Appalling, Outrageous, Unacceptable!
My blog-tending habits this year have been appalling, sweet readers, but I’m hoping to soon be back on the warpath with writing in general.
I’ve picked an odd time to get back to it: my fellow and I will be moving within the next month, so the past few weeks have been filled with planning and packing and selling and buying and all that likely won’t stop for a good while. Meanwhile, I’ve adopted a puppy who, for all his good behavior and quick uptake is still a puppy (to wit, I’m learning pretty quickly that getting absorbed in another task and leaving him to his own devices has undesirable results beyond the occasional small leavings in the hallway).
Outside of all that, I was able to narrow down what seems to be the real reason for my dry spell: I bit off a little more than I could chew with my story. While the scope of it is slowly resolving and lining up like good and orderly little ducks, one of my main characters is proving to be a little more difficult to write than the others. To sum up, I’ve made her too much like me and I’m beginning to wonder if that wasn’t a smidge over-ambitious for my skill level.
That’s not to say I’m some free-spirited rebel that can’t be contained, now–that would be as silly as it would be untrue–I’m actually wondering if I as a person am mature and honest enough to draw on my flaws without making lots of excuses and glossing over my less appealing qualities to the point of turning those issues into sideways compliments (or going the opposite direction and being so self-deprecating that the character herself becomes watered down and tiresome).
If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, think of some of the more recent heroines/heroes that you see turn up in popular YA fiction lately. I won’t name names, because that’s rude, but it’s pretty easy to spot a writer that has fictionalized him or herself into a story as the main character.
In such a case you may find the main character to be, if not written in first person, then almost excessively open with their feelings reader-side. The victimization is strong with this one, you might think as they slope around the campfire or common room or training hall, wallowing in their self-awareness of how plain or unfit they are. Often the story takes a backseat to their own feelings of inadequacy. Other than being a very tired means of eliciting empathy, this carries the danger that no matter whether the character finds love or acceptance in spite of those undesirable qualities or bites down and betters himself/herself until success comes along, either eventuality seems to be an exercise in the author blatantly indulging personal desires and back-patting their own obstacles. And once you get the image of the author as a character into your mind it’s almost impossible to cheer said character on without feeling like the author has slipped you a bit of a mickey.
Given my obviously strong feelings about turning a novel into a dramatized journal entry, I have some serious doubts about my own ability to write my heroine while drawing from some of my so-so personality traits. It started out honestly enough: I wanted to write a female character with anger issues. Still do. But not the pervasive aggression that you might see in heroines like Katniss Everdeen (don’t get me wrong, I like her), and not the chip-on-shoulder kind of anger that comes from the fear of being patronized or taken advantage of, but the kind that with the right kind of trigger, hits you hard in the chest out of nowhere and scares your pants off because you wonder what might happen if you lost your grip on it. The kind that makes you skittish in groups, a little unsure of yourself in the event of a confrontation, and very careful where you invest your emotions day to day.
It’s a common personality trait with male fantasy and sci-fi heroes in particular. As a trope, the term is “berserker.” Such a character is generally stoic or unfeeling or even shy during most encounters, but, with the right prompting, reveals himself as a force to be reckoned with at a later time. I’ve never understood the disproportionately heavy population of male characters in Berserksville–I mean, I know I’m not the only person with lady-parts out there who knows how to get good and properly mad–and while it’s not the worst thing ever to heavily identify with male characters, sometimes I do wind up looking around wondering, “Where my girls at?”
So that’s how my dilemma started. My character has biological/hereditary reasons for her anger issues, and it could be argued that I do as well. My dad’s family has a long history of what is referred to as “the Copeland Quiets” (that is, a propensity for anger that means at a certain time in life one must start being very careful to avoid heavy situations, or at least stay still and quiet for the duration) and it’s no secret that I spent a fair portion of my childhood scrapping. I wasn’t a bully, rather I was the kind of kid that invited bullying: goofy (but not quite in the class-clown/cool-kid way, more like the snaggle-teeth and hiccups-all-the-time kind of way), far too open with my desire to please people and make friends, and shy at all the wrong times. Thanks to my “Quiets,” however, I gained an early reputation as the kid who punched others in the face with sometimes very little overt provocation. By the time I was in third grade I was wondering where all the usual bullies had gotten to. It wasn’t til later I realized that I had edged very close to being one.
For a while I enjoyed it. My mild violence protected me to a certain extent, and since I didn’t seek confrontation out I never got into much trouble with school (it was also a different time, and in Texas); it actually made me feel special. Then a news story broke about a boy who lost control and stabbed a bully: he was barely a teen and he would be tried as an adult for the indiscretion. And that was the point when I started to wonder if the same could happen to me, and started to worry a little more about my own hard-to-deny impulses. Luckily by that time I didn’t have to keep proving myself and coasted by when it came to physical confrontation, though to this day I am more concerned about my own potential reaction than my opponent’s in the rare event that I feel legitimately threatened.
I see a lot of withdrawn heroes who might be hesitant for one reason or another, sometimes due to their powers or abilities, etc, but most often those who hesitate do so to either avoid detection by an enemy or to please a parent or to align with an ideology or religion: in short, an outside, non-personal reason. Sometimes you find one who is truly afraid of their own power, though since the power itself is almost never inherently dangerous I just as often end up shouting at them, “Stop being melodramatic and just learn to use it better, jeez!” (Elsa from Frozen, I’m looking at you…)
By contrast, I have always loved characters who hesitate because their powers honestly have very little positive application. A good example would be Rogue from X-Men. Yes, she can borrow powers by touching skin, but in the process she could very easily kill the mutant she borrows from, or at the very least put them in excruciating pain. She wears gloves and keeps to herself somewhat, but doesn’t hate herself or refuse to use her ability (or someone else’s) in an extreme situation. I like that. She’s a champ, not a whiney prepubescent looking for a reason to feel cast out and ugly.
So I wanted to write someone who is inclined to love the freedom afforded by an ability, but remains constantly aware of her own destructive power. Someone who has to remind herself daily that opening a well-deserved can on a baddie could cause her more trouble in the long-run, but maybe still wants to do it anyway. Someone who feels a trifle slighted when she has to forgo a good beat-down, but then goes home and feels a little ashamed once the moment of rage passes. Really, I’d like a hero who with a tiny push could become a villain.
Since this is personal to me, it is proving hard to write without appearing to glorify my character’s tendencies, or puffing violent altercations up as “cool,” which is just foolish. Sure, she has her badass moments, but not every decision she makes is a good one and not every scrap turns out in her favor. Loss of control complicates the story and puts the people she loves in danger. While I do not subscribe to the belief that violence is never the answer, I am not in a hurry to suggest that it’s the only way to go about handling life. Rather I think it’s important to address where anger comes from rather than pretend it doesn’t exist, or if it does, that it’s only for bad guys.
For those of you who have gotten through my ramble, any suggestions for good stories featuring characters with similar woes and qualities? I’m not looking for only female characters, but I’m hoping to examine a few successful examples before I jump in too deep on my own.