A few months ago, an author friend said she thought most writers are inherently narcissistic, masochistic, and sadistic. I’m inclined to agree. You need to be at least a little self-absorbed to devote the time to writing a novel, and the source of the story is often something from the writer’s life. Self-inflicted pain and suffering is a huge part of the process — especially for writers who bother to read reviews.
My writers group taught me about conflict, stakes, and tension — the reason readers keep turning the page and where the sadism comes in. Fictional characters must suffer. The author needs to beat the living shit out of the hero, drag them through hail and high-water, and kick them when they’re down. Concern for the god-forsaken hero keeps readers interested in what happens next. Will he (or she) survive the ordeal and live happily ever after?
After confessing this was my weakness, my friend asked if the characters in my novels suffered. I said yes, but not as much as they’d suffer in one of her stories. It’s funny because it’s true.
Taken together, my characters don’t suffer much. They’re attractive, with good jobs and promising futures. Even the homeless kids in my stories have fairly easy lives. There are, of course, exceptions. Bad things happen to characters in all three of my novels. Some even die. The level of pain and suffering they experience, however, pales in comparison to what some writers would have put them through.
A sticky note on my laptop reads: More sadism! I, however, am sadistically challenged. Perhaps my life has been too easy. I’ve been through some rough times, but nothing compared to what a lot of people have experienced. So far, nothing really bad has ever happened to me <knock on wood>. Somehow, my life has turned out a lot better than just about anyone would have predicted thirty years ago.
I’ve been incredibly lucky. Sure, I’ve worked hard to get where I am, but my path has been unimpeded by random accidents, disasters, and extreme hardship. Yes, I whine and complain a lot, but despite my crotchety temperament, I am, first and foremost, an optimist. If I just keep doing what I’m supposed to do, dammit, everything will turn out fine.
My current work in progress, Whippersnapper, is a departure from my holiday stories. It’s a contemporary comedy set in a fictitious county between Lexington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. The story revolves around the May-September relationship between gay men with a thirty year age difference and a woman who has ties to one and a crush on the other.
Getting on the wrong side of a writer is ill-advised. The woman character was initially based on a dim-witted, unlikeable coworker from many years ago. My goal was to create the most unlikable woman in the history of literature. Beating her to a bloody pulp would be a blast.
Move over Mean Girls — there’s a new bitch in town. I looked forward to including every ugly character trait and stupid act of hers I could remember. Readers would despise her as much as I did and enjoy throwing rocks at her.
By the end of the second chapter, the problem was clear. Laughing at a character is mean-spirited bullying that turns readers off. Humor comes from the ability to identify with the character and the situation they are in. The character needs to be someone readers can relate to and laugh with, not at. In other words, I had to make her likable.
I also need to like my characters to write them. If they aren’t very likable people (two of my books feature serial killers), I need to understand how they came to be how they are and feel at least a little bit sorry for them. Consequently, my evil coworker is no longer the inspiration for one of the characters in Whippersnapper.
I’m having fun writing my first comedy. Sadism still plays an important role. Everything that can go wrong, does. Dragging characters through the mud for a good laugh is easier than inflicting real pain and suffering. Deadlines freak me out, but I’m hoping to finish Whippersnapper sometime in the first quarter of next year. I’ll keep you posted.