Friday, September 17, 2021

Don't Really Like Your Characters? Tips on Working with Unsavory--or Outright Bad--People in Your Stories

A reader once sent me an excellent question. You know those characters in your story--memoir or fiction, especially--who turn out to be less than appealing? People we'd normally avoid in real life (and perhaps have), but who somehow made it onto the pages.

"I have many stories in which the characters are not easily appreciated," this writer told me. "I am sure many of my stories will be filled with hints of resentment, bitterness and disdain. Many players acted badly, and hurt the lives of many people. I guess forgiveness is due, but the facts are the facts. How do I deal with that?"

Maybe you're not writing another Hannibel Lecter, not even close. But these people are still bad. And as writers, we still spend time with them, but will readers want to? That same week, I spoke with a fellow thriller reader who ended up very disappointed when the bad guys triumphed in the final pages of a book she was reading. Why'd the author do that? she wondered. Such a let down, after a great story.

You may not be of this ilk. Some writers love bad, or let's say, edgy characters. Maybe not well liked but admirable because they speak their minds. Or don't care what others think. Or maybe they aren't edgy, just boringly bitter and passive, a regular whiner. Not someone you'd want to hang around.

The dilemma still stands, no matter where on the bad spectrum your character lives. How do you, the writer, make these folks live on the page with enough engagement and prevent your readers from setting the story aside out of disgust?

A negative character isn't like a downward turn of plot. Plot changes. People often do, but they don't always, especially if their nastiness is part of who they are. You may end up with the same badness at the end. And you still have to keep the reader reading.

As always, I like to learn from the masters.

Tobias Wolff wrote a fabulous short story called "Bullet in the Brain." I taught this story for many years in writing workshops for its complexity and because it gives writers so much information on working with unsavory characters.

Wolff presents a character, Anders, who is pretty despicable. So much so that he gets himself killed halfway through the story. But the way Wolff continues the story, revealing Anders beneath the anger, boredom, and frustration that makes him a really bad guy, is brilliant.

We end the story actually feeling the depths of humanness, even in this miserable person. How is this possible? How does the process work, for the writer, while he or she is putting the story together?

I had such a character in my first novel, Qualities of Light (which, by the way, I'm excited to announce was just rereleased in a gorgeous, updated second edition in paperback and on Kindle. Check it out here). Mel was the first character that "came" to me when I began writing this story. He was also the subject for a short story published many years before the novel.

Melvin was a pest; he didn't let me stop writing about him, even though I grew to really dislike him. I didn't like his name either (apologies to anyone named the same!) but that was what I got and I couldn't change it. He was a Melvin.

I found him to be everything you don't want in a friend or relative: self-absorbed, terrifically talented but mean-spirited about it, short with loved ones, and a betrayer at his worst. A painter, who hasn't actually had affairs, Melvin falls in love with his models and does everything but sleep with them. Somehow he believes this is OK, justified by his need to "absorb beauty."

Bleech. My writing groups, three of them over the years Melvin haunted me, hated him too. The first one actually told me they really didn't want to hear more Melvin scenes until he got nicer.

So what's a writer to do?

One summer I took a writing class online with Josip Novakovich. Josip liked Melvin. He wanted me to push this character even further towards self-absorption and crankiness and betrayal. I baulked for a while then ended up trying it. When I had Mel actually commit the worst of his possible deeds, he ended up revealing a surprising depth--and personal wounds that went back to childhood.

Before Josip, I wanted to dump Melvin like a bad lunch date. But pushing him past my own boundaries of acceptable behavior let me ge1t to know the true person inside the bad one. I saw how, just in real life, human beings in fiction have many sides, not just bad or good. Like Anders, who finishes Wolff's story recognizing astonishing beauty, so Mel presented me with surprising shades of gray when I let him go.

After Qualities of Light was published, a reader told me, "I loved your book, and by the end I even got to like Melvin." My greatest complement.

Here's an idea: This week, find someone bad in your story. A real person or a fictional one. Interview them on paper. Pretend you are a very skilled interviewer who knows how to get to the truth about someone. First ask them what bad stuff they've done. Get them to be specific--who have they cheated, lied to, stolen from, or worse? Then begin asking them about good stuff they've done--even small.

Finally ask your character about their missed chances, their longings, what they wanted from life but never got. Push them towards whatever direction they're inclined. You might find yourself traveling beneath their bitterness into the innocence they once had.

If you can, get ahold of "Bullet in the Brain" (search for it online, or better, read Wolff's entire short-story collection, Back in the World, which includes Anders' adventure. Read as a writer, asking yourself how Tobias Wolff allows us to see a bad character in a good light.

The ending lines of "Bullet in the Brain" are particularly important, so pay attention, but don't read ahead. It's a great surprise.

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