When I was in my twenties, I wrote loads of crap. I say this with pride, not shame. Hey, I was learning. Still am. The key was that I wrote loads–and that I practiced until each piece became a tiny bit better than the last.
But here was the contributing factor to the crap part: I didn’t understand people. Growing up with a mother who is probably on the spectrum, a father who bullied me like an older brother, both of whom flew into rages for no reason a child could understand–I had trouble with human behavior. Mormonism didn’t help, either, because it grouped people into the righteous and the sinners, Mormon and not Mormon, good and bad.
Fiction requires nuanced thinking. I didn’t have that.
But I did journal. And by my mid to late twenties, I was scribbling three pages every morning. All about the people I didn’t like. And the more I wrote about the awful people in my life, the more reasons I found for why someone might act that way. And the more I explored their motives, the more certain I became of something unpleasant but tremendously helpful to the fiction writer: they were just like me.
See, this is what I think journals can do for the writer. They keep us honest. They give us a safe space to work on our weaknesses. To sharpen our awareness of ourselves and our species.
Think of great characterization, from Flannery O’Connor’s racist mother and self-righteous son duo in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” to the alcoholic, abusive therapist who fantasizes about murdering his neighbors in Robert Stone’s “Helping.” You can’t have great literature without miscreants. The trick, though, is that readers have to see themselves in them. Which means we, as the writer, had to see ourselves in them first.
From Mad Men to Battlestar Galactica, the same holds true. Great characters are fucked-up people we readily identify with and understand–not caricatures of evil. It’s fun to mock and criticize the people we don’t like. And if you’re a stand-up comic, you might even be able to make art out of that. But if you’re aiming for great characters, you can’t afford superiority. It took me until I was in my thirties to learn this.
So let me save you some time: start journaling. Pick someone you dislike, even hate. Write down all the reasons behind your revulsion. Then, dig even deeper. What parts of you loathe them so fervently? When have you also acted out of smugness or racism? Play devil’s advocate with yourself. You’ll know you’ve struck creative gold when you bump against a part of yourself you hate just as much. Character found.