Elychion the cat wrestling with her gambling, football-watching, and drinking problem.
I didn’t want to write about a drug-addicted surgeon who’d lost his license and resorted to performing illegal procedures in a back alley. But regardless of my intentions, he showed up on the page, told his story, and made me care about him.
Alas, I shelved the novel where he appeared–for other reasons, not because of him. Perhaps he’ll find a place in a different novel, but even if he stays on the shelf, writing from his point of view contributed to my growth in this craft.
Even the most resolute planners among us encounter surprises on the page (or screen). Like meals we hadn’t ordered, characters, props, and plot twists appear without our having sketched them out beforehand. As a dedicated pantser (a writer who does minimal pre-planning, preferring to go with the intuitive flow–and who ends up revising a lot), I’ve learned to appreciate the serendipitous. It doesn’t hurt to let it happen…I can always revise, which, as I said, I do a lot. Perhaps if I were the planning type, I wouldn’t need to revise as much, but my mind just doesn’t work that way, so I take the drawbacks with the benefits to my compositional style.
Trusting to this intuitive, revelatory aspect of the writer’s art, I find that the people who start populating a story are often challenging individuals. Multidimensional and intriguing they may be, but they’d also be difficult to get along with in real life. Prickly, domineering, principled to a fault or charmingly manipulative, engaged in activities I’d find reprehensible–both in writing and in acting, I enjoy rising to the challenge of entering heads very different from my own and then finding the common thread within them that causes me, and hopefully the reader, to empathize with them.
Here are some reasons why I savor the chance to create a difficult character.
Interesting people are often difficult. The other day, I was talking with a patient who observed that her weaknesses aren’t so much opposed to her strengths as they are a flip side to those strengths. I agreed with her. The very features that can make someone accomplished at what they do can also be hurdles to working and/or living with them. (I admire Mother Theresa, but can you imagine living with a saint?)
Let’s say your protagonist’s most salient characteristic is their persistence. They’ve gotten where they want to be through sheer dogged perseverance, and you and the reader can admire them for it. However, the reverse side of persistence is stubbornness, obduracy, even rigidity. They may persist with a battle they can never win, slamming into that brick wall again and again in the mistaken belief that it’s oh so close to crumbling. (Most likely, if it does, it’ll land on top of them and bury them.) A persistent individual may not come equipped with the discernment to know when they’re wasting their stick-to-itiveness on some futile situation where they’ll never make headway.
This virtue/flaw dynamic can make for engaging reading, provided that there’s 1) something there that the reader can identify with (even if it’s in a person they know) and 2) it sets the character up for troubles that generate the plot and keep it moving.
Difficult characters are dynamic. A hallmark of a well-written main or supporting character is dynamism: through the story’s events, the character changes. Characters who are challenging–in terms of personality, beliefs, circumstances, and choices–have more room for transformation than characters who are already self-actualized. (By definition, an enlightened, self-realized character leaves little room for more growth.)
The potential snag here is to allow your character’s sharp edges to manifest without making them so sharp that they’re off-putting to the reader. Here’s an example of how effortful it can be to strike that balance.
One of my favorite fantasy series is the now nine-volume Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson. Back in the late ’70s, long before George R.R. Martin popularized gritty fantasy with the Song of Ice and Fire series, Lord Foul’s Bane transformed the genre with its tormented anti-hero, Thomas Covenant, who appears in a magical Land in the likeness of a legendary hero. The people he meets accord him respect because of this likeness, but they also expect him to save the Land–or why else would he have been transported there? Covenant, however, believes that the Land is an elaborate delusion and giving in to it could destroy his health and life in the “real world.” In light of this logic, Covenant refuses to take heroic, or even principled, actions on behalf of the Land. To the contrary, he harms, sometimes violates, the people who place their trust in him.
As the story progresses, he changes from an embittered, rejected man who lashes out, to devastating effect, to an actively compassionate “doer.” However, I admit that sticking with him on this journey was hard work. To say he started as an unlikable character is an understatement. I couldn’t stand him. I yearned to kick him in the head. For a while, I persisted in reading only because the Land was so enchanting and the other characters so sympathetic.
From my experience with struggling to stay with Thomas Covenant on his quest, I decided that I needed to introduce my difficult characters’ redeeming qualities early on so that readers wouldn’t bail. If my character had a criminal, corrupt, or otherwise morally murky past, I now introduce them to readers at a point where they had already overcome their worst tendencies and only introduce their past crimes once the reader (hopefully) has started sympathizing with them.
This brings up another point:
Characters with hard-to-handle personalities make great antagonists, or at least obstacles for the protagonist. These clashes create internal and external friction that drives the protagonist’s decisions, colors their perspective, and complicates their life in ways that move the plot forward, or at least makes it thicken. Characters with obnoxious personality traits can be balanced by other traits that make them relatable, or at least interesting. This complexity helps the writer to avoid creating one-dimensional antagonists, the kind I’ve described before who, like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, celebrate their own “beautiful wickedness.”
When I’m writing about someone who thinks and acts differently from me, it’s harder to use my novel to advance a political or personal agenda. It’s easy for characters to become mouthpieces and plots to become bullet points in a sermon. I’ve read some fantastic novels that make a point, but what makes a difference between mastery and clunky propaganda is that in the masterful example, the writer’s agenda never dominates over a winning story, intriguing characters, and a stellar writing style. One way to ensure that your novel doesn’t devolve into a pulpit in print, and prevents you from sticking a bullhorn into each character’s hands, is to give at least one of your viewpoint characters a perspective that differs from your own.
What better way is there to start understanding, and empathizing with, someone than to try getting into their head? For me, writing isn’t just a career–it’s also a path to self-growth. As social beings, our growth isn’t exclusively solitary. We grow when other people challenge us, either by encouraging us to hone our best qualities or by bumping up against us in ways that nudge us to rethink our responses, our beliefs, and our decisions. While I don’t advocate turning your family, co-workers, or friends into characters, some of their features can inspire your creations. As you explore what makes such an individual tick, perhaps that deeper perspective can redound in your real-world relationships and help you to understand those hard-to-like folks better.
Photo Credit: “The 4 Differences Between Introversion and Social Anxiety by Ellen Hendriksen, Quiet Revolution, https://www.quietrev.com/the-4-differences-between-introversion-and-social-anxiety/
Every few years, Lexus swoops back into my sedate world. (I’ve changed her name, age, physical description, and life story to protect her privacy.) At six feet tall, with eyes the color of acid-washed jeans, she’s noticeable even without her booming voice and constant jitteriness. She’s in her 20s, but she’s used hard drugs for over a decade and they’ve aged her: her face is gaunt, silver does battle with straw gold in her hair, and the skin on her hands looks glued to her bones.
She jokes that she got her name because she was conceived in the back seat of a Lexus, but I doubt her 14-year-old mother had ever seen the inside of a luxury car. She was first placed in foster care as a baby and spent her childhood going back and forth between different foster parents and her biological mother, who tried repeatedly to get clean and failed. This history of precarious attachments turned her into a youth who tried all the time to charm people into loving and not leaving her. But they kept leaving her. And eventually, she learned to leave them, disappearing for months and brushing off their worries with a brash smile when she returned. When people proved unreliable as love objects, she stumbled into substance abuse. Without someone trustworthy to love her, she could at least recreate the chemical experience of being loved. Yet even the drugs left her, in a way: she’d come down from her high and do desperate things to get more drugs and recreate that sensation of the love she’d not so much lost as never had.
Every time Lexus reappears, I offer to connect her with social services that could help her, particularly those with a harm-reduction philosophy, where she can get assistance first and then contemplate quitting once she’s stably housed. Every time, she turns me down with a smile. “Some time, Mar, some time when I’m ready. But I’m not ready yet.”
Whenever she leaves, I fear she’ll die before she’s ready. I worry about her overdosing, or getting beaten up so badly she won’t recover (and she’s survived many an assault). Every time she says, “Some time when I’m ready,” I’m struck by my powerlessness to rescue her. Here I am with my hand stretched out to take hers and she pulls hers back, smiling, shaking her head.
Sometimes I feel angry that she refuses help. How can she possibly enjoy her relationships with fragile people who only know how to lash out? How can she choose such a tightrope existence–couch-surfing, camping under overpasses, sleeping in cars–over stable housing, work, and community? But then I feel ashamed. After suffering multiple head injuries, she struggles to concentrate, to understand instructions, to read. What types of job opportunities does that leave her? And with a history of misdemeanors and a felony or two, who will hire her?
Neurochemically speaking, her default setting has become “Adrenalize,” so her brain may not distinguish between excitement and terror. That on-the-edge feeling that goes with her teeter-totter circumstances may energize rather than agitate her. Then there’s the solidarity that comes from belonging to a marginalized, neglected community that so many straight-and-narrow people write off as “bums,” “druggies,” “wastes of space,” etc. As dysfunctional as her street-family structure may seem to those on the outside, she speaks about them with affection and loyalty. This family she’s chosen doesn’t condemn her; they offer mutual aid, understanding, and protection in the coldest of situations.
Knowing a person like Lexus has taught me a fierce and wrenching compassion. She’s taught me that sometimes I can’t change all the circumstances I yearn to. She’s taught me that I can’t save people when they don’t want to be saved (and they might take exception to my idea of “saving”: while Lexus sure doesn’t relish sleeping on the street, she also shies away from assistance from people and organizations she expects to look down on her and deprive her of her freedom). I’ve learned that sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between empathy and arrogance, between caring about someone and assuming you know what’s best for them. I’ve learned that love remains even if you don’t approve of the way someone’s living their life, and that you can love someone and still protect yourself. (When she’s around, I hide my wallet–protecting us both.)
As far as writing goes, Lexus has taught me to respect my characters, all of them, regardless of whether or not I approve of their value system and their actions. I’ve learned to let the characters speak as their true selves, not as mouthpieces for me and my morals. I’ve also learned to love characters who behave in ways I consider sad, problematic, or even despicable. And I’ve learned to take care with the degree to which a person I know in real life influences the way I describe a character.
Writers have the power to speak on behalf of those whose voices aren’t heard in their societies. Writers also have the opportunity to exploit those vulnerable voices. If they’re not careful and conscientious, they can end up usurping another’s voice, stealing another’s story, instead of fostering awareness among readers who haven’t endured such experiences. It’s tempting to make use of someone else’s story to fill in the expertise blanks, so to speak. If I’ve never flown a plane, fought in a war, cleaned an office building at midnight, or come out of a coma, I can either read about or talk with someone who has and can feel more comfortable putting myself into the head, and the life, of a character who’s done whatever it is I haven’t. We all do this to some extent. It’s part of our natural tendency to connect with others, to empathize, and to share. However, when you’re a storyteller, it’s something you must do responsibly so to avoid degrading further people who’ve already been damaged and exploited.
I’ve always admired William Shakespeare for both his ability to create characters from all walks of life–from an insecure prince to an inebriated guard at the city gate–and to love them all, even if they’re unpleasant, gross, selfish, vain, weighted down by life, fragile and about to break, ignorant, strutting, misogynistic, clueless… I’m sure he had his own 16th-century version of Lexus, and he had the largeness of heart both to present her as she was and to love her, to care about what happened to her, with both unflinching compassion and truth that doesn’t avert its gaze.
Image from the Spitzer Telescope courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=3883
As a teenager, I spent much of my free time gaming. But because this happened in the 1980s, when video games were a low-resolution-graphic gleam in designers’ eyes, “gaming” meant tabletop role-playing games, the venerable Dungeons and Dragons and its offspring (anybody remember Tunnels and Trolls?) My favorite magical object with which to equip my characters was the Bag of Holding: on the outside, a simple drawstring bag, but on the inside, a spacetime pocket where the user could stuff any number of weapons, treasures, books, and other necessities. The character didn’t have to bust their back schlepping all these things because the magical storage unit held them, ready for retrieval.
I’d love to create a writer’s equivalent of a bag of holding, not to stow my laptop, but to use as a study only I can access–a room of one’s own, as Virginia Woolf put it in her eponymous 1928 essay, free from distractions or responsibilities other than to the page and the story. I’d also equip my spacetime pocket with a beneficial temporal feature: no matter how much time I’d spend writing in there, I’d emerge at the same time during which I’d entered, with no time elapsed in ordinary space.
Articles and books aimed at aspiring writers encourage, and sometimes chide, readers to make time to write every day. Sometimes they take a scolding “if I can do it, so can you” tone. These advice-givers remind us that they didn’t start out as full-time writers, that they held down full-time jobs, and if they could scratch out a pocket in spacetime to write, what’s our excuse?
I’ve noticed a pattern: these admonishing writers usually describe juggling work and writing, not writing and raising a family and/or caring for elders or family members with disabilities. Having done all of these things, usually simultaneously, my impression is that the work-writing balance is more straightforward than the family-writing balance because most of us work at set hours and don’t take our work home. (Exceptions abound, of course: teachers take papers home to grade; some folks’ homes are their workplace.) Thus, one can schedule writing time as one schedules work. It involves sacrifices for sure–I get up at 3 a.m. so I can exercise and write before work, and to get adequate sleep, I retire at the same time as my six-year-old does–but in settings where everything else finds its place on an appointment calendar, one can make it happen.
The work of caring, on the other hand, doesn’t fit so readily into a schedule. Focused as it is on tasks rather than time, caregiving overlaps temporal boundaries. You know this if you’ve ever scrambled to get to work on time because your preschooler insists on buttoning her own sweater, takes ten minutes when you’d take 30 seconds to complete the task for her, and then becomes overwhelmed with frustration when she finds the tiny holes too difficult to manage and needs another ten minutes for hugs and soothing. When spinning in the vortex of a time crunch, writing time–like any species of “me time”–is the first thing to go.
Small helping hands, courtesy of Self-Sufficient Kids: https://selfsufficientkids.com/kids-chores-how-get-started/
No wonder that, historically, writers belonged to the aristocracy! Somebody else did the laundry; somebody else tended to the children; a whole staff of somebodies made writing lives possible for many a famous literary figure. The English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, for example, acknowledged his wife, his sister, and his sister-in-law–all of whom performed the quotidian deeds that kept him fed and housed in comfort–as “dear hands” who brought food and other necessities. (Not even people–disembodied helping hands!) The wealthy writer didn’t need a bag of holding–they had a room, a suite, a wing of their own and a door to close on familial cacophanies.
Almost a hundred years later, Virginia Woolf’s observation still holds true: to get serious about writing, we require our own funds and our own space. (Although she was talking about women writers, I think her words can apply to people of any gender for whom time-consuming, and unpaid, caregiving takes up a significant portion of their day, and sometimes night as well.) Independence, professionalism, being taken seriously (until one gets not just published but remunerated reasonably for one’s writing, often friends and family treat your “scribbling” as a hobby that can be interrupted)–all of these are boons to writers. And the largest boon of all would be distributing the work of caring for children or elders so most of the responsibility doesn’t devolve onto one person. When one person gets designated “the carer” (especially if that person also works for pay and then comes home to the second shift in the home), writing inevitably gets shelved.
Oxford World Classics’ cover for Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas
Solutions to this spacetime crunch abound, and they’re different for everyone. For some, liberation comes from outsourcing these activities to others: a paid house-cleaner, a grandparent who can take care of the kids for the day on weekends, subscribing to those online meal services where ingredients get delivered to you and you just have to heat them up. For others, it’s worth the sweat and tears to sit down with one’s significant other and hash out a plan for making the home-work load measure up to the 50/50 ideal.
A wise friend who’s also a minister reminded me that an alternative is not to try doing all these things at the same time, but rather to think of life in terms of seasons. For those who don’t have the option of putting aside the heavy caregiving duties–a single parent, for example–perhaps the difficult but necessary solution is to postpone one’s writing “season” until one’s children are old enough to do their thing more independently. The trick is to prevent “mission creep” from making hiatus from writing permanent. Bigger kids require less intense, constant, hands-on parenting, but their web of activities and relationships often requires parental assistance. This can defer one’s writing season until retirement. (This may be a viable option for some, especially as our overall increase in health and longevity means that many folks can enjoy at least two decades of vibrant life after retiring.) But to keep the writing flame alive before the kids grow up and move away, maybe you can shift your focus: away from novels or book-length narrative nonfiction, with the greater time investment and sustained attention they require, to shorter forms that one can squeeze into one’s briefer free moments, such as poetry or essays.
My writing seasons fluctuate through the year, with months of diligent, productive daily writing followed by fallow periods. These doldrums happen for a variety of reasons: I’ve completed one project and want to let it rest before revising (I’ve never mastered the ability to start the next project at this time), a heavier workload in my medical practice, or a time when a family member needs more support. These “off” times don’t last long, but my spouse always notices that when other constraints push my writing into the exosphere where I can’t reach it, I’m more somber and sad. When I get back on course, he notes that my “spark” is back too. (There’s some incentive for skeptical family and friends, the kind who dismiss your true heart-work of writing as a hobby or a lark: they’ll have a more joyful loved one if they get on board with your need to write on a regular basis. More writing, better mood, and a more present parent/partner/friend. If they need a stick with that carrot, you can always remind them that they might show up in your published work someday, despite that disclaimer that the characters aren’t based on anyone living, dead, or spotted through a high-powered telescope on Venus.)
A long dry period in my writing has come to an end (whew!) and I’m rejoicing in the way that, perhaps paradoxically, rekindling my writing flame has given me the grace of being more present in the rest of my life. Watch out, page, my spark is alight once more.
Fire tower image courtesy of Chief Logan and the Helena, Montana Fire Department Archive, http://www.helenahistory.org
When I got past the awkward early-reading stage and had developed enough skill to immerse myself in books, I discovered the joy of getting up before dawn and reading under the covers with a flashlight. My dad rose early too, but he headed downstairs to do laundry and start breakfast preparations, and I savored the quiet before others awakened. In my window, the sapphire sky paled, shot through with orange, and the birds celebrated the sun’s return. I drank deep from the nectar of being alone.
Since then, I became a connoisseur of solitude, but not the passive kind, a vigilant solitude, a soul-forge.
My spouse and I share a recurrent private joke about how, if we hadn’t gotten married, I’d planned on living in a remote wilderness fire tower. When a busy day at our medical office comes to an end, he teases me, “There’s still time to escape to that fire tower!” I’d read somewhere about fire spotters living for a month or two at a time in these towers towers far from human company, dipping back into relationships only when hiking back to the nearest town for supplies. The prospect appealed to me, lover of solitude that I was, as did the noble purpose: preserving wilderness from ravaging fires.
There’s a scene in the movie version of The Lord of the Rings that never fails to ignite my old longings for courageous aloneness in a remote place. The scene begins when the plucky Pippin climbs up the back side of Minas Tirith’s beacon tower and manages to set fire to the tinder, against the Steward of Gondor’s wishes. Then the camera follows the path of that signal fire to the next woodpile, where a patient, vigilant guardian waits…for how long, we don’t know. We continue to follow the camera moving over the landscape as each beacon-spotter responds to the summons from the now distant flame on the horizon. At last, Aragorn espies the nearest bonfire, rushes down from the tower, and proclaims, “The beacons are lit! Minas Tirith calls for aid.”
I’ve seen the movie several times, and I always imagine myself as guardian of the beacon atop the snowiest, most challenging slope, climbing up to keep my vigil, blowing on my hands in the cold, waiting for a signal that might never come–and there it is, quick, do your duty, numb hands fumbling at the tinderbox, will it light, yes, yes, the tinder’s caught!
Cold, brave, and alone, the nameless beacon watcher answers the call.
There’s something beyond admirable about somebody facing hardship, doing a salutary deed, and receiving no accolades for it. How I admire that selfless something.
Few of us may get the chance to write in a wilderness fire tower, especially as technological advances are phasing out the need for human fire spotters. But we writers do our share of waiting, sometimes in the cold and dark, even if that’s just a mental state, should one’s writing space be well-lit and warm. When you send a query and/or material to an agent, you wait. Let’s say the agent agrees to represent you–the beacon’s lit, hooray! But then you wait some more as the agent shops it around. Then, after that second acceptance, there are more exchanges and more waiting: an editor’s letter detailing changes to make, proofreading notes, a pre-publication copy to examine…you wait for each of these. (For my friends and colleagues who’ve self-published books, or who’ve published chapbooks or scholarly books through a university press or other small publisher, you’ve got your own varieties of waiting to do, and things to wait for; I don’t mean to neglect you; I just haven’t experienced these varieties.)
Advice abounds on what to do while you’re waiting. Work on your next project! Take a breather and concentrate on some other endeavor: making music, fixing up your garden, completing that old motorcycle repair! Spend time with the family you’ve promised to do things with when you’re done with writing that interminable book!
But still we check the email for the fourth, fifth, sixth time. Hasn’t the agent/publisher/editor gotten back to us yet? The person in the tower rubs their eyes, aching from staring at the horizon. Is that a glint? Just the sun setting.
No matter how busy our exterior lives are, no matter how filled with other people–co-workers, those we help (patients, clients, customers), friends and family, the people we meet by chance on the bus or in the grocery store–a writer’s waiting tends to happen alone, as if in the mind’s own fire/beacon tower.
How do we turn this solitary watching into something brave, noble, purposeful?
Lots of boring, purposeless waiting happens in life: shuffling from foot to foot on a line, or slouching in a one-size-fits-nobody plastic chair waiting for your number to light up on a screen. All that advice about waiting for answers from the writing/publishing world exists, perhaps, to remind us of two things: first, to help us not lose sight of the magnificent goal (getting your book into readers’ hands) and second, that family, friends, work, leisure activities, nature, etc. aren’t extras that intrude on our writing life but are life just as much as the act of creation is.
A shadow-side exists to the old romantic trope of the solitary writer. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when books enjoyed a wider circulation and more readers than they had in previous centuries, most writers were people abundant in wealth and free time, to the extent that they didn’t need to work at other jobs and could devote time to their art. They also depended on others to provide life’s necessities so they could concentrate on their work. I still get pained when I recall the poet William Wordsworth expressing his gratitude to those wonderful hands (belonging, implied if not stated, to his mother, sister, and possibly a domestic employee or two) who fed him and looked after his home so he didn’t have to interrupt his writing and rambles in the lake country to do the dishes. He and people like him were granted the luxury of living in their isolated tower among other people who quietly ensured they could work uninterrupted. They dreamed their way into a fantasy wilderness; they built their towers of retreat on the shoulders of their support staff. It’s one thing for family members and friends to offer their support; it’s another to assume they’ll give it or to demand it.
Waiting can offer us opportunities to grow stronger inside, to continue creating, to tighten our connections with those we love. It can also wear us down. If we conceive of waiting as a spiritual practice, or as a martial art, or something else deliberate and devoted, then we’re more likely to emerge from the experience as better people–determined, not depleted.
Chicks congregating around their feeder…what stories they might tell!
Why is it that in some books, characters stride into the story all alone, without parents, golfing buddies, neighbor kids peeking through their hedges as they sunbathe, or coworkers tossing paper planes at them over the cubicle wall? In real life, we inch our way along strands in a web of relations–some strands sticky, others smooth. So why do some characters blow into their worlds like spiders parachuting to a new location on a long silken strand, bereft of all relations?
This narrative pitfall happens more often with some genres than others. Science fiction and fantasy novels (the genre I both write and most often read) bristle with rugged individuals whose first and only social contacts seem to be their quest companions. I can’t imagine this problem happening in genres where the protagonist’s social interactions form the basis of the story, like romance novels or family sagas. But writing in a genre where interactions aren’t the primary focus doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for creating a family and friendship network for your characters. Neglecting to fashion a social world for them means you’re missing out on opportunities to deepen their characterization.
People’s desire for company may range from the solitude-seeking wilderness ranger who stays for two weeks in a remote fire tower, contented not to see another person the whole time, to the party animal who chafes at being stuck alone for a whole afternoon. Most of us fall somewhere in between, or vacillate from one end of the continuum to another day by day, moment to moment. This tension in itself makes for interesting character exploration. But when two or more characters meet, story potential sparks. One person’s words or actions nudge another toward a decision. They might argue. They might reconcile. Their give-and-take fuels your plot.
How a person behaves with friends and family reveals significant things about them. We may act formal or superficial when exchanging a few words with the grocery check-out clerk, but with friends and family, a deeper layer of self emerges. Interactions with these important others will give your character a past as well. A character might seem to be engaged in light banter with their sibling, but the words hint at a shared memory: a warm and loving connection, a trauma they survived together, a source of misunderstanding and resentment.
How do characters react to family friction? Do they quash their anger and flash a false smile? Do they rush off to retreat from an anticipated explosion? Are they the one to explode? Or do they take refuge in sarcasm, skewering their provoker with words turned to precision weapons? Do they get physical, smacking the aggressor upside the head? Are they the comforter, the one who picks up the pieces? The character’s reactions–the ones they choose and the knee-jerk reflexes family members can so easily elicit–encapsulate their overall responses to the world, their virtues and flaws. Perhaps subsequent events, whether they involve saving the world or saving a relationship, might give the character a chance to reflect on and change these responses.
The novel I’m shopping around now contains some classic fantasy elements–a quest, magic, and powerful immortals–but my characters also have families, friends, petty adversaries, bosses, and other relationships that both complicate the plot and enrich the characterization. One narrator has chosen to leave his homeland years before, and he returns home to visit an old friend and his family, who never understood, and are uncomfortable with, his departure. This family drama’s enfolded within a larger plot, but without his feelings of disconnection with his homeland and his family, he’d be a less layered and interesting character.
So, when you’re creating complications for your characters, don’t forget that these complications can begin at home. Remember: every hero has neighbors, and even the bad guy has a mother.
No, this little fellow isn’t the bad guy. The red glow is coming from his heating lamp, not his infernal chicken powers.
Nothing perturbs the system more beautifully than a hummingbird, as seen outside my clinic window.
At some point on the journey toward publication, aspiring writers get frustrated and ask themselves, “Why aren’t agents and publishers saying ‘Yes’ to my submission? I’ve revised it six times and now it all looks good to me. What’s going on?”
Often the problem lurks on the very first page.
One turn-off to these busy publishing professionals is the “winding country way” style of drawing readers into your imagined world. This gentle prose amble generates plenty of atmosphere, but atmosphere alone does not a story tell.
Imagine strolling down a country lane on a summer afternoon. The sky’s a crisp blue against the upturned leaves of a majestic white oak, planted three hundred or so years ago to mark the perimeter of a farmer’s land. In the field beyond, Queen Anne’s lace, timothy, and goldenrod plants ripple in a breeze. The balmy air offers a spiderweb’s caress to your bare arms. The temperature’s not scorching, just soft and warm. You smell cut grass and wildflowers. You hear crickets and cicadas. Horses peer over a stone fence. It’s a tranquil, beautiful, rapturous day for being, not doing.
My daughter Luthien trotting through a field at Champoeg State Park when she was a year and a half old, offering an expert demonstration of blissful being-doing.
The trouble is that what makes this summer afternoon in the country so special is also what makes it unsuitable for a novel’s opening scene. The very forces that create enriching life experiences can poison stories and rebuff readers. That’s because stories are about doing, not being. When the writer spends too much time writing in this “being” fashion, the story doesn’t sell.
To be sure, this fact troubles me. Being in the moment, leaving behind the constant scrambling “doings” of unmindful life, reveling in beauty without rushing to complete an agenda–these are all activities (being-tivities?) I cherish. I also wince when I read writing advice that seems to pander to the shortest attention spans out there. Are readers really so fickle that they won’t continue past the first page if they aren’t hooked and thrashing like a fish on the end of a line? Don’t readers long to immerse themselves in the sensory glories of the world you’ve created?
Then there’s the conflict thing. We use warlike terms for the dramatic tension that drives a story: conflict or struggle. This nomenclature dates back to classical Greek literature. Ancient Greeks–at least those who wielded temporal power and had the leisure time to compose tales–considered agon (struggle) the source of virtue. Whether it’s the muscular, one-on-one grappling of a wrestling match or the cerebral fencing of a debate, agon honed the self. This attitude has been perpetuated in societies shaped by ancient Greece and Rome. I’m perturbed by the way popular how-to-write advice has uncritically ingested this antique attitude by insisting that writers create endless conflict on every page. Not only does this approach reify fighting as the normative (or even ideal) state of human affairs, but constant conflict can be just as wearing on the reader as static description. The answer to that old comic-book question, “How much excitement and adventure can you stand, true believer?” is sometimes “No more!”
Undeniably, some power exists to attract readers’ attention and hold it. But this power arises as much from caring as from conflict. A writing critique-group friend used to ask the other participants, “Why should I, the reader, care?” Readers invest their time because the skilled writer causes the protagonist to matter to them. To get the reader to give their heart to this character, the protagonist needs to be plunged into a situation where their winning qualities shine, while their relatable flaws get them into trouble.
That’s what’s traditionally called conflict.
I prefer to think of it this way: the story starts when the protagonist’s life veers off balance.
Living in balance is a spiritual ideal, but in physics and biology, systems in perfect balance aren’t living systems. Rather, life occurs when a formerly closed and balanced system tips far from equilibrium. We experience inputs from our environment and react–that’s the case in life, as well as in a novel’s plot.
Returning to that country lane, what might happen to the protagonist that would generate momentum for the story, show their true nature (both gifts and flaws), and cause the reader to care what happens to them?
That classic traveler’s dilemma, according to Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken
The protagonist’s life can get nudged out of whack by an external cause. A drunk driver careens over the hill and hits them, leaving them critically injured at the side of the road. A door to an enchanted realm opens up in the stone wall before them. An old flame comes jogging by in the other direction and they recognize one another too late for either to change direction and pretend they hadn’t seen the other.
Or an internal upset may disturb the protagonist, something the rural beauty can’t drive away. They could be brooding over the divorce decree they’d just received when they didn’t even realize their marriage was failing. They could experience the first frightening signs of severe mental illness: a break with reality where the bucolic country scene turns bizarre and menacing.
The good news is that you don’t have to trash your wonderful country-road description–you just need to repurpose it so that it contributes to the story’s forward motion. Instead of ambling down the road, maybe the character’s running away from or toward something. Instead of being a backdrop, the scenery becomes a character in its own right, or a plot generator. What might come out of the field to pursue the character? What might threaten the character from within when they’re desperate for a moment of peace? That’s where their life careens off balance. That’s where the story begins.
Now that’s more like it: a hair-raising moment on a hike at Huashan Mountain in China (Lina D., “The World’s Most Dangerous Hiking Trail,” https://www.boredpanda.com/worlds-most-dangerous-hiking-trail-huashan-mountain-china/). Bye-bye, quiet country road!
The classic villain: the Wicked Witch of the West from the 1939 Wizard of Oz film
At an audition for my local community theater’s upcoming production of The Wizard of Oz, I observed some actors trying out to play the Wicked Witch of the West, each one ending the monologue, at the director’s request, with their own distinctive evil laugh. As I listened, I reflected on how the Wicked Witch is the archetypal Bad Guy: gleefully megalomaniacal, fiendishly delighted at her own nasty cleverness, and as bad-looking as she is badly-behaving.
Times have changed since The Wizard of Oz was published in the early 20th century. Contemporary readers expect antagonists to be as fully realized as any other character. Ideally, they don’t even consider themselves the “bad guy.” Like the protagonist, they’re the hero/ine of their own story. Many antagonists aren’t arch-villains anyway. An obnoxious supervisor, a beastly ex, an overbearing parent, and a rival for a love interest aren’t criminals or demons. They’re more like obstacles, but obstacles with minds and motives of their own.
As with anything else about the writer’s art and craft, there’s no foolproof formula for generating formidable foes. Wherever your antagonist falls along the continuum of annoyance to full-on monster, however, they must pose an active threat to the protagonist, generating the story’s tension.
An effective antagonist must represent a true challenge to the protagonist. This redoubtable opponent won’t let the protagonist get away with an easy, predictable victory. To do this, the antagonist requires a goal. It shouldn’t be just any goal. It must run counter to the protagonist’s goal. It’s not an idle fantasy either. The antagonist is consumed by their single-minded obsession with this goal. They’re tenacious enough to charge toward that goal like an 18-wheeler headed for the runaway-truck ramp, which happens to double as the protagonist’s driveway. In pursuit of that goal, the antagonist causes significant trouble to the protagonist, the equivalent of that 18-wheeler’s cab smashing through the living-room window and coming to rest in the wrecked bedroom.
Antagonists are as individual as protagonists, but if I could distill their motives down, I’d assign them to one of two different personality types: the deranged messiah (the “hot” villain) and the sociopath (the “cold” villain).
The deranged messiah pursues their goal because a compelling, all-encompassing belief pulls them along. This antagonist isn’t a simple believer. They’re full of fervor and fanaticism, whatever they’re espousing: religion, social cause, or personal vendetta. They’re rigid to the point of absolutism and ruthless in implementing their beliefs, convinced that the lofty end justifies the reprehensible means. Their conviction might be admirable in other circumstances, but their willingness to bend the ethical rules in service to their cause distinguishes them from the protagonist.
The sociopath, on the other hand, lacks the passion that motivates the believer gone bad, but their hallmark feature–lack of empathy–is chilling. The sociopathic antagonist also lacks a healthy person’s rich emotional life. They only experience feelings associated with basic drives: hunger, thirst, boredom, frustration. The unsettling thing about an antisocial person’s lack of empathy is that they can be excellent mimics of the very quality that’s absent from their psychological makeup. They can feign interest, caring, even love. Such individuals seek intense stimulation (thrill sports, intoxicants, murder and mayhem) because without feelings, their lives are bleak and empty. When you introduce your antagonist, their lack of empathy makes them both frightening, as it allows for cruelty and callousness that wreak damage on the lives around them, and pitiful. Readers are moved by villains they can feel sorry for, and the empty, vapid, bored life of an empathy-less person is a sorry thing indeed.
Here are some other negative personality traits that work well for antagonists.
Aggrieved entitlement. Difficult people I’ve encountered consider themselves both victimized and deserving of the best in life–in extreme cases, worship by us lesser mortals. They lack the insight to take responsibility for the difficulties they’ve created in their own lives, instead insisting that others–ex-partners, the legal system, family members–have taken unfair advantage of them. Whether they’re complaining about the job that should’ve been theirs or their terrible ex-partner, in the stories they tell, they’re the innocent victim. It’s not clear whether they believe this themselves or use such stories to win sympathy and assistance, but from what I’ve experienced, underneath the apparent yearning to be understood, real-life antagonists believe people are either chumps to cheat or users to put one over on before they do it to you. After all, when one lacks empathy, if someone shows you kindness, it must be a con.
Hostility. It’s not just antisocial people who think, feel, and behave in hostile ways. I recently read that as much as 25% of the U.S. population has hostile personality traits. The hostile person is reactive, with a hair-trigger temper. They are impulsive, not stopping to consider before acting on their emotional reactions. They don’t “check in,” with themselves or the other person, whether their initial impressions are correct or their initial impulse is appropriate. They just explode. They interpret anything the other person says or does in the worst possible light, justifying their angry response to themselves. Often they have a low sensory threshold. Bright lights, noise, uncomfortable materials, and other unpleasant sensory impressions register as assaults with them, so they simmer in a state of low-grade irritability, ready to erupt at the smallest provocation…which, according to their sensitive nervous systems, represents an attack and thus necessitates a violent response. They may view others as idiots and jerks. This is the person you’ll hear complaining about the “sheeple” all the time and assuming that they are one of the few smart folks. Some people are aware of their hostile tendencies and “keep a lid on it” when interacting with friends, family, and co-workers, only to spew forth when a stranger looks at them the wrong way.
Rigidity. Difficult people don’t roll with the punches. Instead of responding flexibly to difficult situations, they become frustrated at their own perceived helplessness and lash out at others in response. This pattern of thought and behavior might’ve gotten started in early childhood, in reaction to living with chaotic circumstances, devoid of safety and a reassuring parental figure. Without a safe home and a consistent, caring parent, their primal needs for security don’t get met, so they take refuge in restrictive thought patterns, authoritarianism, and undeviating ritual. You can get readers to pity and be creeped out by your antagonist, both at the same time, by giving them a habit or behavior pattern where, if they’re forced to act differently, they snap or fall apart.
Negativity. In order to avoid painful, dangerous situations, our body-minds are primed to remember negative experiences. In learning from these experiences, we often end up magnifying them. Hence, people can define themselves by illnesses or pain they’ve suffered and harrowing experiences they’ve had. Developing a positive attitude takes time and mindfulness; perceiving the negative in every situation can become a default reaction. So what does this have to do with antagonists? Isn’t this conundrum just part of human experience? First, the very universality of this tendency is one thing that reminds readers about your antagonist’s humanity and makes them relatable. It’s both uncomfortable and revelatory to recognize the antagonist as a human being like oneself and to empathize with them. Second, by giving the antagonist a traumatic past that has created a persistent negative pattern of thinking and responding, you create conflict–the character gets into trouble as a result of their assumption that the world is a nasty, brutal place and because of the choices they make as a result. Such experiences explain, although they don’t justify, the antagonist’s selfish, thoughtless meanness. If a protagonist has undergone similar experiences and has nevertheless chosen a path of kindness and mercy, you’ve got a dramatic contrast right there. Same experiences, different choices–they can make the difference between the character’s becoming friend and foe.
A fully-fleshed, multidimensional antagonist presents significant roadblocks to the protagonist’s progress, which may even help the protagonist grow…although that’s not the “bad guy’s” intention. They also offer the reader a figure to become mesmerized by, perhaps against their better judgment, an effect they might exert on the protagonist too. But what ultimately makes a well-drawn antagonist so memorable is the way they hold a mirror up to our own shadow side, the side we engage with at our peril.
Can you douse your own shadow side with water and expect it to melt?