After taking my own advice – well, after trying very, very hard and mostly succeeding in taking my own advice, which is still pretty good – I have now come to the point in my authorial career where I see just how much of a monster I am, and I start to feel genuinely guilty about what I’m putting my characters through.
Almost every story has that one character that acts as a hate-magnet, the one character that the audience just can’t bring themselves to like, even if they can sympathise or even empathise with them (indeed, that may be part of why they hate them so much). Mine is a character named May. I know this because every person who has read my draft has relayed to me just how hateful a character May is. Which is fantastic; I want her to be hateful, I want her to elicit rage, because that’s her role in the story, and that’s how I designed her.
But she’s also my character, my baby, and from the start I have wanted her to be more than just a hate-magnet – I’ve wanted people to be able to feel sorry for her and be able to understand why she does what she does, while not necessarily forgiving her for doing it. In fact that’s exactly what I don’t want, because she does some pretty bad stuff. But part of why I’ve wanted people to be able to, if not forgive her, then at least understand her and not just see her as an irredeemable villain, is because if I do get this thing published and people read this story, they may identify with May more than they’d like. And I don’t want to be telling those people that, if they’re anything like May, they’re doomed to be hate-magnets forever, or that they way to deal with the parts of themselves that they don’t like is to try and hate them away, because that never works in real life.
There’s this terrifying balancing-act, then, for me as a writer – I don’t want people to excuse May for what she does. But I do want them to be able to give her a second chance. And my greatest fear is that I’ll have to make her do something really grand in order to earn that chance, so great that it may actually end up excusing her for all the other stuff, which I don’t want. I don’t know how to tread that line or find that balance – and perhaps it isn’t up to me. Perhaps I just have to leave that up to the audience. Part of what I’m learning just by reading my own stuff is that I need to give the audience more room to interpret things their own way, and to actually have a chance to engage with the story, rather than just having it fed to them. To be fair, I wrote lots of the draft like that on purpose, so that I would get my own intentions for the scene down on paper, and also so that it would catch my eye during revision and I’d be motivated to do it more skilfully, which is what is now happening. So I guess it worked, which is nice.
But right now, I’m at a point in the story where I’m seeing May’s situation, and I feel genuinely guilty for putting her through what I’m putting her through, and I want the audience to be able to feel bad for her, while also not excusing her for all the horrible things she ends up doing – maybe I’m just too pedantic. Maybe I just want too much. Maybe I’m being too much of a control-freak. I do that sometimes.
The point is that I’m the one responsible for every single bad thing that happens to her, because I made them happen, and then I made her do horrible things so that people would hate her for them on top of that, and I’ve now put her in this non-negotiable position. She either has to be a hate-magnet, or she has to be a martyr, and neither feels just. Neither feels right. And I don’t feel like a skilled enough storyteller to find that middle-ground that I feel she deserves, and that someday, somebody who reads about her in this book may also need for themselves.
But I guess the important thing is that I’ve created a character that I care about. So hopefully other people will as well. And in the end, even if it’s only as a hate-magnet, maybe that’s enough. Having a hate-magnet is helpful for people as well – everybody needs to vent in some way, and so long as they can do that by taking it out on a fictional character rather than real people, including themselves, perhaps May will have served her purpose, for the greater good.
I still feel awful about it.
But in the end, some people want to see themselves in the characters in the stories they engage with, to have a chance to acknowledge certain aspects of themselves that they aren’t 100% sure of how they feel about perhaps, or parts that they absolutely know they don’t like, and to have a chance to reflect on them in a safe, private way. Other people want to see parts of themselves, or others, in characters, and just have the chance to hurl abuse at them, again in a safe, private way, where nobody real gets hurt. I suppose my feelings right now align with treating May as a real person, and she’s not, and I shouldn’t insist on my audience having to treat her as though she was one.
But I have to treat her as one. One reason for that is because I am of the ‘true to life’ school of thought when it comes to characters; I like realism, and that’s different to things being realistic – it’s evoking what’s realistic, while still making it compelling for an audience to interact with. It’s tricky. The other reason is that I’m a moral person, and I hate victim-blame, as well as letting people get away with doing horrible things, and May blurs the line between the two for me – like I feel most real people do. So I feel obligated to represent her as humanely as possible, to make her dimensional, out of respect for my audience. I do think that good stories are the ones that raise questions about how we view the world – probably not ones that then also provide a clear-cut answer, because I think that’s disingenuous and presumptuous. And it’s hard to do, or so I’m finding it as a writer, and so I’ve found it as a reader.
But the main reason why I have to treat May like a person is because I have to respect my audience, and if I don’t care about this story that I’m telling, then there’s no way I can ask anybody else to care about it, whatever their opinion on it ends up being. It’s not that, as a writer, caring about the story is enough to ensure that it’s good, but I feel that not caring about it is guaranteed to make it bad. So the fact that I care is probably a good thing.
And no matter how bad I feel for May right now, in the end, she does come secondary to the needs of the audience. I have no idea how people will react to her, or any of the other characters, if this book gets published and publicised enough that people will end up buying it. And I think that’s why I feel so bad right now; I can’t protect her from what other people are going to think of her.
And that’s good. I can’t know what people are going to feel about her, and more importantly, I’m not going to know why. Another reason to write her as humanely as possible; I don’t know what she might trigger in who or for what reason, or any of my characters for that matter, or just the story in general. I can guess, I can assume, but I can’t know. So I have to take very precaution to make sure that, if and when it happens, my story has enough substance to it so that people can also find something in it to fall back on, if they need to.
It feels like a lot of pressure. Maybe I’m over-thinking it. After all, I’m only three chapters into this revision process. Who knows what I’ll think of May and the others by the time I’m done. I am having real trouble remaining objective with this revision process; mostly I’m just being too harsh and nitpicky and I feel it’s getting in the way, one of those not being able to see the forest for the trees sort of situations. Maybe I just need to lightly skim over the draft once and then come back to do notes? I have no idea.
Just gotta hope it works out, I suppose, and again, trust that the fact that I care is a good sign that other people may also care.
I do still feel bad that May is the hate-magnet of this piece so far. But then again, I’m always grateful for hate-magnets in stories myself, so long as they’re done effectively. Like they die a horrible and satisfying death by the end or something; the catharsis that hate-magnets can provide is an invaluable public service, I feel, that storytellers can provide. I just don’t want it to be May’s fate as a character – but at the same time, I don’t want to rob my audience of the potential catharsis that she could provide them with – but at the same time, I don’t want people who sympathise with her (for the right reasons) to feel like she was treated unjustly if her role in the story is just to be the punching-bag that eventually splits open.
Yes, I am definitely over-thinking it.
Definite proof that I’m meant to be a writer.
I’ll take it.