Copyright 2016 by Gabriel Salter
I like writing weird characters. The stories I come up with tend to be populated with complicated heroes, people the reader is supposed to identify with but are slightly unlikeable.
Complex heroes can be a lot of fun, but they can also turn readers off easily.
So how do you make these strange characters into people your audience can identify with?
One way of course is don’t do it. That may be the best option sometimes.
But other times you want complicated characters, people the audience can identify with but wrestle with the fact they like them, wrestle with the moral questions that raises.
After a lot of reading and considering, I think I’ve found a way to do this.
First point: writing fiction is a lot like lying. It’s not exactly the same thing, but there are distinct similarities. When you lie to someone you are talking about people who don’t really exist or events that didn’t really happen, usually in a place that may exist but not quite as you described it. You’re doing all of this in the hopes people will believe your story is true (for however long you need) so you can gain something from them.
When you write fiction you are telling a story about people who don’t actually exist (on any birth certificate or passport in the real world), doing things that didn’t actually happen, and often in places that either don’t exist or are not quite like you’ve described them. Granted we writers base a lot of fiction on real events or people, but the story evolves a lot and you end up with something that is not at all fact. Watch a documentary about Ian Fleming or visit his website and you’ll see what I mean.
The differences are we don’t want readers to believe our story forever, just for a few hours at a time and then go back into their normal lives knowing that what they just read was fiction. We aren’t trying to extort anything from them, we just want to them to buy the book, enjoy it, and maybe think about ideas we’ve suggested.
Alright, so writing fiction is like lying. How does that help?
Well, the most effective lies are always slightly true. How does Satan tempt Eve in the book of Genesis? He doesn’t outright say, “You’ll be fine, eating forbidden fruit won’t kill you,” he says “Did God really say ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1 NIV). This is a very subtle lie, the serpent takes God’s statement “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17) and twists it ever so slightly.
A more current example would be Stephen Glass, a journalist who worked for The New Republic magazine in the 1990’s and was doing great until people discovered he was fabricating at least part of the articles he wrote. 60 Minutes interviewed Glass in 2003, and he described the way he would deceive people in his articles:
He’d start with Fact A (probably true), then there;d be Fact B (partly true, partly lie), then Fact C (almost no truth), and finally Fact D (totally lie).
Readers would believe Fact A and progress from each fact to another, believing all of them because there was always that bit of truth that kept them believing.
Now, what does this have to do with writing fiction? Well, obviously my point is NOT we should all emulate Stephen Glass (or Satan for that matter). But if fiction is like lying, and lies are most effective when they have a grain of truth in them, then good fiction must have a grain of truth in it.
What is truth in this context of fiction? Truth is the things people can understand.
We create good fictional characters by giving them thing (characteristics, pasts) that people can identify with, maybe not things they’ve experienced but things common to human experience.
That all sounds incredibly vague, so let me give an example.
Mario Puzo wrote a novel in 1969 called The Godfather, a massively successful book that went on to become a massively successful movie trilogy (plus three more books by other writers). In The Godfather, you’ve got a mob boss named Vito Corleone who’s built a criminal empire, and now he and must choose his successor. It’s the Italian-American mob, so it has to be someone from his family, and he has three sons. The oldest is violent and impulsive, not diplomatic enough to lead. His middle son is smarter, never gets into trouble, but he’s a Mama’s boy, not charismatic enough. This leaves Michael, the youngest, and he doesn’t want anything to do with the family business.
“Okay, so what?” You’re probably thinking. Interesting set-up, but most of us don’t care how the real Mafia works, much less the problems of a fictional Mafia organization. What’s the bestselling, moneymaking-movie-franchise appeal here?
It’s the fact Michael is more than just a kid who doesn’t want to get involved in the mob. He’s also a young man struggling to be his own person, to decide if he’s going to take what his father wants for him (to take over the family business) or make his own decisions and his own legacy (avoid the Mafia, go to college, have a legitimate occupation). There’s a lot of money and lives on the line, but the real question that drives the story forward is this: is Michael going to be his father’s son?
Most people can identify with this problem, this struggle as we get older to be who our parents want us to be and the need to become individuals. I think guys especially feel this, because knowing your father approves of you is very important to male development.
So we watch as Michael Corleone negotiates, and threatens, and shoots his way through obstacles of all kinds, to find out what he will choose in the end. He’s a tragic hero (or an antihero, or a straight-out villain depending on who you ask) but you sympathize with him and you keep reading.
There are plenty of other unconventional heroes that follow this same process, and the way they connect to us is varied. Try looking up some of them (if you want suggestions, try Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R Donaldson, and anything with Wolverine) and see if you can see the patterns.
Now go forth and write weird characters.
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