My Characters Aren’t Pretty

Note: This post is a little jumbled because my thoughts are a little jumbled. This is one of those topics I’d like to revisit when I have a better handle on what’s going on inside my head, but I figured it might be worth sharing as a discussion topic.

Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth

~ Albert Camus

When I was in college learning how to be a better writer, I was also a teenager struggling to learn how to be a better person. Both are struggles that continue to this day and will hopefully continue for the rest of my life.

I’ve made my fair share of mistakes along the way but that’s one of the things that intrigues me about writing fiction. Humanity is messy and that messiness lends itself to literature as a mirror for life. The quote I started with is a reflection of that idea not only because of what it says but also because of whom it was said by. Albert Camus was an absurdist, a philosophy centering the individual and his/her/their inability to find value or meaning in life.

Authors are also interested in exploring both the individual and the Truth and that exploration can be found in spades in young adult literature. Maybe it’s because young adults have so much to explore, as they’re trying to find their own way, or maybe it’s simply because young adult readers see through a different lens. Whatever the reason, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

Often, in discussions of the differences between young adult and adult fantasy, in addition to the age of the main character, characterization versus world building is addressed. Young adult fantasies tend to be character-driven stories whereas adult fantasies tend to be world-driven stories. Obviously there are exceptions, as there always are, but this difference fascinates me.

Absurdism, as Camus saw it, was a rejection of nihilism, a philosophy centering the thought that life is meaningless. Camus, although he believed the individual would never be able to grasp the meaning of life, believed he/she/they should still seek it. The difference between the two philosophies is interesting in that nihilism seems to take a more world-driven approach. Life (as a big, abstract concept) is meaningless. Whereas absurdism seems to take a more character-driven approach. We humans cannot understand the meaning of life.

I don’t think either approach to writing (or life) is wrong. I don’t think there really is such a thing as “wrong” when it comes to writing. Art is art and expression is expression. There are no hard and fast rules and exceptions are abundant. But I do prefer to read and write character-driven stories.

My characters aren’t pretty, though. And I don’t mean that in a physical beauty sort of way, I mean it in a they are morally gray kind of way. Their flaws are what make them interesting and, quite honestly, what make them human.

One of the reasons my Sanctum series is written in first person is because I like the idea of a one-sided story. I like getting into the head of a character and putting her on display, warts and all. In some ways, when you write from the first person POV, you’re always dealing with an unreliable narrator of sorts. A reader can never reach the Truth of your world, because he/she/they only ever see it through one set of eyes. It’s absurd and it’s exploratory and I think it’s part of the reason why first person POV is so prevalent in YA.

The world we live in is increasingly divisive, however. Sides are chosen and swords are drawn. The vehemence of our individual beliefs is put on full display via social media. It’s fascinating and, if I’m honest, a little bit frightening.

See, my core belief system is hinged on the concepts of compromise and understanding. I don’t like confrontation and my opinions are constantly in flux. I’m a listener, a watcher, a mediator. I like the middle because so much of my life has been chaotic. I find humanity to be violent and messy and glorious and caring and beautiful. I’m a dark, serious person but I’m also endlessly optimistic about humanity. I think at our core, humans want to be “good.” But “good” is such a loaded term, especially these days. What is “good” and what is “bad?” The meanings of these words shift depending on your side, on your belief system, on your experience. This is that heavy stuff the absurdists were talking about, the meaning of life that we should strive for but will never be able to fully grasp. The Truth that the lie of fiction tries to bring to the surface.

When I was in college, my work was often critiqued for being “too preachy.” People are smart and readers are some of the smartest people there are so I was taught to let them come to their own conclusions, not try to impose my belief system through my writing. “You’re not writing fables, Aimee,” was a familiar refrain. “You can guide but don’t shove. It’s sloppy writing, too heavy handed. The author’s touch should be so light it is unnoticeable. Create characters that someone can imagine leaping off the page and you’ll create discussion.” Discussion is the beating heart of a free society. It is a sacred thing and as a writer, I take it very seriously.

One of these same writing professors was obsessed with Anton Chekhov. I despised him (Chekhov, not my professor, I loved her). Anton Chekhov has written some of the most despicable characters I’ve ever read. They are misogynistic, sex-crazed, unfaithful, wife-batterers and I don’t like them. I don’t feel sympathy for them. I don’t want them to win (in fact, I’m happy that they usually don’t). I have never in my life cheered for a Chekhov character. His women are vapid and flippant and ridiculous. His men are arrogant narcissists. Cheating is rampant. Domestic abuse is thrown onto the page without a care. It bothered me. And as I’m writing this, I realize it still bothers me.

Here’s the thing though–his characters make me feel. His characters make me yell. For those who don’t know me in real life, yelling is not a thing I do often. As I mentioned earlier in this post, I don’t like conflict. If I’m pushed to yelling, something has gone terribly wrong. I like to see both (or all ten) sides before making a decision. I like to evaluate and weigh and usually, I come out somewhere in the middle. With Chekhov, I am never in the middle. His writing forced me, someone who rarely chooses “sides,” to take one and it stimulated discussion. Discussion I had to bolster with lines in the text. Discussion that made me a more analytical reader and, I will grudgingly admit, a better writer.

Chekhov is not preachy. His characters are morally gray (bending toward bad) and they spark a response in me most characters don’t. In college, I didn’t entirely understand that concept but now that I’m a published author myself, I read Chekhov with a different lens and a deeper appreciation. Please don’t mistake appreciation for “enjoyment.” Reading Chekhov still feels like a hate read and I still want to punch all of his characters in the face. But feeling is a writing win, even if the feeling stimulated isn’t always pleasant.

A reader recently told me she wanted to “strangle Alena sometimes,” and I had to chuckle. “Why?” I asked innocently. She rolled her eyes. “Because she makes stupid decisions.” I smiled softly and nodded. “Don’t we all, though?”

Something to think about.

Now accepting discussion but not argument in the comments.

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Next week on the blog: Unveiling the #DeepSeaWIP and my participation in this year’s #PitchWars. Don’t want to miss it? Don’t forget to follow!

2 thoughts on “My Characters Aren’t Pretty

  1. What is your main goal as a writer?

    I became an author because I loved reading, and I wanted to produce something that would give others the same enjoyment that I felt. Thus, every part of my learning process has been focused on what engages readers and makes them enjoy the experience.

    When I read your post, I was struck by the thought that I can’t really identify your primary goal in creating your stories. Is it to make people think? Is it to share your observations? Is it to make people feel?

    I always think it’s a good idea to examine constantly examine my path to make sure that it’s leading me to accomplish my goal.

    Like

  2. Great post! I don’t really see how your reasons for writing are even remotely relevant to this post as the comment above seems to suggest. I’ve always enjoyed characters who aren’t fully good or fully bad- that’s what makes me relate to them more. And I definitely relate to your characters!

    Like

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