Thursday, June 22, 2006

Characters, fictional and real

I need to talk a little bit about totally unbelievable characters. We've all run across them, and I'm as likely as the next reader to cry indignantly, "Who would DO that?" They make me crazy.

Usually, an unbelievable character is one who insists that their view of the world is correct, despite all evidence to the contrary. In Romances, these are usually self-absorbed villains.

"She must be mine! She's loved me since she was four! Nothing's changed! I'll kidnap her and prove it to her!"

"He's only pretending to love the svelte, auburn-haired bitch who can cure puppies by blowing on them with her rose-scented breath! I'll kidnap her, kill her, and then he'll thank me! Ha Ha!"

(TSTL heroines qualify too: "I must HELP him in the sword fight, because I can BE of help and won't get KILLED in the process!")

I tend to read these and mumble, "Whoa. Tone it down. No one behaves that way."

But then again, I'm a hypocrite.

I've grown up around folks who are so over-the-top-bonkers-nuts that they inspire me to write. This is clearly a reflection of my writing skills, but if such a thing goes before a creative writing class, it happens that no one believes it. So do you tone down reality to make it believable? Odd thought.

That was a touch harsh; let me try again.

I once wrote a story about a disastrous Christmas when I was in my early twenties. My mother convinced herself weeks earlier that Christmas Dinner was going to be a disaster and include a family fight. Lo, and behold, (self-fulfilling prophesy) it was! So many things came together to inspire the fight, that I wrote about the evening in a college creative writing class.

The critique came back that it was difficult to get into the story because the narrator wasn't upset by all the bad behavior happening around her. Hmmmm. Yeah, from a reader's point of view, I can see that. But speaking as the one who walked through the evening, the one who had to leave the house to invite a neighbor (who I knew would not acquiesce) so that my grandmother would leave her bed, come downstairs, and ultimately refuse to eat a dinner which "That Witch" (eg, my mother) prepared for her, I have to say that I wasn't the least bit upset by what was happening. It was familiar.

People act that crazy around you for that long, you just shrug your shoulders and keep marching on through the day until the day comes to an end.

Is it believable?

I just reread the story, and I can now see how I'd have to tweak it to get the reader involved. More about the emotional set-up from my paranoid mother's point of view, less about the automatonic narrator trying to settle differences. But I'm not that interested anymore. Catharsis has its place and time. Still, I know how I would change it if I had to.

So, assuming that crazy people do exist, and that they do crazy things, why are some fictional crazy/villainous characters believable and others aren't?

I'm just throwing a theory out there, but I think it has to do with change. If all the characters are the same at the end of the book as they were on page one, then I'm not that interested. In Romance, the hero and heroine take center stage here--I want to see that relationship grow, dammit. (That's why I'm still having trouble with a lot of paranormals. Sniff. Sniff. She smells like my mate. She must be my mate. Mate with me! Oh, puleese.) And the same is true for villains, and odd-ball sidekicks too. I just don't focus on them a lot, so I've not been aware that I was expecting them to change. Then when they don't, my expectations are unfilled.


So what caused me to go back and read a story formerly critiqued by eight not very talented college freshmen? (These are the same group of idjyuts who proclaimed that poets only "wrote that stuff about sex cause they wanted to get paid." Poets? Paid? Man, that poetry's some pretty commercial stuff. Snort.) Well, I had a phone call from my brother.

My brother is losing his mind. Well, maybe he lost it already, I'm not sure.

He's almost 45, has never held a job, has no income, has two children, and is going through a divorce. If you Google his internet business, you get his webpage which was last updated in 2003. But the second entry shows that the store's been kicked off Ebay, and the third and fourth entry are comments on message boards where customers accuse him of internet fraud (taking money but never delivering goods) even after the Ebay dump, followed by various discussions about how difficult it is to prosecute internet fraud. Yeah, there's a viable business plan.

For most of my childhood, before he left for Prep school, he would lecture me, sometimes for an hour or more, about how I was destined to be a disappointment and embarrassment to the family. (When I was ten and he was fifteen, I once wore shoes he didn't think were dressy enough to a family party. Quelle Horreur. Oddly enough, the rest of the family didn't seem to notice. Finally, something clicked that maybe he was spouting smoke.)

Good thing he's upholding the family's honor. He also steals money from my parents. Then they give him extra money because he clearly needs it. He actually drives one of their cars, because, well, I don't know why anymore. Nothing about this changes.

My parents know they're enabling him, but they don't want to stop either. After all, he's their son. And they are worried about their grandchildren. But nothing about this changes.

On my birthday, my brother called me. Called me smiling and laughing as if nothing had happened six months ago, that he had never called me a selfish whore, my husband a meddling bastard, and then called my parents with "proof" that I didn't love them. You know, years of therapy are a good thing. Because I could just sit on the phone, listening to him spin the most bizarre, convoluted view of the world, and it all just washed over me. What a nut.

My favorite idea of his: He's decided that the divorce is a good "growth opportunity" and he's dedicated to self-improvement.

Yeah, let that sink in, because it's a good one.

To improve himself, he's going to go to the gym more--he's already teaching up to six spinning classes a day--and he said over and over how much he enjoyed his "addiction to endorphins." When ever someone cuts him down, or asks him to do something he doesn't want to do, he just goes to the gym, cycles, and feel so much better.


He's also decided that the next girl he gets involved with is going to be dedicated to self-improvement. Because, you know, if he sees an issue in his mate that bothers Him, then she should respect Him enough and love Him enough to change it.


Because that wasn't weird enough, he went on to say that he really enjoys improving his body, because the endorphins are just so amazing. And he's sure that anyone would want to change if changing feels this good.

So I (The Bitch) went off on his ass: "What if going to the gym every day made you feel like vomiting and crying? What if it was the worst process imaginable? What if every day you had to decide what the truth of your own life is, and take responsibility, and apologize for every screwed-up thing you've ever done or said. What if it sucked, and you didn't feel better until two or three years later? Would you go? Would you keep going?"


"You know, what you just said was the most amazing thing. It's made me look at everything in a whole new way. You're so right." He laid it on with a trowel in best placating, adoring, don't-hate-me-because-I'm-beautiful voice.

Yeah, whatever. But it does go to show that even though my parents are paying for therapy, that he's not doing much of it. (Eyes closed, palm on forehead, head tipped back, "I, Suisan, predict that in two months' time, my brother will discover that his therapist is being mean to him. She slandered him by suggesting that he was bi-polar, and now he has to report her to the Board.")

So he never changes, my parents never change, the larger family doesn't change much, and it all has the feeling of a depressive hamster wheel. Yeah, I don't think I'd like to read about them either.

Change, for better or for worse, is what we're in this for.

I think.


Marianne McA said...

Perhaps he is really ill. My sister would make you tear your hair out, and we toss round the idea that she may be borderline Aspergers, and just isn't able to process the world the way other people do. [For instance, a long term employee of her husband's left the firm because he hadn't been paid. It was Christmas. She was furious at his disloyalty - and when I suggested he might have been upset at not being paid, she replied that his wife worked as a teacher, so they had enough money. Complete inability to imagine someone else's pov.]
And my parents have the same problem as yours - if she phones up crying, saying she's no money to feed the children - what can they do? And there's always the fear that if you don't help her, she'll do something desperate, because she is that stupid. Or that manipulative. Because on some level I think she knows that if she escalates things sufficiently, sooner or later someone will step in.

I think you could write about characters like that, who didn't change, as long as the protagonist - parent, sister or child - had an epiphany that allowed them to cope better. Allowed them to step off the hamster wheel.
And writing a villain like that would work - a villain who persecutes the heroine 'just because' is unreadable, but a villain who persecutes the heroine because there is no part of his brain that can see her point of view: that would work.

Suisan said...

Thanks Marianne, you have some good insights.

I think writing about the shift from being disturbed by the craziness to learning how to cope with is a good project, but perhaps a little more draining or intense than I'm up to right now. But I can begin to see ways to attack it.

I'm working on the villain. He's sketchy, but he's beginning to form a shape.

CindyS said...

Hmmm, you could write straight fiction and be considered a literary talent of this century.

I used to get so aggravated over what people consider the 'classics' of literature because I always felt like I was reading a book where every one stayed the same. Hey, some stuff happens and the end.

In all honesty Suisan, I love the posts about your family although I can only imagine what kind of an energy suck they are. But then, I only wish someone would have made a scene at the dinner table when I was a teenager so I didn't have to deal with all the comments about what I was eating. No really. The first time Bob had dinner with my family he was surprised at how everyone was more interested in what was on my plate than what was on theirs. (Considering I looked anorexic I guess they were all worried but since I had panic attacks about food, all the attention just made it worse)

One of my worse memories was when I turned to my grandmother and thanked her for lovely dinner and she responded 'how would you know, you barely ate any of it'. Yep, still remember that and it still feels funny in my chest if I think on it too much.

Family - can't kill 'em ;)


Suisan said...

Well, my family was an energy suck until I got married to a crazy butcher/chef/artist guy from the circus. We took our wedding money and moved as far away from Boston as we could without crossing an ocean.

(Best Response Ever From My Mother: "You're leaving Boston? Oh. Well, your Dad is thinking of taking a job in San Diego." Agggghhhh! We practically ran screaming from the room.)

Then, after having kids and realizing that I didn't have a clue how to be normal, I entered years of therapy.

So now? Not such an energy drain. (It was all training for my brilliant political career.) But then? It was hideous.

CindyS said...

*makes sign of a cross* Normal!! Never aspire to be normal because there is no such thing as normal. At least, I have to tell myself that or I will end up in a huge depression and my waistline can't take any more cookies ;)