Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Character-Nastiness Syndrome

The Writing Process kind of goes like this:

Most bizarre piece of criticism I have received from The Trusted Advisors:

I just didn’t know how to answer that one.

Yes?  No?  How do you know they don’t?  Do all women think alike?  Am I a woman?  Where am I?

Being a woman, being told by a man that you don’t write your women like women is just… well…


The Trusted Advisors are quite different to each other, with different tastes, which is very useful when seeking criticism, but there are two ways their comments are always similar. 

One is that they don’t READ what I have WRITTEN. 

but when someone is giving up their free time to help me out, just out of friendship and support for The Work, it is churlish and selfish to complain. 

So I can assume these situations arise because sometimes they are only skim-reading or they leave large gaps between reading different sections, because they’re trying to fit in helping me around their busy lives.

So when they completely blank a description, miss plot developments/an important scene and forget events and conversations that happened or ask where someone went on page 2 when I just explained it on page 1, I can put that down to their busy lives.

But two is tougher.

Two is that they’re highly and sensitively attuned to bastards and they complain no end about The Characters.  Characters I generally really like, they say are just too mean to possibly like.

I don’t know if it’s me, or if it’s them. 

The suicidal teenage narrator (Donald) of my ‘dork with superheroic delusions of grandeur’ manuscript (Working Title: Donald Benton: Superdork) is supposed to be sympathetically pathetic.

‘And so the stupid game escalated.  We were obsessed with proving that each other were gullible, and it got way over the top.
And then Truman, of all of us, called a stop to it.  Because he was in love and he didn’t want any stupid pranks spoiling it.
She was tall and ugly but friendly and a dork.  I mocked at him at first, until Libby pinched me so hard I still had the mark days later.
“I think it’s great,” she said.  “It would be good for you guys to meet other people.”
“We have met other people,” I mumbled.  “You’re another person.”
“Yeah, but I meant someone you can hang out with in public, who is of the same social level as you, and who isn’t so ashamed of you that she wants to die.”
“What are you talking about?”  I squinted at her.
She smiled this really sweet smile that she kept for special occasions.  “I thought I was your princess?”
I groaned.  I hated when she brought that up.  Truman was the one who pledged undying allegiance to her, Princess Libby, as her willing slave.  I was just sort of there too and I may have sort of agreed.
I was so over it.  But I couldn’t get out of it.
So Truman started sitting with this girl during break and stuff and he actually didn’t get bullied for it.  I still got bullied, standing on my own like a total dork.  I really didn’t want him to have a girlfriend.  The worst part was that I knew I was being selfish.  But if he got a girlfriend, then I’d always be on my own.  And I couldn’t stand being on my own again.  Not like last time.  That was when that stuff happened, that led to the counselling, even though I totally wasn’t serious about it.  But I still didn’t want to feel like that again.’
~ extract from Working Title: Donald Benton: Superdork, ms by LJ Conrad.

Instead, one of the Trusted Adivsors referred to Donald as

In my time-bending romance Working Title: The Unadulteress, the potential romantic interest/ex (Jimmy) is supposed to be caring, when not viewed in the biased light of being ex-husband of the narrator (Bertie).

‘The child ate and we walked in silence.  Jimmy’s head bobbed as if the situation displeased him.  He said, “Day out?”
“She’s been staying with me for a few days.  Tamara and Harry are having difficulties.”
“They seemed stable,” said Jimmy, almost sounding as disillusioned as I felt.  “Does Triss know?”
I half shrugged and shook my head.  “It’s only just happened.  They might sort it out.  I thought I’d take her out of the situation.”
His head bobbed, now with approval.  “That’s good.”
“I hope they work it out,” I said.  “They were so happy.”
“Happier than us, you mean.”  He sounded angry.
I looked at him.  “Of course that’s what I mean.”
“It’s your fault,” said Jimmy.  “That it failed.”
“Why?” I asked, crying again.
“Because you didn’t love me.”
“You don’t love me.  I might not have loved you at the beginning but I love you now.  Now you’re breaking my heart.”
He didn’t look impressed or moved.  “Bad timing, then, isn’t it?”
“How did it take you three years to realise you didn’t love me?”
“It didn’t.  I know exactly when I stopped loving you.  Twenty months ago.  We went to Tamara’s birthday, she was telling some stupid joke, and I thought, I don’t know what I’m doing here.  I don’t know her.  I’m living your life, not mine.”
I remembered that night.  That was the night that I realised he was always there for me, always stood by me and I loved him.’
~ extract from Working Title: The Unadulteress, ms by LJ Conrad.

Instead, the Trusted Advisors referred to Jimmy as

The joint main character of my World War II ms (Working Title: The Road To Confidence), the wounded airman and con artist (Clark) is supposed to be charismatically charming.

‘She stared at the picture of the Daily Mirror’s Jane and sighed.
“If you do that one more time I will throw you out,” said Clark, not looking up from his newspaper.
Hannah crossed her arms.  “It’s my shelter.”
He lowered the paper.  “The shelter belongs to Mr and Mrs Bone.”
Hannah prodded her chest.  I pay rent.  You don’t have rights.”
He folded the newspaper.  “I’ll leave, shall I?”  He used his walking stick to pull himself to his feet and she quickly left the picture and stood in front of the door.  He shook his head like she was an ass, but sat back on the deckchair and returned to the paper.
Her eyes returned to the picture.  “I wish I was prettier.”
“Me too.  You don’t have to look at you.”
“That’s a beastly thing to say.”
He gaped in phoney shock.  “Is it?  Oh my, I must try to be politer to people who won’t stop annoying me.  Anyway, she’s a drawing.  No real woman looks like that.  You might as well be jealous of Popeye.”
“Then why do you read every single one of the Jane strips?”
“To follow the story,” he said, smiling.
“You’re just hoping one day they’ll draw her with no clothes on at all.”
He indicated the picture on the wall.  “Nearly there already.”
“I can’t believe that picture is allowed,” said Hannah, staring at the clear outline of Jane’s bottom.
“But men far from home need these pictures, remind them what they’re fighting for.”
“That’s not what we’re fighting for.”
“Yes it is,” said Clark.’
~ extract from Working Title: The Road To Confidence, ms by The LJ Conrad.

Instead, one of the Trusted Advisors referred to Clark as

A move that did not put him in The Good Books.

And even the ANTAGONIST (Ansell) in my comic fantasy Working Title: Rigor Morris, is too ‘viciously’ unpleasant, apparently.

‘Pauline glared at the ceiling.  “How did you know I was here?”
Pauline glanced at him.  “But so quickly?  Do you have someone watching my house?”
Ansell’s mouth twitched.
Pauline shut her eyes.  She’d tried so hard to disappear and now it could all be happening again.  “Can I die now?”
Ansell used the bed as a support to stand up, placing a badly aimed hand on Pauline’s stomach.
As she yelped, he pulled his hands away, showing his palms.  “Sorry.  I didn’t realise.”
She slowly curled into a ball.
He winced.  “When I heard you’d been brought in here I worried it might have been because of me.  That I’d driven you to…”  He went pale.  “Something terrible.”
She squinted at him.  “You worried I might have self harmed because you’re threatening to ruin my life?”
He nodded.
“But you don’t care that you’re actually ruining my life?”
“You deserve what’s coming to you.”
She stared.  “I’m not sure I’m the one who’s insane.”
“You should be happy I’m changing my evidence to be slightly less harsh on you.  You’re a fraud, but you can’t help it.”
“Oh good, because people are much more likely to come to a medium who’s certifiable.”’
~ extract from Working Title: Rigor Morris, ms by The LJ Conrad.

Now possibly because several of the works that have influenced my writing portray ‘heroic bastards’ this has influenced me to an extent to which I’m not even aware.  Or because I find the idea of exploring the nature of villainy and redemption interesting, I deliberately insert these traits into The Characters but fail to get the correct balance.  Or because I am a bastard, even when I’m trying to write nice characters, I end up writing bastards.  But then, The Trusted Advisors are able to like me, so why not my characters.  Maybe it’s just a lot more fun to write bastards than to read bastards.

So with each redraft I have to soften them up.  Which is difficult. 

Ansell: ‘the thin man with the serious face’
(yes, I really messed up with this drawing)

In Working Title: Rigor Morris, Ansell has to be likeable enough for the reader to be happy reading scenes about him and from his POV, he’s supposed to become more rounded as the reader learns about him and since he exits and re-enters the narrative twice, that has to be something the reader wants to see.  But he can’t be too likeable, because he is the antagonist and it has to be satisfying when something rather horrific happens to him.  Surely this balance isn’t beyond me? 

Jimmy: ‘I saw his eyes.  Two black pits, like the eyes of a crow, uncaring and cold.’

In Working Title: The Unadulteress, Jimmy is supposed to be cold on the exterior and a good, warm person on the inside, but he switches from hero to villain depending from which part of the timeline we are viewing him, it’s meant to progress as the reader learns new things about the past; that’s the whole point of the story.  If I make him nicer during the wrong sections, it reflects poorly on the narrator (Bertie).  The more overtly selfless I make him, the more underhandedly selfish Bertie becomes, and the reader is supposed to like her.

Donald: ‘I looked in the mirror at that face that always stared back and wished I didn’t look so much like a girl.’
(I have no idea why I drew his eyes like that.)

‘Niceifying’ Donald of Working Title: Donald Benton: Superdork is the worst change yet, because he’s a flawed first person narrator which I thought gave him a free pass to some extent and I liked him a lot, but The Housemate couldn’t bear reading him so much that I had to re-edit the draft while The Housemate was still reading it.  I had to make Donald a nicer, less sarcastic person and now the story is really depressing.  I thought it was funny that he was a snipe, but now he’s just… sad.  At least when bad things happen to someone with a vicious streak, it’s funny.  Now it’s just crushing. 

Clark: ‘This airman had a virtuous, trustworthy appearance and yet he had an utterly guileful soul.’

Clark from Working Title: The Road To Confidence is the only one I’m happy to make nicer.  His WHOLE thing is that he’s impossible to dislike, so I have to do whatever I can to make him likeable (although he is supposed to be slightly mean to the other main character (Hannah) for two incredibly important plot reasons 1) to deliberately distance himself from her and 2) because he can’t help showing his real self to her).  But the fact that I thought he was likeable, and apparently he isn’t, is a huge problem.

Am I ineptly blind when it comes to the subtleties of nice/nastiness?

Or am I worrying too much and it’s just that The Trusted Advisors are a pair of wussies?
Possible.  When I had a third trusted advisor, he never complained about overly nasty characters.  In fact, he tended to really like the characters the other two hated and actually get what I was going for.

After all, characters have to clash with each other.  That’s drama.  That’s comedy.  Plus, as I said above, I like redemption (something that one of The Trusted Advisors thoroughly detests), I like to contrast outer action against inner thought and I like to explore reasons behind perceived villainy. 

But I still suffer from character-nastiness syndrome, because now when I write a character being even slightly mean, I have those two in The Head, chastising me until I end up castrating all The Interesting Characters and then all the tension ebbs out of The Story.

Grrr, indeed.

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