Every new author’s challenge is to learn to tell a story well and to do so with a passionate heart. There are reams of advice on the internet, in how-to-write books, from writers groups and at conventions, workshops and seminars. Knowing basic plot structure is quick to learn but how does one navigate character depth and writing with a passionate heart?
When I was starting out, I went to my first writers group meeting with a completed 100,000 word novel. Someone offered to read it for me. I was ecstatic. The reader had some valuable insights: 1) don’t let your characters be stupid. It sounds harsh but it wasn’t. Given the incident she was referring to it made perfect sense and it was an easy fix; 2) characters need to be consistent and logical; and 3) you must be mean, even cruel to your characters.
Permission to be mean??? I was both ecstatic and mortified. How could I embrace this? I don’t like conflict. Reading fairy tales as a kid, I was so relieved when the happy endings came – I wanted the conflict to be over so I could relish those sweet but short utopias. Yet, those words of permission filled me with relief – I no longer had to be nice, the peacemaker, making everyone happy somehow through their struggle. I was never so nice to my characters that they were wimpy and the story was without conflict but I hadn’t gone far enough.
Permission to be mean was permission to delve deep into a character’s psyche, to understand their deepest fears, anxieties and painful back story. It was about not feeling guilty because the characters I loved had to experience trouble and pain.
Understanding that it was my responsibility to look into a character’s deepest fears and to throw them into the pits of emotional hell and physical danger made me a better writer. When I now read the how-to books and columns, I understand they are challenging us to search for those emotional pits of hell within ourselves, to be honest enough so we can make our characters sweat through them. For example, this spring I took a one day workshop with Donald Maass based on his book Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling. That workshop was like being in therapy. We were asked questions similar to ‘What is the most painful secret you have? Where can you make your character feel what you are feeling right now?’
It’s a mean salvation for a writer – as we dig deeper and challenge our characters and are mean to them emotionally and physically, we are challenging our inner selves and are digging deeper into our own psyches.
The advice I was given when I started out makes sense now – if I dig deep within myself to understand emotional truth, dig deep within my character (my character isn’t me and her emotional truth isn’t necessarily mine), if I dig deep into the emotional realities of life (and they can be cruel), if I let my characters experience what they need, then I will be true (and logical) to my characters and my readers will experience a satisfying emotional journey. The added bonus was that I could now more easily ramp up conflict and tension.
Mean salvation – that’s the best way I can describe that first advice. We all live it, we write it and in our hearts, we know it. My favorite books make me live through those dark, awkward and painful moments with a character and in the end I embrace their journey although not all endings are sweet. Their catharsis is my catharsis. Their pain is my pain. Their salvation is my salvation.
It’s not like the song lyrics “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind” it’s that we’ve got to be cruel to be real, to dig down deep and face what makes us and our characters emotionally real. It’s mean salvation.