I know I’m cutting it close again on posts this year, but I promise that at least this time, it’s going to be a little more in depth post.
So, I recently had a fairly big breakthrough on writing, which was, more or less, fixing a problem I had caused for myself over a year ago.
What happened was this:
In the book I’m working on now, there’s a character named Atlan. I’ve talked about him here before, and the main problem I was having is that, well, I was pretty scared about what people would think of him. He’s basically the heir to an empire that has enslaved another species, and while he doesn’t know that at the start of the book, he’s also not tremendously caring about it when it’s first brought to his attention. Albeit, there are reasons he starts off in denial, but still, he’s not the easiest sell as a character, and he’s the second major lead behind Mira, one of the people enslaved by his species. Needless to say, I was a little nervous about it.
Then, it happened. I got feedback about him that was pretty harsh. And because I was already worried about it, and the feedback came from someone I would consider a pretty reliable sounding board for this kind of thing, well, I basically panicked. Going back, I made him a lot more sympathetic and easily influenced from the start, took out a lot of his denial, and basically made him side with Mira right away.
Except, the problem with that is that once I started making changes, he just didn’t work anymore. All of the actions that he took that drove the plot no longer made sense, the times when he would challenge Mira and fight with her seemed wrong, and well, ultimately he didn’t have anywhere to go as a character. As soon as he was confronted, he realized he was wrong, and that was that.
That, my friends, is not a story.
Now, after more than a year of putzing around trying to make it work, I think I’ve finally managed to undo the damage, returning him, mostly, to his initial state.
Which brings me to the point of this post, which is to share the two lessons I’ve learned as a writer from this experience.
Trust your instincts
I’ve done a lot of editing on this book in the last year or so, both in having committed to using it for my first book to get published and in using it as a test/case study for my deep dive into story structure that I did this year. And the funny thing is, the more I’ve worked on it, the more that I’ve realized that what I had to start isn’t as bad as I thought. Sure, I’ve had to tweak the structure, yes, I’ve made improvements and cut a lot, but the bones of the story, the spine of the characters and the changes they go through, isn’t bad.
Author Terry Pratchett said, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
And that’s true. As a writer, I’m always surprised by first drafts, especially as a pantser. For me, though I always need a beginning and to know where I’m ending, the middle is always a surprise. You’d think that would end with a hot mess. But it doesn’t, and when I edit, even if the line by line writing isn’t the smoothest or there are big loops of story that need to be trimmed or added or better woven in, I’m almost always surprised by the intuition I seem to have put into the story, specifically for the characters and where they need to go. This isn’t to brag by any means. Any writer is capable of this, and many will tell you stories of readers enforcing the same. I think it’s just to say that when you’re a writer and you tell that first draft story to yourself, I think there’s something inside you that really does know what the story is. Like Stephen King’s analogy of unearthing a dinosaur or Michaelangelo’s story about chiseling out some already pre-formed David hidden in a hunk of stone, a lot of writing or editing is, in a way, just unearthing what you already know is there, the story you’re already going to tell.
So, when you start questioning that story, whether or not it’s the right one to tell or why you wrote something that you just can’t seem to get away from, just be wary and remember that while some characters or plots may need to change, while you should be mindful of structure and story rules, and you should be open to critique, those first seeds you planted should not be ignored. Sometimes you just need to dig deeper and trust your gut.
Be sympathetic to your characters
Of the two lessons, I think this one is more important.
In sum, it’s that characters can and sometimes should be unlikable, even heroes can be unheroic, and that’s okay.
Now, I’m not talking about just your average chain-smoking, foul-mouthed anti-hero (not that I don’t love me a good anti-hero, because I do). Because, usually, anti-heroes are at least likable.
What I mean is that if you’re going to have a story about humans (or humanoids or sentient beings or whatever you have), they’re not going to be perfect. That means, like Atlan, they’re going to start off with flaws that aren’t pleasant. And, depending on the story you’re telling, that might not even change.
But that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that they’re bad.
Because that, my friends, is life.
Every person you meet is only partway through their story. And since art and story attempts to capture, in some way, life, your characters should be too.
For me, well, that means that Atlan is prejudiced. Honestly, Mira is too.
And that, to a certain non-moral degree, is okay. We’re all shaped by the histories, cultures, experiences, and God-given talents and personalities we have/have had, and this world isn’t perfect. That means the people in it aren’t going to be perfect. So if I need to face criticism or flack to give these characters the time and space they need to grow and change and get better, well, that’s fine by me. That’s a risk all writers have to take.
To be honest, I think this is a flaw in Western writing (I’m not as experienced with other culture’s writing, so don’t want to speak to that one way or another), that we always have to have the hero, that their way is always the right way, their moral the right way to live.
But life is more complicated than that, and I want to make space for that in my writing.
To quote Into the Woods, “Witches can be right, giants can be good.”
Life is more complicated than we can imagine. And learning to love people, to give them grace, in the midst of it, is one of life’s greatest journeys, goals, and callings (Mark 12:29-31).
The irony in this whole situation is that this story, as I’ve been discovering, is ultimately about grace. And I nearly destroyed the whole novel because I was afraid of writing characters who need it.
So yeah, maybe Atlan won’t hit the mark with everyone. Maybe it will even spark uncomfortable conversations, for my readers or myself.
But I’m only a human, puzzling this out like everyone else, and if that means I get it wrong or it takes time or patience or grace for me as well as the characters, well, that’s why I’m writing the book.
Thanks for reading.
So, what about you? Have you ever had times when you’ve struggled with people or characters being both bad and a little good? Read any good books that handle this well? What about struggling to forgive? Let me know in the comments below, and if you want more content like this, about my writing, faith, or nerdy recommendations, please feel free to follow me here or on social (please note I’m currently on a break from these) using the links below or in the sidebar.