Creating the unlikeable character

“I write because the world is an imperfect place, and we behave in an imperfect manner. I want to understand why it’s so hard to be good, honest, loving, caring, thoughtful and generous. Writing is about the only way (besides praying) that allows me to be compassionate toward folks who, in real life, I’m probably not that sympathetic toward. I want to understand myself and others better, so what better way than to pretend to be them?” Terry McMillan

Terry McMillan says she writes to find out why people do what they do. Why do they behave the way that they do. And this means getting into the heart and soul of people we don’t like, people we avoid. Most of us see others as one dimensional; they are either bad or good; they either have good motives or bad ones. I disagree. Good people can make bad choices on a given day. We are complex individuals who move and think and act and react based on our hearts. Sometimes our hearts our pure and we move towards good, other times we are selfish, self-serving; even bitter or angry. The complexity of our makeup causes it to be impossible to say we are good or bad.

Even within the confines of a story characters are often the nemesis to one character and the best thing to happen to another. When we develop characters that are all good or all bad our stories tend to become stale, stagnant and predictable. One thing I like about McMillan’s stories as that she has mastered the art of creating those types of characters that I would call misunderstood. To understand why a mother would abandon her children does not mean that you will like her once you know the reason; it just means her story is not as simple as it seems. And that is all. No judgment. It is just the way it is.

We all have motives and corresponding actions, hang-ups and childhood issues, fears and doubts that we express in a number of ways. To understand them and even feel a sense of compassion doesn’t mean that we will embrace them but only that we will not jimmy them into stereotypes. They will not be forgettable, carbon copies of like characters from other stories.

I try to create believable characters—describe people at their worst and then seek to understand why they can’t be their best. Sometimes you won’t completely get them until you see their development over time. And sometimes you will never get them. Our personalities and makeup often make embracing us all unrealistic. But it does broaden your perspective and give you a better understanding of the world in which you live.

When developing your characters try to seek motive or understanding for their makeup. Don’t be afraid to shine an unfavorable light.  And we may never fall in love with them, but we certainly won’t forget them.

Writing Your Truth

I was recently watching a television show about how to tell when someone is telling a lie. Somewhere during the hour the host stated that most people lie about themselves or exaggerate the truth when talking with others. He even went on to say that many people lie to themselves about themselves.

I believe lying is actually a form of self-preservation. Lying is a way to protect ourselves from shame, guilt or harm. We say that we’re O.K., because the truth may be that we are falling apart and that is too much to bear. We convince ourselves that he is not cheating, the alternative being we will lose him; and we can’t phantom such a thing.

To be open and honest about who we really are, our motives for doing things—even the good things that we do–may put us in a light that is unfavorable or even downright painful.  The truth can be uncomfortable but it can also be liberating and beautiful because falsity and all of the upkeep that comes with it can be exhausting and depressing and we will eventually find ourselves living an unfulfilled life.

Just-tell-the-truth-600x448

Writing demands the same level of authenticity as life does. You will connect with your reader when you can bare the souls of your character. The thing about reading well- written fiction is that if you indeed see your truth within the characters of a book that revelation is personal—it is powerful, unnerving and wonderful. It is the reason readers are drawn to such writers as Amy Tan and Terry Mcmillan. That connection helps us to know that we are not alone and that our experiences are not isolated. And even though you are reading fictional characters you are still reading the soul of a real, live, being—the writer.

The more authentic you are in your writing, the more you will draw in the reader. Suddenly, he or she forgets that it is fiction because it feels more like he or she is peeking into the personal, private world of someone else’s life.  Authentic writing means you do away with stereotypes, and go deeper than superficial motives. For example, our way of thinking, the spouse we choose, the way we raise our children are not haphazard actions done on a whim. They are in many ways subconscious decisions based on the way we’ve been raised, our life experiences, beliefs, fears and expectations. Strive to reveal these attributes when you write. You will find your writing is more robust, exciting and that your characters come alive.

Write and silence the voices within

Write and silence the voices within

The only way to get it finished is to start it…

fire inside me

Thinking is not writing.

L'amour_Louis

I will get there: silencing the voices within

I will get there: silencing the voices within

So I’m winding down for the evening preparing myself for bed and I’m reflecting on my day. I’m a task-oriented person. I tally up what I’ve accomplished for the day and decide whether or not the past 24 hours have been successful. I began my morning in prayer asking God to give me strength for this, help me to be better at that. This particular day I asked for control over my mouth. Teach me Oh Lord how to keep the peace and say only what needs to be said. And Lord, give me patience with my children to give them the attention they need.

I remember this prayer as I’m making the kid’s lunches for the following day.

It is well after 10 at night there’s not much else to be done. It is then I remember the argument I had in the car with Wil; the one I was never gonna have again. He’s packed on the pounds since we’ve moved to the south. For lunch that afternoon he pulled into a McDonald’s and ordered the biggest, juiciest burger they sell—and a side of fries. I sat quietly for a moment remembering my humble prayer; right before I go into a rant about how huge he has become and a treadmill wouldn’t exactly hurt him. He blows me off but I won’t stop because I figured at that point I might as well empty myself. I sigh. Well, I can remove that from my list of things accomplished.

And then as I’m placing lunches in the fridge, I remember my prayer for patience with the kids. In my mind I fast forward to just after school. We were riding home and Jillian goes into a long-winded story about some kid that was being nasty to her. Midway through I’m thinking about what to cook for dinner and how long could this story possibly go on? Ugh. Mommy, you aren’t even listening to me, she asked. I tell her I am. But of course I have no solution to her problem because I only heard half of the story. I roll my eyes up to the ceiling. Geez, that was a bust too.

I go on, checking some things off the list as accomplished, but most others were not. Sometimes it feels like my life is more ebb than flow. Thursday night I’m in bible study and instead of getting into praise and worship I am once again analyzing my failures and weaknesses. I hate this. But I hear His voice say, I will get there. It’s then I realize that we are often harder on ourselves than he could ever be on us. We have lists and rules and so many absolutes we can’t even keep up. But His grace is sufficient. Every day I pray for this or that not realizing that every day he gives me grace to accomplish those things. But I’m not suddenly cured from being impatient or short or unkind. There’s no instant relief or quick fix. Grace is connected with action. As we move and strive he gives us grace, or favor and spiritual strength to do what we need to do. We don’t always feel it. It is not through will power or crossing our fingers. His grace is there. We just need to walk in it by faith. Yes, I am moving in an upwardly direction. In time…I will get there.

My daughter walks into the kitchen later that evening after bible study and asks me about the meaning of Easter. It is late. She needs to be in bed. I am tired. I sit her down at the kitchen island and explain it to her…from the beginning. I am getting there.

How to pace your story

No one has ever accused me of being too patient or of moving too slow on a decision. By my very nature I like short, sweet explanations and components that actually move.

My mother was the opposite. She lingered at the grocery store, took time to speak to everyone at church. She ate slowly, methodically and never allowed anyone to put her into a hurried state. As a teen I would ask permission to attend a basketball game or show and she always had to think about it. Think about it? Really? To say that we bumped heads is to put it mildly. Perhaps my biggest frustration was that she did not make my hurriedness her problem. Her pace was proper for her lifestyle and suited every decision she made. It would take me years to appreciate this virtue. And indeed it is a virtue that can be priceless when writing fiction.

When I first began to write fiction I felt compelled to get it all out there at once. I was concerned that my reader would get bored with the story if I took too long to get there. I was fearful that if they didn’t have enough story within the first few chapters they would yawn, close my book, promise to get back to it later, but would never do so.

 

Now, there was some validity to my concern. But my problem (which I now realize) was that I did not know the difference between dragging a story and creating suspense. Suspense by the very meaning of the word is to leave the reader in a state of uncertainty and our curious nature compels us to seek answers. And when it comes to fiction, the only way to get those answers is to continue reading. My problem was how to get them to continue on with the book and not give away all to goods only to be bored later. Here is what I found:

00-9-Quotes-2-Dont-Give-Up-Secrets-S_-King

Make the reader care about your character

 

Let’s face it—if the reader doesn’t care about the characters it won’t matter what they do. They could get hit by a bus and the reader couldn’t be less interested. But we care about things, people for one of the following reasons:

 

  • Wethink that we know them; it’s why you peek through the blinds when the cops show up at your neighbor’s house
  • We have some connection with them; friends and associates with whom we share the same interest
  • They are interesting; they may be over the top beautiful, smart or gifted. They may be completely narcissist or evil or high strung or funny.
  • They have something we wish we had

So I had to take time to develop my characters to make them compelling, interesting, keeping in mind the reasons above. I had to make the reader feel that there would be payoff if they just continued to read.

A_Dark_and_Stormy_Night


 

Create foreboding

Movies create foreboding all the time—that feeling that something is about to happen. They do so with music—when all know the something-bad-is-going-to-happen chords. They do so with lighting and close-ups. In writing we do it a number of ways. And here are a few:

  • Build a semblance of peace or tranquility and because it is a story we realize it is a set-up for something to disrupt this perfect peace.
  • Write short sentences to create a sense of urgency.
  • Use questions. She knew she’d closed the door and locked it—or had she?

Honestly we love foreboding even if we don’t admit it—but that is only if the payoff is worth it. Build them up, up up and then let ‘em have it.

Keep the story moving

There is nothing more grating than reading a long, lofty description that seems to go…well…nowhere. Descriptions are great when they are essential and become a true element of the story. Keeping the story moving becomes easier when we keep the point of the story in mind; when we constantly remember that there is a place that we are headed. If we get stuck in a place or scene then our reader is stuck too.

Save the best for last

Even as the story is moving remember that the reader wants a payoff. We all love a surprise element as we near the end. As readers, by the time we get to the last portion of the book we think we have it figured out. It is nice to get that twist, that final OMG. If it is crafted correctly, in other words, fits into the story line it works well as an excellent last ping.

To make sure your story is paced properly I believe that beta readers are invaluable. And what are the words you want to hear? I simply could not put it down.

 

%d bloggers like this: