Let Characters Be Complex

This week I’m thinking about a point George Saunders made on the value of digressions in fiction. In his book on creative writing A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he wrote that stories must “self-complicate, and thus avoid being merely a one-dimensional position paper” (335). However, when writing the first draft of a story, I’ve found there are two kinds of digressions. There are the valuable digressions that self-complicate and make for a more surprising writing (and reading) experience. And there are the actual digressions, which I eventually have to cut to keep the story focused. It’s only when I revise, though, that I can differentiate between the two.

Still, even in revisions, it’s tempting to just “say what I mean,” partly because I worry readers won’t get it. And as GoodReads amply demonstrates, it’s not an insubstantial concern. But this temptation to spell things out for readers always results in the “one-dimensional position paper,” otherwise known as not a story at all.

In one of my stories, I thought the focus was a young woman becoming broken by a world that cares not at all for her suffering. This may be accurate (and it’s certainly the experience of many marginalized people), but it isn’t interesting. It isn’t interesting because it’s one-dimensional, and that’s not how we experience our lives. It also can come across as preachy, which is also uninteresting: woman suffers, and nobody cares, so she becomes uninvested in life. Yawn.

But by introducing the angle that she suffers not only because of the world’s cruelty but also because she chooses unrequited love and chooses to approach love through toxic masculine norms, such as control and dominance that disregard consent—it complicates things. In this draft, she is now both a victim and someone who harms others as a way of coping with her victimization. Victims aren’t things. We are people. And as people who’ve been badly hurt, we make complicated and sometimes patently wrong choices. It’s interesting because how do you untangle that knot? You can’t entirely blame her, but you also can. She isn’t just one thing or the other—an innocent victim or an evil perpetrator. It’s not a story that easily slots into anyone’s politics, and stories like it tend to anger people who want fiction to present them with easy moral answers. Which is maybe a good thing.

The digressions that helped me discover this complex side to the character included a breakup, the death of the main character’s cat, and street music. They all revealed a little more about her, especially the way she clings to her unhappiness as a way to justify her cruelty but also to shield herself from further hurt. Ultimately, none of those digressions ended up in the current draft. But they did complicate the hell out of what started as a “one-dimensional position paper.”

You may be getting the sense that this is all about a much deeper, thornier question: the purpose of art in society. And you would be correct. This is a timeless debate, and I have no idea which side you should be on, or even if either side is worth considering. All I know is that your fiction will reflect your position on this question, and stories that have easy villains and pure, innocent heroes are usually reserved for religious scripture and children’s stories.

I for one don’t know anyone who is all good, and even my abusers had lovable qualities—how do you think abusers hang onto their victims, if not for our capacity to love complicated, messy, sometimes awful people? I for one think that’s the value of literature: to invite us into the most complex corners of human experience and to attempt to say something honest about that, so we can pause and reflect on the fact that maybe, just maybe there are many ways to look at the same thing. Literature can create radical empathy, which—while dangerous to imperialists and dictators—is most powerful when it startles us with insights into lives we thought we knew or had never before considered. I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of story I want to write.

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Featured Photo by Suzy Hazelwood

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Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

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