Monday, November 30, 2015

I’m Writing about a Horrible Character Who is Too Much Like Me

Back when I first arrived in Laramie, Wyoming on my cross country road trip, as we dumped the boyfriend off at my friend’s house and proceeded on a night of wild debauchery that, being Laramie, involved Walmart and pricey pizza, I sat in her car to see her smirking at me in a strange way.

“Look at that book,” she said. “And tell me what you think.”
Now, I’ve come to realize over time that when anyone asks me directly for my opinion, it tends to mean, “Tell me why I should hate this.” I don’t like to think that I am so drastically negative or harsh, but rather a proprietor of truth and passion that results in entertainment that can’t be found elsewhere. No one, as of yet, has agreed with me on that, however, so I’m going to have to believe they’re all idiots.

It was a well-made book with an interestingly unique cover yet not too far from traditional standards that it seemed homemade. I realized it was self-published by the, we’ll say, unconventional, punctuation on the back and the horrific summary that told us “This is a story about,” three times yet never once revealed character, plot, or setting, but just explained all about the heartache and feelings you will have upon reading.

But then she told me the backstory.

The writer had abandoned his wife and children to go out into the world and promote his book. He had felt divorce was necessary to pursue his dreams, and he, according to my friend, deeply regretted it. I didn’t understand his decisions, being that a road trip would, at very, very most, take two years, and then what? Go back and get remarried? Why divorce in the first place? Unless it was not about that, which I think was the missing link. I’m seeing it being less than six months if we were to be reasonable about how long a book tour should reasonably take.

But, my friend, being friendly and gorgeous, was probably being offered the free book as a form of flirting, and his claims of his relationship status were more about making her accepting of his come-ons. Later, when I went to his Facebook page, I found, “In an open relationship,” so who knows what it means.

His story fascinated us, proving just how much being personal can benefit authors, and we proceeded to read the first couple of chapters. He was, I will say, amazing when it came to the prose aspects, and both of us felt his pain and our cynical criticism was tuned on end. On the other hand, I found his desire to hide information from the audience irritating; it feeling more like a college student’s attempts at being literary with poorly formed concepts, dancing around the ideas instead of explaining them. While I loved the way he said things, I found what he was saying to be a little airy, the actual point being more simplistic than how he explained it.

Something about him struck me hard, and I continued to think about his story as we left Laramie and made our way to Phoenix while I listened to The Lovely Bones on tape. When the mother (spoiler alert), decided to abandon the family, attempting to rejuvenate her dreams, my mind began to whirl.

I have always admired people who go after what they want, to dream big and take great actions towards them. The idea of leaving home to travel the States, nothing but a few small items at your back, intrigued me. Last year, before I decided to (and subsequently did not) go to New York City, I considered taking the money I had saved and riding around America to promote my writing. It was the only time, I had thought, I might be able to do it, if I later started to develop a family, could I possibly leave for a few months to spend a lot of money on a tour?

In this, “Ronny” began to manifest. In a parallel universe, I had made different decisions. I had gotten married young, deliberately chose to have a child immediately, and yet continued on my path of writing. Like in real life, Ronny went through several years—after being prolific—of never writing at all, though this time it was due to her son and exhaustion, not just my lack of motivation and discouragement. She has gone through similar events as me, graduating college early, reflecting on actual criticisms that I have witnessed (mine or other’s), same financial situation, save for an up-and-coming lawyer husband, and similar writing career.

But there are some major differences. She didn’t major in theatre, but rather screenwriting; an important distinction because, while all writing attracts egos, screenwriting is “serious business,” and tends to more stringently follow rules. I believe, and I think screenwriters would agree with me most, that films have the most opinionated, self-assured people drawn to it. Theatre tends to have “artistic” types who sway in the opposite direction towards weird for the sake of being weird. She is not artistic in other areas, not a painter or seamstress or actor or teacher, only a writer. Unlike me, she dated in high school, mostly because I didn’t want Chris, her husband, to be her first and the timeline didn’t allow for her to wait until college (I was interested in dating, but coming from a small school, didn’t really like anyone particularly.)

Mostly, however, there are two values that Ronny and I differ drastically on, both of which I find make her incredibly unlikable.

Her decision to leave her child is inexcusable. While anyone who is able to remove themselves from a relationship they no longer want to be a part of is courageous (No, divorce is terrible and never be taken lightly, but I truly think that when someone understand they’re not happy and takes steps to fix that, it is a choice to be respected) but that’s different than abandoning your child to your spouse. Whether or not you are the mother or father, you owe it to everyone involved to take responsibility.

But worse, because it’s about writing, she is a literary snob. Her philosophy on the craft is the opposite of mine, Ronny believing in heady, intellectual prose, looking down on fantasy, science-fiction, and comedy, and wanting to write the next Great American Novel, which must be like Steinbeck or Kerouac, or any of those names casually dropped in an English class.

Why did she do this? Well, like all of my characters, she developed on her own without too much inorganic input from me. While she started from a question of how my life would be different—what would I do if I was already married with children?—and is the first character directly based on myself, taking events right from my own life, she is still starting to develop a personality outside of mine… and I don’t like her very much.

Partially, of course, this is a part of her character arc, learning over time that her image of the perfect life doesn’t have to be exactly as she pictured it. Leaving her family was her form of the quarter-life crisis in which she realized that she truly was an adult and it wasn’t how she pictured—but via close encounters with death, she starts to accept that she can’t just start over every time she isn’t happy with her life. Of course she’ll learn to be more open minded about writing philosophies, because she needs to redeem herself somehow.

But my real concern is that I am putting in no effort to fig leaf this shit.  In the past when any time a character got anywhere close to looking that they might be a remote avatar for myself, I covered that up with all kinds of gender-infused paint. Previously, I hated when people ask if a character was supposed to be me, often because they weren’t, at least not on a predominant level, though they of course had aspects of myself. If a character did seem too similar to me, I’d make him a guy. Or black.

Now that I’m writing a protagonist with no attempts to change my story to hide the fact that, yes, this really happened to me, and yet she isn’t particularly likable and has beliefs and takes actions that are against my own morality (which is kind of the point), I have to wonder if, one, the hatred of her will prevent people from continuing the read, and two, make readers confused about my actual beliefs. Some of her opinions I am making fun of, a commentary or point on that type of person or a previous version of myself, and sometimes it’s something I agree with; I want her to be diverse and complex, not always bad or good, not always agreeing or disagreeing with me. I fully intend on giving mixed signals about her abilities as a writer, showing her rejections, acceptances, fans and haters, and letting the audience know, without allowing for any examples of her actual style, just how hard it is to determine your skills from the feedback of others. She is not obviously good or bad in any way.

From personal experience when it comes to Gone Girl or Chicago, unlikable characters can make for great reads—as long as the audience is aware they’re not supposed to like her. The main question becomes how do you make that readily obvious from page one, especially when a character features main attributes of the author and that authors are obviously narcissists who would never condemn the actions of that Mary Sue?

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