Friday, April 17, 2009

Writing Scumbags and Bimbos

Sometimes you just have to do it.

You have to write about characters you don't understand, you don't like, or you even hate. I'm not just talking about the vicarious thrill of writing that demonic bad guy that gets all the women and does all the stuff you wish you could do if only you weren't a nice law-abiding citizen (i.e. if you had the cajones). I mean the kind of person you just don't get or want to get. Of course, for me, in collaborative writing there really isn't any 'must' or 'should'. If I want to I can avoid it, but then I would never grow as a writer, and I would never have a full pantheon of human variation.

Maybe it's just a supporting character, or a character that walks on once, but there comes a time when you do have to try and get into the head of someone very different than yourself. It's said that ever character we write (or every portrait we paint) is really just autobiography, but I'm here to challenge you to pull the rabbit out of the hat and write a character so different that it might even make you uncomfortable to put the words to blank virtual page.

It's an old chestnut that you should write what you know, I have dealt with my feelings on that elsewhere in this blog, but you can use other people you know or have met as a template: the bully in school, the weird guy at your last job that creeped you out, or the shallow ingenue. It's all too easy, however, to get bogged down in predictability and cliche if you're not careful. If you watch TV you will all too often see the stock set of character types brought out for every new episode, but if you want to convince your readers that your character is a living breathing human being you need to delve a little deeper than stereotypes.

You can start with the exterior action, but you have to find a way to get into the head of your unpleasant or unlikeable character just as much as you do with your main protagonist. What works for me is to start imagining myself as the character, doing the actions in my mind, then maybe running some interior dialogue. Your base might be close to a stereotype (after all they exist for a reason) but as you imagine the character more fully they come alive for you and might do some surprising things. If you only view them from the outside you will find yourself just sticking with cliche - stuff you have seen before elsewhere. We are all natural mimics. But going from the inside out you might achieve some unique insight that allows you to jump out of the stereotypes into a real portrayal of an individual.

One important thing to remember: whether or not a character is the hero or the villian, or a walk on bit part, everyone is the hero in their own life. If your creepy nose-picking bike messenger does something 'evil' why are they doing it? Maybe it's spite because they feel unloved or slighted? Whatever the motivation ends up being it's something you can relate to. Deep down inside of every thoughtless shallow ingenue is a girl looking for love and validation. The base ingredients of every human being are pretty much the same. Once you get inside your unlikeable character's heads you'll probably start to sympathize with them a little, and when you do that you start to bring them to life for your readers.

2 comments:

Lynnette Labelle said...

Well said. I have a character in my WIP that's nothing like me, but I'm having fun with her. That's what counts, right?

Lynnette Labelle
http://lynnettelabelle.blogspot.com

Vincenzo said...

I have a more difficult time writing a dishonorable character who gets away with his actions than I do a villain who eventually gets his comeuppance, for some reason. I recently wrote a character I absolutely did not like because of his behavior. His choices were deceitful, dishonest, dishonorable, and motivated by selfishness, even though he rationalized it was for love. He was willing to betray his oldest and dearest friend, and distance himself from his family, all for the love of a woman. I personally didn't think the woman was worth it, so it was difficult to tell his story, so difficult I would sometimes suffer physical reactions (like cringing) when I had to write more for him.