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.

A story without sound conflict quickly fails

Everyone likes a happy ending. But in order to fully appreciate it there has to be some stuff that comes before it; a struggle, a cause, a problem. It is this which makes us appreciate the protagonist triumphing. Now, many works of fiction don’t become a tedious read because the subject matter is boring—I read a variety of genres. Most become problematic because the conflict is not defined, we couldn’t care less if the protagonist lives or dies, or there is too much drama drowning out the central focus of the story, thus taking our focus off the real conflict (if there is any).

 I critiqued a story for a young man about a football player caught doing drugs and a former member of the team found out about it and threatened to expose him, in which case he would’ve been kicked off the team. And the conflict was just as plain and flat as the sentence I just wrote. The thing which drives conflict is the extinct to which we feel we know or connect with the protagonist or the person for whom the conflict is against. If their character is too general (all we know about them is the way they look, for example), too cookie cutter (dumb jock or blonde, nerdy with glasses, angry or cool Black person) or if we don’t in some way connect with them, frankly we won’t much care what happens to them. Characters are so multi-dimensional and flawed we want to see all of that because on some level they are as we are; imperfect and complex. And we feel a psychological need to “protect” this person.

Other times there is so much going on it’s like spooning our way through a bowl of mystery stew. Mind you, drama and conflict are not the same things. Conflict is the battle that your protagonist faces; drama is all the stuff within the conflict. But if there is too much drama or if there is so much going on without a focus it becomes convoluted and just way too much to care about, especially if the drama isn’t centered toward one central conflict. For instance a Black family is being discriminated because they moved to an all-white neighborhood and the neighborhoods hate them, their employers are threatening to fire them, and the people are their kids’ schools shun them. All of it is centered around being discriminated. But if, in addition to that, the wife’s mother is dying of cancer, the husband is having an affair, the daughter is thinking about dating an older guy and the son is diagnosed with dyslexia, well, that’s a whole lot happening and the central conflict of the story is in jeopardy of being over shadowed–unless of course we can somehow tie it into the central theme and even then…

If you notice often biopics are narrowed to the central theme of a story, even if in real life the protagonist had much more going on. If we have too much to care about, we stop caring about any of it.  Often it seems as if writers feel the need to have a lot of drama going on in order to make the story interesting. But if the central conflict is focused and intent, if you can deftly build character and suspense, you will find that you need less “stuff.”

In Martha Southgate’s, A Taste of Salt, all of Josie’s family members had issues to deal with but they were all centered on the problem of addiction.  In Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, all of the friends had their individual trouble, but it was about the general issue of the women finding themselves. In Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaney’s , all of the family members had issues to battle but all  focused on the central conflict of the story, which was dealing with the rape of the daughter.

Conflict is like the filet mignon or the main course of a meal. If it is under or overcooked or drowning in sauce, we will not walk away praising the vegetables and potatoes. We will be griping about that awful meat. But if the filet is good we will talk about it for days and forget that the veggies came from a can.

Write the stories you want to hear

Write the Stories that you want to hear

In response to the movie, The Butler, someone commented on a blog that he was sick and tired of always seeing African Americans portrayed in roles of servitude and more importantly being applauded and celebrated for these portrayals. He ranted that there were hundreds of stories to be told, and not one of them was about a Black man serving dinner and coffee to rich White folks while decked out in tie and tux. It seems we rest comfortably around the same ‘ole stories, this writer suggested.

I can’t argue that many stories seem duplicates of others. We go with what’s brewing in pop culture or continue on in the vein of what we already know works. But the thing is, stories are about empowerment. Fiction writing in particular allows us to create based on experiences and that which is a reflection of our beliefs, hopes or curiosity.  These stories satisfy that inner self.  And whether I’m telling my story about my abusive husband or a fantasy about the guy in 1B it is somehow all a part of me. Perhaps you can’t relate or don’t want to hear it, perhaps my story depresses you or you’re so over tales of domestic trysts. But it is my hope and that of all writers that our perspective will be fresh and inviting and that our spin on things will enlighten you further or inform you more.

Yes, it’s true that the market can seem saturated with the same stories. I mean how many stories about failing sports teams pushing past adversity can one person see without their eyes rolling back in their heads? Remember the Titans, is a football team rising above racial segregation and discrimination; We are the Marshalls is a team triumphing in the wake of tragic death of a group of their teammates; Friday Night Lights documents a small Texas town’s obsession with their teams and the game of football. Yes, each story is about football. But each story is about more than football. And there you have the uniqueness of each tale and more than likely the reason the storyteller decided it was important to tell it.  All the stories highlight different themes, times and places in history and all are relevant. The passion of the writer, director and producer thought that their movie story hadn’t quite been told (O.K., money was kinda important but still…).

And more importantly most often we tell the stories of which we are passionate about. We tell OUR stories. We may draw from those around us or from something that was simply peddling around in our imagination. And if you change your story to tell one that will tickle the fancy of a critic, your creativity and imagination and the passion that drives you are all in some way undermined.

I’ll often have a friend or acquaintance, say to me, “boy do I have a story for you.” Most often it is not the story for me; it may be intriguing or begging to be written, but fiction and even non-fiction is unlike journalism it that the writer has to feel a need or an urge to write it. In other words, we need to care about it. Stephen King gets to choose his subjects, Gayle King doesn’t; she tells the stories given to her.

The thing is to let the story drive you, move you and motivate you. And for those of you who haven’t seen or heard the story that you want to hear, do as Terry McMillan did and write it or collaborate with someone who can write it for you. But dog nab it whatever you do don’t complain because someone else is telling theirs. Go on…write it…we are waiting. We would love to hear what you have to say.

What do you think? I would love to hear from you.

Fact or Fiction: Is it OK to write about friends and family?

If I had one share of Amazon stock for every time I’ve been on the receiving end of some juicy news and thought to myself, “Now that would make for a good story,” I could write for free. I suppose it is the nature of fiction writers; we see situations–no matter what they may be–in terms of a good story. We’re always thinking: “what if.” Now this is not to say that we can’t be trusted with your most intimate secrets and such because we are not gossipers (at least not by the nature of the craft) but writing it out, helps us to figure it out. It is a necessary therapeutic action for dealing with and figuring out our world. But when does that cross the line? When do we have to pull back because the lives of our friends and relatives are being written in ink for the world to see…forever?

Several years ago I’d written a story which I loved and thought would be great material to be published. It was one of the first full-length novels I’d ever written. I gave it to a close friend of mine to read. She was in fact, my beta reader.  Sometime afterwards, she choked back tears and slowly handed it back to me. She stood silent. I couldn’t for the life understand it. She finally asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to write about me? Not cool at all.” You?…huh…what? Was she kidding me? How full of yourself could you possibly…It was a character birthed through my imagination!

But at second glance I could see that subconsciously her life was an open book (pun intended) in my hands. Yikes. And it wasn’t pretty—provocative–but not pretty. I played around with it hoping for a neater, sanitized version, but it just didn’t work. The first draft came from a pure place. The second and third drafts were bedtime stories. And by this time the story had lost some of its chutzpa with the subject matter breathing down my throat in hopes of a more appealing character. It didn’t matter. I was done. I knew that I wasn’t willing to risk a friendship for a best-seller (one can hope). I wrestled with it and finally ended up storing it in the back of my closet. It may have eventually become scrap paper. As I said, we were and still are very close.

“It has to be permissible to draw on your real-life experiences. Otherwise, you can’t write fiction.” Martin Garbus, lawyer for Penguin USA.

A former lover of author Terry Mcmillan sued her for defamation in the 90’s, claiming he was the basis for the character Franklin Swift from her novel, Disappearing Acts. His $4.75 million dollar suit rang with bitter resentment over the “hostile, angry, lazy” way the character was portrayed. The suit was eventually dismissed. And considering the “chilling effect” it could have posed on writers, this was good thing. Chilling effect simply means that other writers may be dissuaded from using their rights to draw on personal experiences from which to write because of fear of legal sanctions. In other words, a verdict in favor of the “victim” could be very bad for free speech.

Thankfully the First Amendment gives us great leeway when it comes to expressing ourselves (lots of it). According to the law’s definition:  Libel requires a false and defamatory statement of fact “of and concerning” an identifiable living person (or business entity). Not only does it have to be about that person, it has to be false and defamatory.

The problem for writers often isn’t so much the law as it is a moral obligation. Who wants to loose friendships or create bad vibes with the people they love for the purpose of writing a killer novel? Often drawing on personal experiences make for the best stories but there are ways to get around it without it resulting in being shunned from family picnics and reunions or having friends bad mouth us on the sly on Facebook. Here are some tips:

  • Disguise the character beyond recognition. Keep the essence of the character. But change the ethnicity or location. If the real-life person is a college grad with a plethora of degrees, make your character a college drop-out who absolutely hates schools. Make it difficult for the person to say, “that’s me.”
  • Write a disclaimer. O.K. most of the time we do this anyway. But it does say to anyone who may be suspicious, “Hey, dude, not about you.”
  • Don’t defame. In other words, don’t paint the person in a bad light. Defamation is a necessary element in a libel suit. Brighten them up a bit and save the unsavory stuff for the other characters

We can never get away from writing about real life people—and who would want to? But simply keep in mind that we must tread lightly.

What are your thoughts? I love hearing from you.

Write your story your way: creating good fiction


David and Goliath a lithograph by Osmar Schindler c 1888

Remember when you first start writing you’d say things like: I want to write just like… As you were determined to make your fiction stand out you wanted to write in the style and voice of someone else. (The life of a writer is filled with irony.) With such a plethora of good writers in every genre it’s difficult not to cling to your favorite writers and try to mimic their style. Some people even mention this in their query letters as if it were a get-in-for-free card: Dear Sir, If you’ve ever read any of John Grisham’s work you are going to love…

And you know it may even work– for a while. I mean, you’ve read so much of Grisham’s work, your fiction rings with the same intensity and suspense. You’ve even captured his vocabulary.

In the Bible story about David and Goliath, David is just a boy when he declares that he will fight the giant Goliath. The Israelites are petrified by this brawny ten-foot-tall nemesis. King Saul said, cool go for it. I’m sure the king figured within minutes they’d been scraping bits of David from the ground with the tip of the sword, but he humored him anyway and dressed him with armor, helmet and a sword. But when David tried to move in it he found it big, awkward and unfamiliar. He may have looked the part, but it wasn’t going to work for him. He opted instead for a slingshot and a few stones. Perhaps they thought he was either too young to know better or too peeved to care. (I Samuel 17) This uncircumcised Philistine has the audacity…

Even Goliath laughed at him. (Of course the snickering tapered off as he watched one of those smooth stones sail toward his skull at the speed of a sand storm.) But the point is it’s amazing what you can do when you’re walking in your own truth.

Writing is a tricky thing. You can convince yourself of your non-existent originality or pride yourself for your uncanny resemblance to that one Daniel Baldacci book that just melted the charts. You’re clinging to the coattails of a New York Times bestseller in hopes you can take a ride with them to the top. But it is not until you get into the story that your eyes upturn toward your beloved mentor so that they may impart inspiration. As it turns out the essence of the story can’t be taught or imparted; that is the part that comes from the heart of every writer. It is what draws us to put pen to paper. It is our interpretation of experiences, fears, hopes and such; it is our quest to define the truth or unearth new questions. If that could be copied we’d all be turning out bestsellers.

When I first started writing I wanted my writings to ring with the fierce honesty of Terry McMillan’s work. I thought, easy enough. I can write like that.  But the more I read about her as a person I realized that her works were interpretations of her truth. How could I possibly mimic her interpretation?

Some place, in our souls as writers are the questions begging to be asked or answered. It is that place from which we write. I remind myself: only you can write your story.  And it must be written your way.