Breathing Life into Character–especially those with whom we disagree

I still remember the very worst book I ever read–I guess I kept reading for comedic value, in disbelief that such writing was actually taken seriously enough to get published, and maybe hoping it would eventually get better.  What made it so awful?  The characters were all bizarre, twisted caricatures of how the author apparently saw the world and other people.  They were tools for her to express her disdain and hatred of others.  They were mere mouthpieces for her political opinions.

vosika-blog-good-vs-evil-editThose characters who agreed with her politics were all very, very good–courageous, perseverant, hard-working, noble, kind, generous, honest, intelligent, thoughtful, well-educated, gently spoken, and every possible good thing.

If any of them had a single flaw, it was a token flaw or some ‘virtue’ disguised as a flaw in order to claim they weren’t one-dimensional.  You know–like the way sites on job interviews advise us to answer the ‘What are your flaws” type of question–Sir, I’m tooeager to work hard!  I’m too punctual!  And I’m just too darn good-looking!

Those who didn’t share the author’s politics–they were all crass, nasty, vile, hateful, dismissive of others, unkind, stupid, completely lacking in any basic common decency or any humanity at all, with a burning desire to kill and hurt.  Bad breath, shifty eyes, you name it, they had it.  They were bad stereotypes, complete caricatures of the people of certain much-maligned and ridiculed areas of this country.

Not a single one of them, in the entire large-group demographic, had even a token redeeming feature.  Riiiiiiiight.

Why doesn’t this work?  Because people aren’t like that.  We all have our faults.  None of us are all good.  And none of us are all bad.  Because issues and ideas are not black and white.  Because entire groups of people especially are not all good or all bad.   To create such characters–or mouthpieces–is, in my humble opinion, insulting to the reader, in addition to not being very interesting.

In my reading last night at Night Writers, I read a discussion between Shawn, Amy’s boyfriend, and Dana, Amy’s best friend, who, at the opening of Blue Bells of Scotland , the beginning of the story, were involved in a long-running affair behind Amy’s back.  Not that affairs, by definition, usually occur anywhere else.

Dana feels justified in many ways.  I would assume to many people, she’s not a very nice person at the beginning of the scene.  By the end, though, I hope the reader feels a little differently, as some of her deeper feelings come out.  In fact, I think the end of the scene reflects strongly–badly–on who Shawn once was and leaves him with renewed guilt–although he is the one who has been steadily improving himself throughout the series.

This is the complexity of life.  The one who is redeeming himself is not perfect and the one who refuses to redeem herself isn’t solely to blame.  I don’t agree with her actions or many of her views.  I make no excuses for her betrayal of her best friend or her refusal to issue any sincere apology that doesn’t involve the word but….

BUT…(sorry, couldn’t help myself–but (oops, there I go again) given the nature of Shawn and Dana’s past interactions, there are worse puns floating around begging to be heard.)  Wait, I’m getting off track.

See more at Laura’s blog, The World of the Blue Bells Chronicles

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