Many years ago, I sang in a production of Murder in the Cathedral, which tells the story of the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket. Being one of those performers who cannot let a historical drama go unresearched, I read up on the incident. Not surprisingly, I was left with a less-than-flattering opinion of the four knights responsible for the killing.
Well, something interesting happened last weekend. My mother, who is researching our family’s genealogy, informed me that (remembering that there’s always doubt in such research) I’m most likely a direct descendent of one of those four knights. This prompted the involuntary re-evaluation in my mind of his actions with the “family” filter applied. While I still don’t condone what he did, my opinion of him changed dramatically.
And this got me thinking about how we view our characters who do despicable things. You’ve got to love them.
Now, as anyone with family will attest, it’s possible to love someone without approving of what they do. In fact, it’s possible to love someone without liking them very much. Love transcends all that. Love brings out our inherent empathy and understanding, allows us to see someone whose actions are repugnant as a person not unlike ourselves, and to seek to understand why they do what they do. Love makes us care what happens to a person, even when we feel that they deserve the bad things that are happening to them.
Well, we writers need to do the same thing with all our characters. We need to love them like family.
Obviously, this is easy with our heroes. These characters sprang from our imagination precisely because they’re the sort of people we adore and would want to be. Have you ever read a story where it felt like the writer didn’t care about the main character? Did you notice how hard it was for you to care about the main character? These stories rarely make their way into print as a result.
But you’ve got to love your other characters, too. Your minor characters are there to do more than service your main character. They’re people. Think of them as family, too. Do you want someone treating your grandmother as just a batty old lady, or your daughter as just a sex object? Don’t do that to your characters, either! Try to understand them — even if they’re just there to say, “Do you want fries with that?” — as if you were encountering them at a family reunion. Even if this is a distant cousin you’ll never see again, they’re important to someone who is important to you. Take the time to love them!
And, yes, this is also true of your villains and antagonists. We’ve all got someone we love whose actions drive us crazy. Every family has a convicted felon, or an unapologetic bigot, or someone with an abusive personality, or whatever. Even if you have no biological family, your life is full of such individuals who you’re not able to just dismiss and instead have to live with and even help care for. It’s possible to respond to such people with apathy or even outright hatred, but down that path lies not only misery but also bad storytelling. That uncomfortable place where you simultaneously care deeply about and want to throttle someone? That’s love. And that’s what your story needs.
The reason loving your characters is a shortcut to better stories is simply because that empathy you have for those you love comes through in your writing when you love the characters. You will unconsciously write more three-dimensional, motivated people when your imagination sees them with the same depth of compassion and understanding that you have for your loved ones. The reasons for their actions become clear, rather than being a story necessity or a garish caricature. When you love someone, you take the time to understand why they do what they do, and that translates to characters the reader can better understand as well.
Now, of course, this is easy in the abstract. But how do you put it into practice? Can you really just make yourself love someone?
Well, yes, in fact, you can. Maybe not “fall in love with,” but you can certainly decide that you’re going to care about and work to understand someone.
It’s not unlike when a loved one introduces you to their new finacé(e). You don’t get a say in whether or not this marriage happens. This new individual is becoming part of your family whether you like it or not. So what do you do? Well, if you’re like most of us, you start by getting to know them.
So, when you’ve got a new character who you don’t love (yet), do the same thing. Where did they come from? What was their childhood like? Who were the important people in their life, and how were those relationships? What sort of skills did they develop, and why? How did their life experiences color their perception of the world? By sitting down and “interviewing” your character along these lines, pretty soon you’ll come to see why the choices they made — even if they were horrible choices — were the only right choices for that character. The actions they took were the right actions based on how they understood the world.
And, no, just like you probably can’t get through to that family member who similarly has made appalling choices, you’re not going to change your characters by getting to know them better.
But you will write them far more compellingly.
Again, I want to end by throwing this back to you, the reader. How do you get to know your characters? What’s important for you to understand about them before you can write them? And, most importantly, the characters and stories you’ve written that really worked, did you you love them?
Would it change how you would write the killer of Thomas à Becket if you knew he was a member of your family?