Being really mean to your characters

Do you have a mean streak?  Do you seek revenge, revel in mayhem and luxuriate in shadenfreude?  Do you laugh when other people fall down and get hurt?  Congratulations!  You may be a complete failure as a human being, but you have what it takes to be a good writer.

This week, I put one of my characters in the hospital, and I feel awful about it.  Susan asked for more danger in the novel, and fists flew, accusations were made, evil plots unfolded and more than egos were bruised.  She is happy; I feel guilty.  But I’ll get over it.

I was born with no tact (and haven’t overcome that), but I think I’m naturally a gentle person.  I don’t want to terrorize, bedevil or hurt my characters, even the villains.  And when I’ve put mayhem in a story, it has tended to be cerebral.  And cerebral doesn’t work in fiction.  Hearts are more important than minds.  We read first for the emotional experience, don’t we?

So my conflict is often muted.  Characters tell each other off in very polite terms.  Richard Pryor did some great bits where he pretended to be angry white people.  Even when they were cursing, they were ridiculous.  My characters can be a bit like that.

But real anger crept into my writing this week.  And it will only get worse.  It may make me feel bad, but the story is more interesting.  Where did my mean streak come from?

Well, I definitely have a villain who scares the crap out of me.  Writing from his point of view is like donning Ku Klux Klan robes.  Not that he’s a bigot.  He’s just pathological.  I’ve only really met one person who was like him, and thirty years later, I’m still unsettled.  The hero scares me, too.  His intentions are good, but he can cross the line when he sees a reason to or he just loses control.

Just losing control.  In the moment.  As you write.  Makes for a better story.  Susan calls me a “pantser,” meaning I write by the seat of my pants.  (I used to outline everything.)  This has nudged me into new emotional territories in the last few years, and it has made me happier with my fiction.  But being mean is something I’m just learning.  So far, here’s what’s helping:

  • Get permission.  Susan gave me that (make it more dangerous).  I need to give it to myself.
  • Create a villain who is real.  (My characters talk to me all day long, so living with this one is a pain.  Suffer for art.  Yeah.)
  • Let the characters do the dirty work.   (Once the villain got meaner, the hero got more interesting.  And meaner.  Why am I surprised?)
  • Go to extremes.  (Still working on this.  I don’t want to take what comes naturally and amp it up.  I want the extremes to come first, and possibly be toned down.  I think honesty is the way.  The shower scene in Psycho is not the most disturbing Hitchcock image for me.  Torn Curtain has the worst, where Paul Newman needs to kill a man.  It is extended, desperate and horrible.  Hitchcock wanted to honestly portray how hard it was to kill a man, and he succeeded brilliantly.)

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been learning this week.  I hope I don’t develop a taste for being mean (except in fiction).

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2 responses to “Being really mean to your characters

  1. Peter…somehow I don’t see you ever developing a taste for being mean. However, in the case of writing fiction, I think I’ll agree that having a really evil villian helps. Knowing you, I am sure you’ll figure out away to get it right. I am looking forward to the finished ‘product’. Keep pushing ‘on and best wishes…

    • forgingthefuture

      Shush, Bill. You’ll ruin my reputation.
      You can read short stories now. Novel work is perking right along. And I just started preliminary work on a graphic novel. It will use the Zeitgeist Rangers title and some of the concepts, but will be on a different world.

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