Monday, July 19, 2010
People We Hate to Hate
So let's all face it: there are things about ourselves that we're not proud of. Impulses and thoughts that are uncharitable and mean. For instance, when I was in middle school, I was a bully. I mean, I was scrawny and skinny and couldn't fight my way out of a ziplock back with a box cutter. But I had a wickedly scathing sense of humor that I used to put down others. It was the way in which I kept from being bullied myself. When I felt threatened, I turned my powers onto someone else and redirected the bullying. I didn't do it because I was inherently cruel, I did it because I was scared. Too scared to stand up for myself and too scared to risk being bullied.
But I can excuse that sort of behavior in myself. I realized it was wrong in HS and, while I still had a sharp tongue, I took my lumps rather than beat down others...most of the time. It's the day to day stuff that makes me ill. Like, I fully admit to passing homeless people on the street and thinking to myself that they should get a shower and get a job. Without knowing anything about them, I passed judgement. Again, does it make me a bad person? No. But if others were to hear those thoughts coming from me, they might not agree.
Lately I've been grappling with creating characters that are unlikable. It's a difficult line to walk. I want to be honest about who a character is...warts and all, but at the same time, I don't want people to be turned off to them. I read a book this year that a lot of people really loved but I found the main characters to be shallow and vapid and cruel. Why? Because the author, who did a phenomenal job portraying multi-faceted characters, toed the line and went too far for me to sympathize with them.
Like I said, it's a tough line to walk. In the movie THE READER, we're shown a portrait of a Nazi who was complicit in the death of 300 Jews who were locked in a church. I know that we were supposed to feel a sense of sympathy for the main character, Hanna, because she was illiterate, however I found myself unable to feel anything for her. When she eventually met her end, not only did I not feel bad for her, but I was glad.
But the problem is that if we never show a character's foibles then we risk creating Mary Sues who are perfect and wonderful in every way. And who wants to read about that? The trick then, becomes showing the warts of the character without losing the reader's sympathies. I have a tendency to always go at least one step too far in the wrong direction when it comes to that. Maybe one day I'll figure out how to do it properly. However, I think that any time a writer exposes a character's dark side, he or she risks alienating some readers. For example, I have zero tolerance for characters who cheat. It doesn't matter what the circumstances are, if I main character cheats on their bf/gf they lose all my sympathies and I usually stop reading the book.
That's a risk we have to take though. Maybe it's better to sometimes risk alienating some readers than to bore all of them. Still, as I've learned, while it's great to show some warts, some are better kept hidden.