Monday Motivation: Embrace it: you’re a sadist and a masochist
I bet you’re a kind and compassionate person. You might not be an animal lover, but you’d never be wantonly cruel to a mutt. You don’t taunt homeless people as losers. If you were confronted with an instance of injustice, you like to think that you’d step in on behalf of the underdog.
Of course, there’s almost inevitably a gap – sometimes a chasm – between how caring we think we are, and how caring we actually are. When we ponder the distance between what we aspire to, and what we achieve, we feel something we’re all intimately acquainted with: guilt.
But the fact remains that we generally count ourselves on the side of the angels, if only in terms of our aspirations.
But now take off your, well, let’s call it your human hat, and put on your writer’s hat. As a writer, how do you treat your creations, the characters who people your stories? With tenderness, taking into account their vulnerabilities and their weaknesses, understanding why they err when they err, and constantly bearing in mind their most noble impulses?
I know that many of the writers we’ve worked with over the years resist confronting their characters with challenges that they themselves would find difficult or distasteful to handle. They don’t like to have a character stepping on a disgusting dog turd… They don’t like her choosing a man who’s manifestly wrong for her… They don’t like a character making a dodgy decision – for instance, to park in a disabled parking bay for a minute while they dash into the dry cleaners to pick up a jacket…
But here’s the thing, the more dog poo they step in, the better. The worse her choice in men is, the better. The more compromised their morality, the better.
Better for what, I hear you cry?
Better for drama. Better for conflict. Better for suspense. And, indeed, in the case of dog poo, the better for comedy.
This was brought forcefully home to me recently when I stumbled upon a little paragraph of advice by a writer called Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and a number of other less well-known novels, and a teacher of creative writing in California.
Here’s what she said about the relationship between writers and their characters:
“The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from making booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.”
I love that final line. Protagonists are not people, they are your creations and you owe them nothing but the chance to star in their own dramas. And you give them the greatest opportunity to show us what they’re made of, by having them step in every imaginable variety of doggy doo.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Your character needs a signal, even if they interpret it wrongly‘
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