The novel I’m writing currently is told from the point of view of a deceitful, self-absorbed, manipulative woman. She is paranoid and delusional and there are very few people she likes. These traits make her a fascinating character, but they also make her difficult to love. I understand her, well, mostly, and I am sympathetic towards her. She’s been through a lot and I know she can’t help her madness. But, oh, she exhausts me.
When I wrote my first novels I sometimes had writing sessions that ran up to 10,000 words in one sitting. Not often, but on occasion. When the plot is engaging and the characters are sympathetic, it’s not too hard to get so caught up in the story that you don’t want to let go.
Not this time.
With this novel I struggle to get to my standard 1000 words per day. There have been many days when it’s taken me hours to write half that number. When you are inside the mind of such a difficult character, it is very hard to sustain focus without going a little potty yourself.
Usually when I sit down to write a blog, I do some research. I make notes on my topic and I have a look at what other people have had to say about the topic. Sometimes I find quote or anecdotes to support whatever my theme may be.
You want to know how many articles pop up when you google, “Writers who hate their characters”?
Oh, there’s plenty of stuff about how to create a credible villain and why nasty bastards are so much fun in fiction, but that’s not really what I’m looking for. It’s a pity Dostoevsky isn’t around because I bet he didn’t love Raskolnikov, who was as unpleasant a creature as has ever appeared in print (Crime and Punishment, 1866). Then again, Raskolnikov isn’t a blacker than black villain. He can love, feel compassion, and can even be heroic. Still, I bet Dostoevsky had writing days when he thought Raskolnikov was a pill.
My own little angel is also capable of goodness. There are people she loves. She has long periods of lucidity in which she is creative and kind and intellectually curious. That she is fractured when we meet her is not her fault. By the time the novel begins she has begun to lose her grip on reality. Much of her unpleasant behaviour is a result of her illness and, as such, deserving of our sympathy. I remind myself of these things when she’s driving me nuts.
Confession time: You have heard of method actors. People like Daniel Day Lewis who notoriously become Abraham Lincoln or Nathaniel Poe. One is reminded of the advice Laurence Olivier allegedly gave Dustin Hoffman, “My boy, won’t don’t you just act?” Anyway, I’m not going to be living in the woods and building canoes any time soon, but I do tend to become deeply immersed in my characters when I write them. Method writing. It’s a thing.
As a result of such close identification with my unfortunate character, I frequently emerge from a writing session with a headache. This does nothing to endear her to me. But, and here’s the thing, I’m still on the first draft. On home stretch, certainly, but in terms of writing the novel, these are very early days indeed. Once I start rewriting, always my favourite part of the process, I can write more objectively. That is when I’ll be able to approach the character from the outside and work on her shades and shadows and lights. The first draft may take a method actor’s approach, but the rewrite is where the magic really begins.
Already I can see the nuances starting to emerge. I have lengthy notes for scenes that need to be expanded, for ways of making her less repellent. Oh, she’ll still be a mostly nasty piece of work, but I want the reader to be able to identify with her, to appreciate the reasons for her sometimes ghastly behaviour.
Writing a nasty character can be fun. You can indulge — I mean, let them indulge — in all sorts of naughtiness. It’s entertaining if you have a hero to pit them against. But when you don’t like your own main character it’s a challenge. It means tapping into the seedier side of yourself. If you truly immerse yourself in your writing, it can really wreck your head.
Of course, some of the best characters in fiction range from annoying to downright loathsome.
For instance, who’d want to hang out with Hercules Poirot? He’s vain, arrogant, prissy, and a know-it-all. If you met him in real life you’d hold a hanky to your face to avoid breathing in all that perfume. Once he started waffling about his ‘little grey cells, mon ami,’ you’d run for your life.
Then again, Poirot’s a pussycat compared with the likes of Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951), or Humbert Humbert (Lolita, 1955), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, 1847), the Ewell clan (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960), and so many more. Other than the fairly oddity Poirot, the others are pretty recognisable. We might not know for sure that our next door neighbour is a Humbert Humbert, but we wouldn’t have any difficulty believing it if he were arrested for, well, anything at all really.
Literature is full of disreputable characters and they are the ones who stay with you. The wicked stepmother always has more traction than a dopey Snow White. But writing them… Oy-ai-ai.
Once I start the rewrite I’ll calm down and remember that it’s not necessary for me to like this or any other character. All that matters is that she’s credible, and she is. I’ve had a few people read the opening chapters of the novel to see if my heroine (ha!) is too over the top. The reactions surprised me. The always insightful Jane didn’t care for her and saw a darkness in the character that even I hadn’t suspected. Friends from the writers’ group saw her as well-rounded and sad. Another friend thought she was flawed but strong, even heroic. This is interesting feedback and I’ll keep it in mind when I begin the rewrite, but ultimately it doesn’t matter.
At least no one thinks she’s dull.