So who is this in the photograph? Do you recognize the face? What a cute little baby!

Hitler, baby, It’s someone very well known.

Instantly recognizable as an adult, in fact.

I’ll give you a clue. It’s a he.

What do you think he became when he grew up – saint or sinner? Famous or notorious?

Write it down and check your answer later.

Writers are taught from the get-go to create believable motivations for their characters. Some teachers even recommend creating whole folios on our MC’s family of origin so that we understand them better.

A hero should have understandable flaws, I was told; and a villain has to have reasons for being bad so we can at least empathize. All very good advice.

But how does it hold up in real life?

Art, as Picasso said, is not the truth. It’s a lie that shows us the truth. So how does fiction stack up to reality?

So before I tell you who this baby is, try this on for size:

BC was born in a tenement slum. He was abandoned by his mother when he was 4. His father was away in the army so he was raised by a deranged aunt who used to beat him violently almost every day. When his father returned from the war he sexually abused him from the ages of ten to fifteen.

JD’s mother endured a difficult pregnancy but once born, he wanted for nothing. He was loved and adored. His mother kept a scrapbook, as many proud parents do, recording the events of his life; his first step, his first accident, his first tooth, his first haircut. He had a major hernia operation when he was six years old. His parents had an unhappy marriage and divorced when he was 18.


The violently and sexually abused BC is actually the legendary Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.

The kid with the unremarkable upbringing is Jeffrey Dahmer, one of America’s worst serial murderers.


Why does one man defend himself from brutality with humour and courage; while the other, after a fairly ordinary childhood, becomes a loner who enjoys dissecting roadkill?

Is every character a product of their environment as my old writing teacher insisted – or are some born inherently evil, without that essential 21 grams?

Oh, and by the way the picture of the cute little kid. It’s Adolf Hitler, before he learned to talk.

If only he never had …

21 gramsHitler, baby,

About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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  1. raventracks says:

    Somehow I knew that cute baby would grow up to be someone dreadful. It’s the ony reason you’d put it there and dare your readers to guess. 😉 It’s nice to know that someone with Billy Connolly’s nightmare childhood overcame it and brought joy and laughter to the world.

    – Sue Bursztynski

    • You’re way ahead of me, Sue! But yes, I think the Billy Connolly story is a good one – the stories he tells on stage about his childhood make it sound hilarious and it was anything but.

  2. Disturbing, but that’s the point. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  3. corajramos says:

    That was an interesting post. Good way to make the point of not creating a cliched childhood for our characters. You just never know. We can easily understand overcoming a difficult childhood for building a strong character, but harder (and more fascinating) to understand the Dahmer scenario (if it is even understandable). A good friend of mine was friends with Dahmer’s mother. I understand she was the sweetest lady. How the heck does a good mother deal with that?

    • Cora, we all stand by our kids no matter what but she must always ask herself – how, why? And yes good point – it’s tempting to always give our villains a tough childhood but real life doesn’t always bear it out.

  4. susielindau says:

    I don’t know why I recognized that baby picture of Hilter. I think some are just born evil. Did you see 60 Minutes study about the babies who could tell when puppet was bad? It was amazing. 15% didn’t recognize the evil puppet….
    My mom met Jeffrey Dahmer when he had a garage sale. So scary!!!!

    • I think it was the mouth, Susie. I didn’t guess Hitler, but I knew he didn’t grow up to be a good person. 🙂

    • I dread to ask what he was selling! Did she buy anything, Susie? I didn’t see the 60 Minutes segment but I’d like to. They say that some people do have a vital empathic capability absent. Apparently reading fiction (and reading stories to our kids) is a good way of developing it. (AND SORRY FOR THE LATE REPLY, I SCHEDULED MY POSTS BEFORE I LEFT ON MY TRIP!)

      • susielindau says:

        It was random garage sale stuff. I will have to ask her if she remembers buying anything. I know she was creeped out before even knowing who he was.
        I wonder if it is from babies who are left in day care and don’t develop attachment. I hope you had fun on your trip!

      • Went back to Australia for my niece’s wedding. I’d forgotten how far it was! Thirty hours from the time I left home, twenty two of those in the air … we may all live in a global village but it’s a still a pretty big village!

  5. livrancourt says:

    Your post illustrates how the stuff that happens between the lines is so important – and so much harder to capture on paper…
    Nice post!

  6. Good thoughts for the day, Colin.

  7. Great column, Colin. Who knew that Dahmer would be so evil?
    Best wishes,

    • I think even the FBI profilers might struggle to find the clues to what made him what he was, Lisa.

      • Julia Robb says:

        One of the detectives who interrogated Dahmer said he killed and ate his victims because he was so lonely and he believed if he ate them, they would always be with him. Yeah, that’s sick, but kind of understandable a sick person would think like that. At least he didn’t hate them or wasn’t worshipping the devil.

  8. I guessed first two questions right. The second one only because there are so many who come from horrible backgrounds that grow up to be good and decent human beings…my dad for one. His parents were abusive, neglectful drunks, and my dad was great! On the other hand, there are too many people…especially these days…who had wonderful parents, who never wanted for anything…who just are the coldest, most selfish, heartless people you could ever hope to meet.

    As for your last question… I’d like to think that no one is born evil, but I don’t know.

    • I don’t know either Kristy, but I have come to suspect that there’s people who screw up, who are potentially redeemable – and there’s people who are bad from birth. IF that were true – how does that change our religious and moral stand point?

  9. filbio says:

    One never knows how someone will turn out. Even with the best upbringing and environment some people end up evil. Maybe some souls are darker than others right from the start.

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