First, before this week’s blog: Wednesdays is apparently the day for blogging about writing! Author Danielle Ackley-McPhail has begun posting Wednesday writing blogs as well. You can find them here.
Our guest blogger for this week is Bernie Mojzes, who has written stories for, among other things, the Bad Ass Faeries Series of anthologies of which I am one of the humble assistant editors. For more about Bernie, see the paragraph at the end of the post.
The Moral Ambiguity of Story
I’m riffing a bit off of Jagi’s post of last week on the morality of story – the mileage we as writers can get from playing on reader sympathies, and on the nigh-instinctual sense of justice. The sympathetic character overcomes obstacles and gets a reward at the end. The unsympathetic character gets punished. This is something you’ll see in countless books and plays and movies, in popular songs and even in our history books. And when you work it through your story all the way to its logical end, there’s even a term for it: the "Hollywood Ending."
And it works. It is effective, and it sells. It’s a massively useful tool in shaping the reader’s expectations of what is right and wrong in the world you are creating for them.
But that’s not life.
Life is complicated, messy and stupid, and so are people. Good people do bad things. Smart people do stupid things. And sometimes horrible people commit acts of profound kindness. And if you want to capture that messiness, sometimes you need to subvert that instinctive sense of justice.
That is one of the things I’ve been actively exploring in my own writing. I have very few purely heroic characters.
I’ve been looking at how unsympathetic I can make my heroes and still have the reader like them, and how sympathetic I can make my villains and still have them disliked. When the Good Guys (TM) win, I want the reader to feel that the correct outcome occurred, that the right person won, and yet still feel a sense of unease about it. Sometimes I even want the reader to be unsure of whom they are rooting for by the end of the story.
There are as many ways to introduce de-sympathizing elements into your story as there are to introduce sympathizing elements. Here are a few things to think about:
1) Make the hero imperfect, complete with dislikable traits, vanities or obsessions. Make the villain sympathetic. Let your hero gloat a little when bad things happen to the villain.
2) Make the hero all manner of good, struggling against someone who is wholly despicable. And then turn things around so that all the attempts to do good bring about something bad.
3) Have you villain be generally good and noble, but with goals that we would consider bad or evil. Think Field Marshal Rommel in WWII, eulogized by Winston Churchill on his death, or an alien hero trying to save her people from extinction by making Earth habitable for them (with the unfortunate side effect of making it uninhabitable for humans). Let your hero be a right bastard as s/he saves the day.
4) Have the characters do good things for the wrong reasons. There’s a scene in Philip K. Dick’s VALIS where the protagonist keeps a friend of his from killing herself. But because there’s an underlying motivation of wanting to get laid, the way he saves her does not actually get her any longer term help, and a subsequent suicide attempt succeeds.
5) Put your character into the position of having to make some awful choices. Perhaps s/he even chooses wrongly. War stories are an obvious place where this can happen, but it can happen anywhere. People sacrifice relationships with friends, lovers, family in order to accomplish some greater good. Alternately, people sacrifice the greater good to save their friends or families. These are impossible, lose-lose situations, and when people face them, they aren’t the same afterwards.
There’s a ready-made list of motivations you can give your character that are guaranteed to make them both less sympathetic and more "real." It’s even got a name And of course, there are a ton of other sins to add to big seven. Bigotry. Fear. Insecurity. Social ineptitude. General pissiness. Like Tolkien’s road, the list goes ever on and on.
Can one be a nice person and a racist? Of course. Can one be a GOOD person and be a racist? That’s a far more problematic question, and to some extent, both "yes" and "no" can be correct answers. Because real people are hardly ever completely, unambiguously good or evil. Whichever way you play it, at the point you throw something like this into your story, you’ve created a huge moral ambiguity – perhaps even a huge moral dissonance – for your reader.
And this dissonance can lead to a more subtle and interesting story. Let’s face it: Superman – perfect in all ways – is a boring character. Batman, seething with a venomously unquenchable thirst for vengeance, is a far more interesting character. Because he is (perhaps fatally) flawed. So let your characters be imperfect, let them fail. Let them do things that piss you off as a writer, and that will piss off the readers.
The risk, of course, is that by the time they are finished reading, the readers don’t have conflicted feelings. Instead, they just don’t care. Bad things happen to the hero? So what? Hated the protagonist, threw out the book. There are two antonyms for "sympathy." One is "hostility." The other is "indifference." Be very careful to avoid the second – that is the quickest way to kill off your readership.
There is a balancing act when you start down this road. There’s two things you need to keep very clearly in mind. First and foremost, you have to keep enough sympathy for your characters so that the reader cares. So that even if they dislike the characters, they still feel bad for them when things go badly, as they inevitably do, and cheer for them when they prevail at the end, as they occasionally do. You need to balance out the points where you generate sympathy and where you generate hostility.
The second (and also foremost) is to personalize their flaws and failings. The reader needs to not just see the characters doing bad/stupid/immoral/asinine things. They need to do it in a way that the reader can understand from their own experience. They should be things that we hate about people we love. The annoying and irritating traits of our spouses and friends, the co-workers that we like. People that we admire. Even – and perhaps most importantly – the things that, when we’re being really honest with ourselves, we hate about the person closest to us. Ourselves.
Bernie Mojzes is the father of a passel of short stories, the most recent of which to venture out into the world having the honor of headlining the Morrigan Press anthology, Dead Souls, launching this Saturday. He is also the author of the illustrated book, The Evil Gazebo, forthcoming later this year from Dark Quest Books. Visit him at http://www.kappamaki.com and/or http://brni.livejournal.com should you so desire.