A friend of mine read one of my manuscripts recently and said, “You need to show more anger, more emotion.” Now, I thought I had, but she went on to say, “You’re always on such a level keel, no wonder you have trouble letting your characters be dirt bags once in a while.” That gave me pause for thought. I mean, I work hard to be a fairly nice person, but does that hurt me as a writer? I’d had someone else, earlier in my career, tell me much the same thing. She asked, “Were you happy as a child?” “Oh, yes,” I answered. “Well, that’s why you’re having trouble writing,” she told me.
Could that be true? Do people who grow up with parents who argue or hit or worse have the edge because they have more emotions to pull on? I do think that a writer needs a certain amount of life experience to enrich their writing. And adversity certainly builds character…and the ability to draw from anger, disappointment, and loss. But I don’t know many people who’ve breezed through life, free of scars. Not all of us, though, have the perspicacity to dwell on those things to enrich our writing:)
A new writer came to Scribes a while ago to read a piece about how she’d been sexually abused and then turned to drugs to deal with the issue. She became addicted, and now she was finally drug free. It was a deep, moving story of her journey that would be impossible for me to tell. Her words had a raw emotion and aggressive strength that came with her pain and turmoil. I can’t tell that story, because I don’t know it, and to some point, “write what you know” makes perfect sense. But I can tap into other emotions, ones I’ve experienced, to bring other stories to life. Me and Suzanne K were the tallest people in our class, year after year, through school. We both hit 5’10” before high school. She had a figure. I was a stick. Did the nickname Olive Oyle bother me? A little. Not much. I spent a lot of time living in my own head. And that was probably my biggest obstacle to being a writer. I had a lot more fun living in worlds other writers created.
My friend, who teaches handwriting analysis, still badgers me to “open” my vowels. My a’s and o’s and e’s are legible, but scrunched. She tells me over and over again that scrunched vowels mean that I need to “let loose,” to “open up.” Maybe. But I’ve learned that even if I tend to be a mite private in my life that doesn’t have to apply to my characters. I can let them have tempers, be “kickass” or mouthy–all of the things that I’m not. My characters aren’t me, thank goodness! They can be anything, as long as I can relate to their emotions, and that makes them fun to write.
I’ve played with a few characters who aren’t “nice,” that I’m pretty attached to. Caleb, in Fallen Angels, left Heaven because he didn’t want to follow rules. He wanted to do as he pleased, and if that meant that he had to drink human blood to replace the benefits of the Light, then that’s what he’d do. I meant for him to be a villain, Enoch’s adversary. But Enoch still loves him, and oddly, so do I. Does that mean I’m embracing my “dark side”? Beats me, but I know I have one. We can all be selfish once in a while. And let’s face it. Readers like certain villains. Look at Hannibal Lecter or Walt in Breaking Bad. I think what involves readers is the human condition. If a character meets a hurdle and makes the wrong turn, that might add more interest, not less. If we can make a character real, even if he’s flawed, and make him sympathetic, even if he kills people, we can identify with him. So dig deep and let your characters show true depth–their worries, fears, and uglies. Readers have felt those things, too. They’ll understand.