Christian Identity and the Sovereign Citizen movement. From the Christian Identity movement, the Posse Comitatus inherits its virulent strain of white supremacy, racial hatred, and anti-Semitism. From the sovereign citizens, it borrows a set of potent but bizarre ideological beliefs:

  • The individual citizen is sovereign; that is, a citizen is a nation unto him- or herself, and citizens are free to decide for themselves which laws, if any, they will obey. This, of course, is utterly confused thinking, since by definition, the citizen is a member of the sovereign state. This idea leads to a basketful of bizarre behaviors, such as people deciding to simply eliminate their debts — without paying anything (except $1500.00 to the sovereign citizen site that promotes the idea).
  • The federal, state, and local governments, with one exception, do not exist and have no authority over individual citizens.
  • The county sheriff is the highest – and only – valid governmental official; however, see the next point.
  • If a sheriff, or anyone, attempts to impose “illegal” taxes or other laws on citizens, the Posse is empowered to try him or her by a “citizens’ grand jury” and, if warranted, “We the People” (you’ll find Posse speakers referring to themselves this way all the time) shall penalize him, and even, if necessary, hang him. Yes, that’s right. Hang him. Don’t believe me? Check it out here. The original statement of this is that the offending sheriff “shall be removed by the Posse to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and at high noon hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown as an example to those who would subvert the law.” The quote is from 1968. Yes, Nineteen-sixty-eight.

As I said, if they weren’t so violent, the Posse would be ludicrous. But they are violent. Remember Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bombers? Posse members. Remember Randy Weaver of Ruby Ridge, Idaho? Posse-influenced, if not a member.

Rancher Cliven Bundy, middle, addresses his supporters along side Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, right, on April 12, 2014. Bundy informed the public that the BLM has agreed to cease the roundup of his family's cattle.(AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jason Bean)
Rancher Cliven Bundy, middle, addresses his supporters.

Remember Cliven Bundy? He’s the Nevada rancher who for many years has grazed his cattle on federal lands but refused to pay more than a million dollars in grazing fees – because he does not believe the federal government exists! Remember how he and his supporters stood with rifles aimed at federal marshals who came to remove his cattle from public lands? Remember how he told Fox News that he thinks “the Negro” would be better off as a slave? Why? Because they (“the Negro”) are “basically on government subsidy, so . . . they abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.” (This video clip appears starting at 19:19 into the Rachel Maddow segment mentioned above.) That Cliven Bundy.

Well, Cliven Bundy was repeating Posse Comitatus propaganda, chapter and verse.

Writing

So, when I was writing Climbing the Coliseum, I faced this difficult task: How could I keep the Posse Comitatus-based group in the novel from so resembling the real Posse that readers couldn’t engage with them, maybe couldn’t even believe they were real? How could I depict the group sympathetically, without descending into either condescension or farce, and without condoning their destructive ideas?

 

As is so often the case, my characters saved me. Originally, Vic Sobstak, the rancher I envisioned belonging to the anti-tax conspiracy, was like most Posse Members. He was opinionated, racist, against the government, and brimming with anger. But I was also writing about his wife, Maggie, a much more sympathetic character, indeed, a good and strong person. The trouble was, Maggie truly loved Vic. This forced me to ask myself, “Would Maggie have stayed married to this guy for so long if he was as big a jerk as I’m portraying him?” The only answer I could find was, “No way on earth.” So Vic had to change.

Vic and Maggie were small-time ranchers facing bankruptcy as a result of a big tax problem. I realized that Vic didn’t have to be an anti-Semitic racist to join an anti-tax conspiracy: Lots of folks are searching for a way to solve their tax problems, and the leaders of the conspiracy could pitch it (during its initial recruiting phase) as a benign help-with-taxes organization. The fact that it turns out so much more deadly than that didn’t need to discount Vic’s motivation for getting involved: He wanted to save his ranch and win back Maggie’s respect.

 

So my solution, thanks to Maggie’s love for her husband, was to write Vic’s character as a decent, hard-working, but stubbornly prideful rancher who, rather innocently (at first), attends some anti-tax meetings put on by the Reverend Crane, from Idaho, who preaches the Posse Comitatus Bible. In his naiveté, Vic has no idea the wasps’ nest he’s being seduced into, and when he finally wakes up to the craziness – and the hatred – it’s almost to late to get out. I wanted Victor to emerge as a vivid and sympathetic guy, trapped by his own pride and fear of failure.

In other words, a person like most of us.

If you’re wondering whether Vic stumbles his way out of trouble, here’s where you can find Climbing the Coliseum!

Archbishop Nienstedt, Writers, and Where Bullies Belong

Originally, today’s posting was going to be about bullies and writers; in a way it still is, but with an added personal slant. In my forthcoming novel, tentatively titled The Third Noble Truth, one of the characters, who had been abused by a monk in his youth, achieves a radical and nearly lethal resolution to his suffering – one that is entirely a surprise, even to him. I found myself, writing those scenes, liberating some of the anger I’d accumulated over more than thirty years working with adult survivors of clergy abuse in Minnesota. Beyond working on committees to advance mandatory reporting laws in the state and providing consultant services to attorneys attempting to sue the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on behalf of victims, I had to contain my rage at the cover-up by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minnesota so as not to betray my clients’ privacy. Now that I am retired from practice, I can write about what, then, I could not say: The Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, John Nienstedt, is a bully.

Nienstedt

Nienstedt resigned on June 14, after his Archdiocese was charged by the Ramsey County (St. Paul) prosecutor with failing to protect minors from sexual abuse by a priest. I rejoiced. Although it’s my opinion, it isn’t only mine that Nienstedt, like too many powerful men at the head of too-big-to-fail corporations, is a bully.

Now, I’m not taking on faithful Catholics or other spiritually minded people whose churches happen also to be big corporations. Nor am I cynical about Pope Francis, who seems to be a fresh wind blowing through the Vatican: He accepted Nienstedt’s resignation in fewer than twenty-four hours. No, I’m talking about the corporate bullies who use their power to hurt real people. And archbishops aren’t the only examples of this.

For a fair sampling of what others think of him, you can click here.

To save you the time, here are a few examples:

  • On September 17, 2013, the Huffington Post reported that “In October of 2012, . . . a letter he [Nienstedt] wrote surfaced in which he tells the mother a young gay man that she must reject her son or go to hell herself.”
  • Earlier that year, Jesse Marx of the City Pages blog wrote that Nienstedt “used his position to bully proponents and demonize fellow Catholics who disagreed with him.”
  • In 2012, Nienstedt ordered priests in the Archdiocese to refuse Holy Eucharist to any openly gay persons – and even to anyone wearing a gay pride button – who came to the altar for the sacrament.
  • In that same year, as part of his virulent campaign against gay marriage (on the ballot that fall), he sent teams – a priest and a married heterosexual couple – into Catholic high schools to deliver mandatory lectures against gay marriage to seniors, who presumably would be eligible to vote in the next fall’s election.
  • He ordered his priests to form political action committees in their parishes – and parishioners’ expense – to support the gay marriage ban in the upcoming election.
  • He ordered his priests either to speak out against gay marriage (before the election) or to remain silent if they could not condemn it.

Naturally, then, it surfaced in 2014 that Nienstedt had been accused, it’s reported, of having had sexual encounters with priests, seminarians, and other adult men, and that he may have had a sexual relationship with the very priest who sexual abuse of children he failed to report to authorities. (Clearly, since any results of those investigations have not been made public, he remains innocent until proven guilty.)

I’ll reflect on some of the deeper psychological and literary issues those allegations raise in next week’s post.

Allegations are not facts, of course, so my calling Nienstedt a bully will have to stand on his overt behaviors, some of which are mentioned above, and others of which can be found easily online.

Writers need bullies, of course. Called, more primly, “antagonists,” bullies (for fiction writers) usually are people – and not all antagonists are bullies (think Fred Clumly and the Sunlight Man in John Gardner’s The Sunshine Dialogues). For writers of non-fiction, ideas can be the antagonist (as in Eli Levin’s Disturbing Art Lessons: A Memoir of Questionable Ideas and Equivocal Lessons); or, a hiker’s incompetence and the trail itself may serve (as in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild); or a German submarine aided and abetted by the British secret code-breaking agency will do (as in Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania one hundred years ago).

Whatever form they take, we writers need our bullies or antagonists for the conflict and tension they generate, and all writer’s hope that their bullies have dimensions and heft, even perhaps some redeeming qualities. The more complex the bully’s character is, the greater is his or her potential to capture readers and hold them to the page. Bullies are great in books.

But real life is too full of bullies like John Nienstedt. I am very glad he is going away.