In my twenties and even early thirties, I wrote characters that were vindications of myself. My protagonists were always goody two-shoes, virtue dripping off them like maple syrup off a pancake. Smugly sweet.
I didn’t want to think that maybe sometimes I’m a horrible person. That maybe the wrongs that had upset me most stood out in my memory because they were partly my fault.
All that changed when I moved into an attic room from where I could hear all the comings and goings of my housemates, all their conversations in the common areas, and the entirety of their sex lives beneath the floor of my room. And I judged them.
It occurred to me that I was more than a little misanthropic. Nobody’s life, inspected that closely, is pretty.
But I also started to write better characters. Interesting characters. More honest characters.
It’s no secret. The greatest characters are flawed characters. And liking buttered toast a little too much or feeling guilty about something you didn’t do are weak flaws.
Weak flaws = weak characters.
Strong flaws invite train wrecks. Strong flaws make a character slightly less likable. Strong flaws ruin relationships and put other people in emotional or physical danger.
Think Ahab. Think Vanity Fair’s infamous Becky Sharp. Think Heathcliff from the genius of Emily Bronte. Think Raymond Carver’s protagonist in “Cathedral.” Or every single Flannery O’Connor character in existence. If your goal is literary fiction, you’re going to need some awful people.
Start with yourself.
My characters only got interesting after I admitted my own awfulness. Especially the dirty little secrets that embarrassed me most.
Examples: Back in college, I fell in love with a professor and courted him for years, only to send him an email of angry recriminations when I discovered that he, too, was an awful person. I spent the better part of a road trip seething at a gay friend for not telling me he hadn’t come out to his grandfather yet–leaving me to either out him or pass as his girlfriend. And I obliviously wondered what could possibly be wrong as a Japanese friend discovered racism and violence in the States and developed severe anxiety. Instead of understanding, I offered judgment and foolish 24-year-old platitudes when she became a shut-in.
Only by examining my own complicity and lack of understanding was I able to draw interesting characters and stories from these experiences–and turn them into fiction.
So here’s a prompt for you:
Pull out a sheet of paper or a fresh Word document. Pick a particularly humiliating or frustrating experience. Then, write about it, making sure to capture your every uncharitable thought and impulse.
Only in fiction does nastiness pay off. But it pays big time. Try it.