Character Trait Entry: Ruthless

Definition:
Having no pity; merciless; without compassion

Causes:
Growing up in a loveless home; a society or environment where only hardened individuals survive (like prison or criminal/mafia hierarchy, repression during a dictatorship, etc) ; belief that emotion equals weakness; suffering a deep betrayal during an impressionable time which leads to a shutting down of feelings and lack of trust; adapting to survive a life altering event (famine; war; abuse; disease or plague; homelessness); a sociopath diagnosis

Characters in Literature: 
 Rumpelstiltskin (Brothers Grimm); Michael Corleone (The Godfather); Uncles Balder & Grim (Troll Fell)


Positives:
Ruthless characters are exceptional leaders and are fiercely loyal to those they love. They protect those they are responsible to and see that their needs are cared for. They are not afraid of what must be done, and they can act decisively under pressure without being bogged down by emotions. Ruthless individuals stay focused on the big picture and are goal driven. Logical, shrewd and opportunistic, they execute decisions regardless of ethics or morals if they deem it is in their best interest to do so, and so rarely face dilemmas that can stymy others. A ruthless nature means always watching for weakness and being prepared to take advantage of opportunity. Ruthless people are often highly accountable because they see their actions as being right for the situation and so are willing to stand behind decisions.

Negatives:
Ruthless people, by nature, create collateral damage. Their lack of an emotional barometer means their actions often hurt others. Decision-making and execution of plans often include a steam-rolling approach, and the people around them either get out of the way or become victims. It is difficult to trust a ruthless person for fear they may 'turn' in favor of a more appealing opportunity or partnership. Ruthless people are users who will not hesitate to cast aside someone after they cease to be useful. At best, the people closest to an openly ruthless person tend to be wary, and at worse, a bed of hatred and resentment can create fertile ground for undermining and subversion. Ruthless people do not inspire others (unless they themselves are ruthless) and they lead through fear.

Common Portrayals:

Third world country dictators, criminals, prostitutes,  junkies, psychopaths, CEOs, stock market tycoons, soldiers in prisoner of war camps, rapists, serial killers; drug cartels; fringe religious movements; terrorists; slave & sex traders

Cliches to Avoid: 

The Hitler-esque military leader; the vampire killer bent on eradicating a species; the ruthless & beautiful female assassin; the guillotine-happy ruler or king; the stereotypical cardboard 'power at all costs' villain

Twists on the Traditional Ruthless:  

  •  Ruthless individuals are almost always cunning and intelligent. If a character with this trait did not have smarts to fall back on, how would they compensate?
  • Because ruthlessness and success go hand-in-hand, a archetype triangle is often created: rich, powerful & influential. Cast that cliche aside! Give us a ruthless grandmother, a cunning soccer mom or a shrewd bus driver.
  • Ruthless is most frequently presented as a negative. Challenge yourself to create a character who uses this trait for the greater good.

Conflicting Characteristics to make your Ruthless unique or more interesting: shy, honest, proper, worry-wart, friendly, funny


14 comments:

Becca Puglisi said...

Love the idea of a ruthless grandmother. And Al will be excited to see the Corleones represented. Great breakdown, Ange!

Laura Pauling said...

Ruthless grandmother? I think Flowers in the Attic. Creeeeeepy.

I think this type is hard to write as the villain b/c it's hard to create empathy and a well rounded character. But obviously it can be done. Maybe these characters aren't meant to have empathy though.

Love the picture!

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks Becca!

Laura, FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC is a great example! Boy it's been forever since I read that book--I would love to reread it! :)

Angela

ralfast said...

Ah, a common "villain" trait, but as the cliche section warns, a difficult one to use if the character lacks any depth.

I would also caution against the "win for winning" sake attitude slapped onto these characters. Their motivations, no matter how petty they may seem, have to be believable.

Just my 2 cents. ;)

Carry on! :D

Michael Offutt, Expert Critic said...

If you are a manager, having no ruth at your side allows you to accomplish many capitalistic goals. Sometimes, I guess, it is necessary to kick Ruth to the curb.

Loree Huebner said...

Loved this post.

I remember the Flowers In The Attic grandmother...she was creepy. Louise Fletcher played "Grandmother" in the movie, Flowers..she also played another ruthless character in Cuckoo's Nest - "Nurse Ratched".

Jemi Fraser said...

My villain won't come into my story for a few chapters yet, but I'll be coming back to this post for some tips! :)

Diane Carlisle said...

A ruthless child is always creepy to me. I'm thinking of the movie "Orphan".

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

A ruthless grandmother or soccer mom--that's great! This is perfect information for an antagonist. Very inspiring.

Roza M said...

I love the show "The Grimm". Anyways, thanksgiving is right around the corner and I am currently going around and thanking each blogger that follows me. So thanks for following and I hope you have a fantastic weekend!

Julie Musil said...

I love your idea to create unlikely ruthless characters! Love this, thanks

Rachna Chhabria said...

Love this post. I am in the process of creating an antagonist that kids will hate on sight and this post comes as a blessing.

Traci Kenworth said...

Ruthless grandmother? Reminds me
of those V.C. Andrews books.
Creepy. Great blog!!

Kelly Hashway said...

Funny would be a great contrast. I'm getting ideas already!

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