Wednesday, December 5, 2012

In Which I Apologize to a Fictional Character

I’ve never been really into the whole anti-hero thing. Recently, I realized that all of the main characters in my stories, while flawed in certain ways, have some things in common: they’re intelligent, they have a strong sense of justice, and they love other people.

Right now, I’m working on a story with a character named Barton.

Barton is a rude, anti-social assassin. Not exactly my typical hero.

He’s not as smart as I am, and he’s also fairly impulsive. This is annoying because I think of all of these great, complicated plans that would solve all of his problems, but I can’t realistically make them happen because Barton wouldn’t do them. (Those of you who don't understand the idea that the characters in some way determine what the author can and can't do...just trust me on this.)

He does not work well with people. In fact, when he can help it, he doesn’t work with people at all. This is annoying because everyone knows that when you have a big challenge to overcome and several people around with different skills, teamwork is the best way to go. Not alienating everyone around you by bossing them around and insulting them. That doesn’t work out so well.

He’s probably the hardest character I’ve ever worked with. And this is annoying because it shows that I am an immature writer who has some work to do. Writing Barton made me see very clearly that I tend to give my protagonists certain traits, keep their weaknesses in areas I’m comfortable with, and make them, well, kind of like me.

Adding up these various annoyances (and trying to ignore that last one), I almost decided to kill Barton off. Just get rid of him and the rude comments he made to characters I actually liked.

But I didn’t.

It’s not because I feel sorry for him. I knew his backstory all along, and never thought that the hard circumstances of his life even came close to justifying what he did to others.

It’s not because he suddenly had a change of heart and is now moving toward redemption. That might happen in time. For right now, though, he’s still as much of a rude jerk as ever.

But I took the time to think like him, to see life from his perspective. As the writer, I lived inside his mind and wrote what he thought about everything that happened to him. I had to think about how he would react to an event or interact with another character—and why.

My attitude change would make sense if, on the inside, Barton was really a nice guy who just didn’t know how to express himself. But no, his thoughts are usually just as sarcastic and selfish as his dialogue. So that can’t be it.

Sometimes, the classic walk-a-mile-in-his-shoes advice makes you think that empathizing with someone requires feeling pity for him or justifying his bad behavior. It doesn’t.

What it does require is the ability to see that person as a person, one with real thoughts and fears and struggles. One with a story. The more you try to think like that person might think, the more real he seems, and the more you care about him.

There are a lot of Bartons around me, people who I avoid because they annoy or irritate me. And sometimes one or two of them wander into the story of my life and refuse to leave.

I dislike them for various reasons. They do frustrating things that don’t let me control the plot in the way I want to. Their dialogue isn’t entertaining enough. They aren’t as smart as me, and this creates difficulties.

Lacking the option to kill them off, I usually just ignore them, which is probably the legal real-life equivalent. I do not care about them, because they’re not really people to me. I fall into predictable patterns of surrounding myself with characters I like, who have certain traits, and who are surprisingly like…me.

Now, clarification—I am not saying that you should go out there and get to know every single person, attempting to see life from their point of view. That would be impossible. And also unhealthy. And might cause you to feel that you must bear the relational burden of the entire world, degenerating into split personality disorder or random spasms of emotion.

Just focus on a few people who look like they’re going to be around for a while—the ones who you’ve been trying to avoid but can’t or the ones who seem to think you’re their best friend for no good reason. There will always be these people. I pretty much guarantee it. Maybe God puts them there.

As an author who is trying to make realistic characters and a human being who is trying to learn to love other people, these questions are helpful: “What would I do if I were in his place? And why?” Just asking the questions—not even approving of the answers—is a good start.


  1. Tom Hiddleston said something that intrigued me once. He said that as an actor you can't ever believe that your character is wrong. The moment you rise up and pass judgement on the character you lose the ability to play him completely. I've wondered how that translates to the director (or author here), because you have to at least understand the perspective of every character.

    1. This is so interesting...I've never thought about it from that persepective.