It’s as though the other person’s character mirrors our personal fault. We recoil, revolted, from this ugly monster in the mirror, and promptly refuse to believe that it is a mirror at all. It’s only that other person. They are the problem. They have the ugly monster attached to their hearts.
Not us. Not me.
I shut my eyes and chant la-la-la, a child who believes that what can’t be seen or heard must not exist.
The ugly monster—whatever shape or form it takes—may actually exist in that other person. Pride. Self-absorption. Manipulation. Abuse of power. Lust. Arrogance. It is monstrous, revolting.
Or not. Minor quirks, even personality traits, can quickly become a source of irritability and contempt.
- The over-analyzer who parses each word in a Sunday school lesson.
- The self-absorbed conversationalist who chatters exclusively about one topic: self (or children, or weight).
- The person for whom every conversation must come back to a particular pet topic, like Ahab obsessing over the wretched, malicious Moby-Dick, and attributes the worst possible motives to everyone who holds a different view.
- The take charge person who bosses everyone—including his superiors—around.
Dealt with once, these faults are not so bad. Dealt with multiple times, the faults grind against our nerves.
But what if these traits also exist in me? What if I looked in that mirror and saw my own faults before anyone else’s?
After I wrote a couple of drafts of my first novel, I posted it on a writing critique website. Some reviews were ignorant, others were generic, and still others were malicious and nasty. A few were productive. But it was the responses to the main characters that caught my attention.
People liked Monroe, the loud-mouthed radio host. They liked Lucy, his bipolar daughter, except when they hated her for being a jerk to her friends. But Claire, the wife and mother—they weren’t certain if they liked her or not. Then they were certain: “We don’t like Claire,” they said.
I was disconcerted. Of all the book’s characters, Claire is most like me.
And they didn’t like her.
And I didn’t know why.
And, I suspect, neither did they. They responded vaguely to my questions: too passive, too withdrawn, too introspective, always dwelling on the past. They didn’t give examples or solutions, only answers that didn’t satisfy me.
I felt indicted somehow by their thoughts about my character. If they didn’t like Claire-who-was-me, then they didn’t like me, either. I hadn’t intended to put myself in the book, nor had I intended to create an unsympathetic character. I found her sympathetic—I knew her past, present, and future—and I thought other people would be sympathetic, too.
I hadn’t thought of her actions in negative terms. Now that others had pointed them out, I saw what they meant. Claire was passive. She wasn’t doing anything interesting. She was sitting around, mulling over the past when she needed to take action. If this was the real Claire, I didn’t like her, either.
And the mirror revealed itself.
It wasn’t just Claire who was passive, withdrawn, and self-absorbed. I was, too.
Recently, I’ve thought of novel characters who I disliked. The protagonists of Return of the Native. Ophelia in Hamlet. Several protagonists of contemporary novels that I’ll leave unnamed, but I didn’t finish because the characters didn’t do anything, only navel-gazed and spun in circles around themselves.
All passive. Withdrawn. Self-absorbed.
The mirror again, this time in others’ writings.
I’ve started my fourth novel (is that possible?!) and I’m in the character-development stage. Years ago, I found a great article by David Corbett about how to craft compelling characters, and I pulled it out again. During the writing of Novel #3, I had put both my protagonist, a young female who has survived forced prostitution, and my antagonist, a young male who is stalking her, through Corbett’s recommended process. Both characters are stronger now as a result.
We can draw some material from those in our lives, Corbett writes, but “We will also have to draw from our own lives, at least as a starting point, to fathom a character’s inner world.”
To explore those emotional triggers, he recommends writing down these incidents in our character’s life—and our own:
Moment of greatest fear
Moment of greatest courage.
Moment of greatest sorrow.
Moment of greatest joy.
The worst failure.
The moment of deepest shame.
The moment of most profound guilt.
The moment of most redemptive forgiveness.
Feel a little uncomfortable? So did I, especially when I realized how alike my antagonist and I are. Not the heroine, but the villain. Ouch.
And that mirror pops up, once more. Exploring those characters revealed things about me, things that I didn’t realize but needed to wrestle and repent and defeat.
Finding it in a novel is an odd thing.
On the one hand, it’s fiction. This is only a figment of someone’s imagination, squiggles and dots on paper. So it isn’t as threatening as it is when the same trait appears in an actual person. There’s not a relationship being affected. It’s safer, a bit, when a novel confronts us with the truth about ourselves.
On the other hand, it’s fiction. It’s easier to dismiss as coincidence—as I did with Claire—or throw the book at the wall—as I have done with several nameless books. When it’s a real life person, the threat is larger. Our response is crucial, because a relationship hangs in the balance.
Will I acknowledge the truth, or will I deny it?
(Photo credit: monosodium, from MorgueFile.com, modified by me)