For some reason there are nowadays very few characters in fiction who I relate to. I don’t mean that the way most people do: it’s not a social justice thing. Obviously there aren’t many brown queer people in Western lit. What I meant, more, was that very few characters in fiction seem, to me, to be as alive as I am. Ideally, you don’t want a character who’s as alive as you. You want a character who is more alive. You want a heightened reality. But that now has become even rarer.
Instead, too many characters seem to be a collection of borrowed tics. You know what I mean. It’s not precisely cliche. Or maybe it is cliche, but it doesn’t read that way, because the tropes have been mixed up. For instance, what if you write a book about a rich girl who drives an SUV and is mean and snorts lots of cocaine, but she’s also a wizard. Like whoah, normally it’s the outcast girl who’s a wizard! Not the cool girl!
And it’s like yeah, that would be exciting to people, probably (seeing it now: GOSSIP GIRL meets HARRY POTTER), but it also wouldn’t feel, to me, very alive, because fundamentally you’re just mashing together dead things. You’re making art using pieces of other art. Which is mostly what we do. But I also want there to be some piece in there of real life.
I’ve been struggling for years to do this. Because my books and stories have exactly the same problem. Too many characters are archetypes or mashups. They don’t drink deeply enough from the well of life.
Recently I got about fifteen thousand words into a novel, and I stopped writing it, because I was just like, “I don’t want to read about this person. They are not important to me, and I don’t care about their story.”
So I went back and thought about the books I loved, and I realized that they’re often about people who I respected. I thought of Lily Bart (House of Mirth), trying to choose between wealth and love. Or Carol Kennicott (Main Street), with her obnoxious and yet somehow very admirable determination to “civilize” this small midwestern town. Or Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky, who were willing to blow up their lives for love, but who had too much integrity to let themselves off the hook, morally. Or Emma, who is shallow and concerned with appearances, but who also has such a good heart. Or Nathaniel (The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P), who is, frankly, pretty sexist, but who also has a methodical mind that is working so hard to figure out what he’s doing wrong.
And for me what makes a character worthy of respect is struggle. All of these characters have a dark side that they struggle against.
But in too many books, the struggle is perfunctory. Like, the unpopular girl loves the popular guy but doesn’t think she’s good enough, but oh gosh, she has to learn to love and accept herself. Well so what? We know this girl is lovable, because we see her helping old people and listening to indie music and shit. So where’s the struggle? It’s real, in a way, since so many worthwhile people do struggle to love themselves, but the novel isn’t an accurate depiction of that struggle. It’s not alive. And what makes it unalive is its refusal to directly engage with what’s happening. What makes her unlovable? Why is it so hard for her? If we can feel the hatred, so much so that we struggle with it ourselves, only then can her struggle command respect.
But authors are afraid to go there because they know how dangerous it is. Once you admit your character has a real flaw–something a person could genuinely dislike–then it’s hard to make the case that you should love them anyway. So they put in fake flaws, like, oh I don’t know, they’ll write about a Prince who’s too rash and too impetuous. That’s not a real flaw. Not unless it actually causes damage. But it serves the function of a flaw. It makes the book feel like a story.
And that’s where that sense of unaliveness comes from. It’s from reading something that’s shaped like a story, but that’s not honest. It’s from reading books that expect you to believe that there is something worthwhile in a hero who never really has to struggle to win.
And I’ve never really fallen into that trap, but I’ve consistently fallen into the other one. I’ve made my characters too awful. Too dark. Too pathetic. I gave them that realness, but I never gave them the seed of heroism that we look for in stories. And that makes my stories equally as likely to feel dead. Because grimness and despair and self-hatred aren’t all there is to life, and we don’t read books solely in order to feel pity.
So I don’t know. It’s hard! But if you err on one side (too little struggle) then you get published, whereas if you err on the other side, your book will never hit the shelves.